Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Obscure English saint of the week

St. Gilbert of Sempringham
(All from the Anglican Breviary)

For the legend:
This Gilbert was born the son of a Norman nobleman and his Saxon wife, in the castle of Sempringham, about the year 1098, and grew up a sickly, ill-favoured lad, little beloved of his father or the soldiers of the castle. But his mother strove to turn his thoughts to the love and sufferings of Christ; and at last, because he could not be a soldier, he decided to become a scholar, and went to Paris to study; where he applied himself to such good effect that he returned home with a well-deserved name for Christian hardihood, learning and goodness, and so straightway won the hearts of all.

Thereupon he started a free school for boys and girls, making no discrimination as to race or rank. Which thing was marvellous in the days after the Norman Conquest, when hatred still reigned between the Saxons and their conquerers. Whereafter the Bishop of Lincoln took him into the episcopal household for training, and ordained him priest against his own expressed wish.

But Gilbert refused certain proffered dignities, and returned to Sempringham as parish priest, where he used the revenues of the parish largely for the poor, himself content with bare necessities. And he was so successful in stirring up his parishioners to sanctity that many began to seek a life of special dedication.

In those days houses of religion were few and far between in England, and the mad excesses of a war of conquest had led to a decline in manners, morals and learning and in particular had brought about a lowered respect for women. Wherefore Gilbert set himself to do something in remedy of all these matters. To which end he founded a house of nuns, strictly enclosed, hard by his parish Church of St. Andrew in Sempringham; and afterwards a house of canons, whose purpose was to provide both spiritual and earthly sustenance for these women. The nuns followed the Benedictine rule and the canons the Augustinian but to both Gilbert gave, with the help of his friend St. Bernard of Clairvaux, special constitutions in protection of the peculiar vocation of his order.

Which same was the only order of purely English origin founded before the dissolution of the monasteries, and was, even in the founder's lifetime, greatly blessed and extended.

The farming of the lay brethren did much to develop English agriculture, and their growing of sheep and weaving of wool laid the foundation for England's great cloth industry; whereas the priories became schools of holiness and Christian culture for the whole nation

Gilbert himself lived a life of prodigious fasting and self-inflicted hardship; besides which he suffered many calumnies from a revolt of some lay brethren against the order's austerities; and he had to endure imprisonment as a result of his friendship with Saint Thomas [Becket].

But nevertheless, he lived in the exile of this world for over an hundred years, before God took him home to heaven in 1190, on February 4th. At which time his order counted seven hundred men and sixteen hundred women. He was buried in the Sempringham Priory church, and canonised in 1202; but no man knoweth whither his relicks were taken when the priory was destroyed at the dissolution of the monasteries.

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications which we [slightly belatedly] make before Thee on the feast of blessed Gilbert, thy holy Confessor; that we who put not our trust in our own righteousness, may be succoured by the prayers of him that found favour in thy sight.


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