Posted by: anna | October 29, 2009

St Gall

Today we commemorate St Gall, Irish monk and enlightener of Switzerland (646).

Another saint whose name is very familiar to me although I knew nothing about him other than his foundation with the tremendous library at St-Gallen. Hold onto your hats, this is a long one from the Rev Baring-Gould (of whom himself more here) but a good one.

S. Gall was an Irishman by birth, of noble family; S. Deicolus of Lure was, perhaps, his elder brother. Gall received his monastic training in the abbey of Bangor, in Ireland, under S. Comgal. He left Ireland along with S. Columbanus, and followed him to Gaul. After twenty years spent at Luxeuil, S. Columbanus was expelled in 610 by the furious Brunehild. The vacant abbot’s seat was offered to S. Gall, but he refused it, preferring to go forth into banishment with his master.

Columbanus and Gall embarked on the Rhine below Mainz, and, ascending the river as far as the lake of Zurich, began to preach to the still heathen inhabitants of the neighbourhood. They stayed some time at Tuggen, where the Limmat enters the Lake of Zurich, and then struck across the forest-covered country northwards till the blue sheet of the Lake of Constance extended before their eyes. At Arbor Felix, an old Roman fort, now Arbon, they found some traces of Christianity. Columbanus, however, pushed on to the head of the lake, at the roots of the Vorarlberg mountains, and settled at Bregenz, an old Roman town. On an island at no great distance was Lindau, another Roman settlement. Perhaps at both he may have found a few Christians. The Suevi and Allemanni had been subject to the Franks since the victory of Clovis at Tolbiac. They were all heathen worshippers of Woden. In announcing the Gospel to them. Gall was of great assistance, as he could preach in German. The two missionaries, with daring zeal, burned the heathen temples, broke the boilers in which the sacred beer was brewed, and threw the gilded idols into the lake. Such proceedings naturally excited against them the fury of the natives, and exposed them to great dangers. They had to flee to Zug, from which they were also expelled with blows.

S. Gall and his master returned from their mission tour to Bregenz, where they made a few conversions, without, however, appeasing the rage, or conciliating the favour of the mass of the people. The little colony, however, remained there for three years. They resumed cenobitical life. They had at first to contend against hunger, for the inhabitants would give them nothing. They had to live upon wild birds, the water-fowl with which the lake then abounded, or upon woodland fruits, which they had to dispute with the beasts of the forests. But they had soon a garden of vegetables and fruit trees. Fish was also a resource —the trout of the Bregenzer Ach, and the red-fleshed char of the lake. Columbanus himself made the nets ; Gall, the learned and eloquent preacher, threw them into the lake, and had considerable draughts.

One night, while he watched in silence in his boat among the nets, he heard the mountain gnome call to the nippen of the waters. ” Here am I,” answered the water-sprite. “Arise, then,” said the first, ” and help me to chase away the strangers who have expelled me from my temple ; it will require both of us to drive them away.” ” We are powerless,” answered the nippen ; ” here is one of them upon the water side, whose nets I have tried to break, but I have never succeeded. He prays continually, and never sleeps. It will be labour wasted ; we shall take nothing by it.”

Then Gall made the sign of the cross, and said to them, ” In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave these regions without doing anyone hurt.” Then he hasted to land and woke the abbot, who immediately rang the bells for nocturnal service ; but before the first psalm had been chanted, they heard the yells of the spirits echoing from the surrounding hills, at first with fury, then losing themselves in the distance, and dying away like the confused voices of a routed army. M. Ozanam suggests that this picturesque legend is part of a popular ballad adopted from the mouths of the people into history. It bears even in its Latin form traces of its rhythmical origin.’

Ecce peregrini venerunt,
Qui me de templo ejecerunt,
– Et unus illorum est in pelago,
Cui nunquam nocere potero.

Volui enim retia sua laedere;
Sed me victum probo lugere,
Signo orationis est semper clausus,
Nec unquam somno oppressus.

S. Columbanus left Bregenz for a short while to see King Theodebert, who was at war with his brother, the King of Burgundy, shortly before the battle of Tolbiac, the second on that memorable field, and the defeat of Theodebert. The whole of Austrasia was now in the hands of Thierry and the implacable Brunehild. S. Columbanus could no longer remain there in safety. Besides, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Bregenz, always irritated by the violent
destruction of their idols, complained to the duke of the province that these strangers scared the game of the royal chase, by infesting the forests with their presence. The people stole their cows, two of the monks were even slain in an ambuscade. It was necessary to depart. Columbanus said, “We have found a golden cup, but it is full of serpents. The God whom we serve will lead us elsewhere.” He had long desired to go to Italy, and reckoned on a good reception from the King of the Lombards. At the moment of departure, the fiery Gall, seized with fever, asked leave to remain. Columbanus was irritated by his weakness ; “Ah, my brother,” said he, ” art thou already disgusted with the labours I have made thee endure? But since thou wilt separate thyself from me, I debar thee, as long as I live, from saying mass.” It was a hard and unjust sentence, but Gall obeyed it. He remained in Helvetia only to redouble the zeal of his apostolic labours, and to found there one of the most celebrated monasteries in Christendom.

After the departure of his companions, Gall was filled with great sadness ; and when the fever had left him, he sought the deacon Hiltibold, who ministered to a priest named Willemar at Arbon, and asked him if he knew of a suitable place in the neighbourhood for the construction of a cell and oratory. “For,” said he, ” my soul is filled with a fervent desire to end my days in a solitude.” The deacon replied, ” My father, I know a wild desert surrounded with lofty
mountains, peopled with bears, wolves, and boars.” The saint replied, ” If God be with us, who shall be against us?”

On the morrow they started in quest of this solitude. At the ninth hour, the deacon suggested that they should rest and break their fast, but the zealous Gall declared he would not eat till he had seen the place where he was to dwell. They therefore continued their journey till they came to the place where the Steinach, falling from the mountain side, had worked itself a course through the rocks. As Gall walked forward praying, his foot caught in a bramble, and he fell. The deacon would have lifted him up, but he exclaimed, ” Leave me here ; this shall be my lot for ever : here will I dwell, for I have a delight therein.” He set to work to make a cross out of the branches of a hazel tree, planted it, and hung on it the little bag he carried with him containing relics of the Blessed Virgin and SS. Maurice and Desiderius. Then he knelt before it, and prayed God to make the desert habitable for him. After that the two pilgrims took their repast, and went to sleep. The evening glow faded off the mountains, and the moon shone down on the Alpine valley.

During the night Gall rose and knelt for prayer. Whilst he was engaged in his devotions a bear approached, and began to fumble over the fragments of the evening repast left under the trees on the ground. Gall threw the bear a loaf, and said, ” In the name of Christ I bid you retire from this valley. The mountains and hills we will share, on condition that you do not hurt our cattle and men.” According to the story, he made the bear collect logs and throw them on the expiring fire before he dismissed it.

On the morrow the deacon went to the cascade to fish, and as he cast his nets he was aware of two water-sprites— fair women—rising out of the stream, who threw stones at him, and rebuked him for having intruded on their solitude. Gall ran up, and exorcised the nixes, and they fled up the cascade, filling the mountain with their musical laments. Such is the legend—another popular ballad grafted into the history, preserving to us relics of ancient German mythology. These spirits of lake and river flying before the preachers of the Gospel, are symbols of the old faith fading before the new light. But the remembrance of them lingered long. Five centuries later, when the poet of the Nibelungen represents the Burgundian warriors riding through Germany on their way to the court of Attila, the water nixes arrest them at their passage over the Danube, to predict to them a violent death in the midst of their festivities.

However, history disengages itself from legend, and we are able to fix with certainty the sojourn of Gall in the midst of those mountains to which he bequeathed his name. The saint discovered a level place, covered with a pleasant grove, between two streams. There he built his cell. Speedily he was surrounded by disciples to the number of twelve. The way to the humble hermitage became a beaten track. The renown of Gall extended, so that on the See of Constance falling vacant in 615, the choice of the people and clergy fell on him, and he was invited to leave his desert to sit on the episcopal throne. He went to the city, appeared before the assembly, but refused the bishopric on the plea that he had been forbidden by his master Columbanus to say mass. He, however, allowed his disciple John to be elected in his place ; and when presenting him to the people pronounced a discourse which has been preserved.

It contains a summary of Christian doctrine, beginning with Creation ; following the course of time, it narrates the Fall and Redemption, the mission of the Apostles, the vocation of the Gentiles; making the history of the human race serve as the introduction to his apostleship to the wild hunters and shepherds assembled on the ruins of the old Roman city to listen to him. “Therefore,” said he, “we supplicate you to live as behoves Christians, shunning concupiscence; drunkenness, which deprives man of his reason ; fornication, which defiles man; avarice, which is idolatry; anger, the vapours of a gloomy temper ; be merciful one to another, forgiving others as God has forgiven you. Atone for your sins past by penitence and alms, and guard against future transgressions, knowing that the day of judgment draws nigh, and that the hour of death is uncertain.” The Duke Guzo then summoned John the deacon before him, and asked him his origin. “I am a Rhaetian,” he answered, ” of humble birth.” “Can you bear the burden of the episcopal dignity?” asked the duke. Then Gall stood forward to protest the virtues and worth of his disciple. John slipped away, and took refuge in the church of S. Stephen, then outside the city walls, though now within them, almost adjoining the cathedral. He was brought back, and consecrated by the bishops of Verdun, Autun, and Spires.

Guzo, Duke of Allmania, who had been appealed to to expel Columbanus and his companions out of his province, now claimed the help of the holy solitary to heal his daughter, possessed by a devil who resisted all exorcisms, crying out that he would yield only to Gall, who had already banished him and his fellows from the banks of the lakes of Zurich and Constance. Gall refused to go, and disappeared into the mountains of Rhaetia ; he was found there in a cavern, and led to the ducal castle at Ueberlingen. He found the young princess lying, as if dead, upon the knees of her mother, her eyes shut and her mouth open. He knelt down by her side, and, after a fervent prayer, commanded the demon to come out of her. The young girl opened her eyes, and the demon, speaking by her voice, said, before it obeyed him, “Art thou, then, that Gall who hast already chased me away everywhere ? Ungrateful one ! it is to avenge thee that I have entered into the daughter of thy persecutor, and now thou comest to expel me again!”

When the cure was complete, Gall advised the daughter of the duke to consecrate her virginity to God, who had delivered her. But this princess, whose name was Friedburg, and who was, like all princesses canonized by legend, of singular beauty, had been affianced to Sigebert, the eldest son of Thierry II., who had just succeeded his father, and was soon to perish under the sword of Clothair II. She was sent to him to Metz. When he learned how and by whom she had been cured, the young prince made a gift and concession to the Irish saint of all the territory which he should desire in the public or royal possessions between the Rhaetian Alps and the Lake of Constance. Then he wished to proceed with his marriage. Friedburg asked for seven days’ respite to recover her strength ; she took advantage of this to flee to a church dedicated to S. Stephen. There she covered herself with a nun’s veil, and, taking hold of the corner of the altar, prayed to the saint who had first shed his blood for Christ to help her. The young king, when told of this, came to the church with the nuptial robe and crown which had been intended for his bride. On seeing him, she held closer and closer to the altar. But he reassured her, and said, “I am come here only to do thy will.” He commanded the priests to bring her from the altar to him ; when she approached, he had her clothed in the nuptial robe, and placed the crown over her veil. Then, after looking at her for some time, he said to her, “Such as thou art there, adorned for my bridal, I yield thee to the bridegroom whom thou preferrest to me—to my Lord Jesus Christ.” Then taking her hand, he placed her at the altar, and left the church, to mourn in secret over his lost love. He was only twelve or thirteen years old at the time.

Gall, after a while, anxious to know of his master, sent across the Alps to make inquiries concerning Columbanus. His messengers returned with the news that Columbanus had died at Bobbio, and had bequeathed to his old disciple his crosier as a sign of absolution. Ten years later (625), Gall received a deputation of six monks, Irish like himself, from Luxeuil, who came in the name of the community to pray his acceptance of the government of the great abbey, vacant by the death of Eustace. But he again refused to leave that asylum which he had formed for himself, and where he continued to preach and edify the surrounding population, receiving disciples and visitors in always increasing numbers, whom he supported by the produce of his fishing.

The cell of the popular preacher, the place whence he had driven the bear, was the beginning of the great abbey of S. Gall, destined to be one of the most famous nurseries of learning in South Germany, and to shelter within its walls theologians, chroniclers, and the first popular poets. Willemar, the priest of Arbon, came to see Gall in his old age, and implore him to visit him. The aged hermit refused, he wished to be left to die in his dear soUtude ; but when he saw that the feelings of his friend were wounded by his refusal, he yielded, and went with him to Arbon, where he died a few days after his arrival, having been attacked with mortal sickness almost immediately after having taken shelter under his friend’s hospitable roof. Bishop John of Constance hasted to Arbon, and buried his master. However, both Fulda and Wangen boast of possessing his body, but, probably, the relics they have are those of persons of the same name, for it is certain that S. Gall Avas laid to rest at Arbon. His relics were dispersed by the Zwinglians at the Reformation. S. Gall is represented with a bear at his feet.

Troparion of St Gall tone 8

As a companion of the great Columban,
thou didst travel throughout the lands of the Franks, O Father Gall,
thy ascetic life contrasting with that of the worldly prelates whom thou didst encounter.
Open to us, we pray thee, the treasures of sacrifice and struggle,
that we too may attain the joy of eternal salvation.

Heiliger Gall, bet für uns!



  1. 2011 update: Akathist to St Gall in French by Claude Lopez-Ginisty:

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