ST. FINTAN OF RHEINAU.
AMONGST the numerous continental monasteries which owed their origin to the zeal of Irish missionaries, that of Rheinau in Switzerland holds an important place. It was founded, with the assistance of St. Fintan, by a German nobleman named Wolffhart of Kyburg, about the year 800, and can trace the long list of its abbots in an unbroken line from the ninth century to the middle of the nineteenth. It was, like all the Benedictine monasteries of the same period, a great seat of learning, and a centre of refinement and civilization; but circumstances also gave it considerable influence in the political affairs of its neighbourhood during the middle ages. This influence was, in a great measure, due to its wealth and extensive possessions. In feudal times it counted many vassals amongst its tributaries, and in the eighteenth century its abbot was made, by rank and title, a prince of the Austrian empire. It survived a good many political storms, and although it suffered considerable hardship and spoliation from time to time, it was only in the year 1862, that it fell an absolute victim to the revolution. By an agreement between the governments of Germany and Switzerland its property was confiscated on both sides of the Rhine. Its monks were expelled, and its buildings appropriated for secular purposes. Its fine library, containing manuscripts, some of which date back to the ninth century its cabinet of archaeology and natural history its pictures, engravings, and articles of antique furniture, were transferred to the public library and museum of Zurich. The church alone, with its interesting frescoes and fine choir, remains in Catholic use — a memorial of the past, and a centre of hope for the future.
The life of St. Fintan was written by an Irish monk, who seems to have been a contemporary and an intimate acquaintance of the saint. It is published in the works of Goldast and Mabillon, and is, we venture to say, one of the most interesting biographies that could well be met with. It not only reveals to us the acts and virtues of St. Fintan as a monk, but enters very minutely into the events, full of adventure, tragedy, and romance, which led to his renouncement of the world. Fintan, it tells us, was a native of Leinster in Ireland. His father occupied an important position in the army of a prince of that region, and was constantly engaged in warfare with the Danes, who then began to make incursions into Ireland. In one of the raids of these invaders, whilst the father and son were occupied elsewhere, Fintan's sister was taken captive by the Northmen, and carried away from Ireland. The father was overwhelmed with grief at the loss of an only daughter, but could not desert his post of command in order to go in search of her. He, therefore, commissioned Fintan to take with him a large sum of money, and endeavour by every possible means to rescue the captive. On this brotherly pursuit Fintan at once set out, taking with him an interpreter and a few companions. He had not gone far on his journey, when he fell into the hands of the Northmen, by whom he was bound in chains and kept in close confinement. His captors, however, were not altogether inhuman or inconsiderate; for when they reflected on the object of his journey they came to the conclusion that it was not a noble thing to imprison even an enemy engaged on such an errand, and they set him free. After many adventures and narrow escapes, Fintan was compelled to abandon his project and return to Leinster.
Meanwhile, as only too often happened in these times in Ireland, a bitter feud had arisen between the King of Leinster and one of his neighbours, and in the course of the quarrel a man on the opposite side was killed by Fintan's father. This brought upon him the wrath of the whole clan to which his victim belonged. To a man they vowed vengeance against him and all his race. They at once invaded his territory; his lands were devastated with fire and sword; his house was surrounded and set on fire in the night, and when he himself rushed forth to escape the flames, he was caught and put to death. Fintan, who occupied another house, was likewise besieged. He defended himself bravely, but when the hostile party despaired of taking the stronghold by arms, they again had recourse to fire. Fintan held his ground until the last moment, and then rushed through the flames, fought his way through the enemy, and effected his escape. A younger brother who occupied the house with Fintan was less fortunate; he was captured and slain.
We cannot be surprised when the biographer tells us that "fierce enmities and inexorable discord " arose between the parties after these terrible events. Fintan, however, was naturally a young man of peaceful disposition, and was not in favour of carrying vengeance to extremes. The opposite party also felt that they had gone beyond all natural limits, and fearing the retaliation of Fintan's clansmen, they endeavoured to make some compensation to him for the loss he had sustained. Nevertheless they distrusted Fintan's quiet demeanour. They thought he was only biding his time to strike a fatal blow. They resolved, therefore, to avert the vengeance which they dreaded, and had recourse for the purpose to one of the most infamous plots on record. Under pretence of ending the quarrel on friendly terms, they invited Fintan to a sumptuous hanquet, and when he, unsuspectingly, accepted their invitation, and was enjoying what he believed to be their hospitality, they, at a moment previously agreed upon, betrayed him to the Danes, who bound him hands and feet, and carried him away from the banquet-hall. These freebooters had many a grudge against his father and his king, and were glad to get possession of him. The chief into whose hands he fell sold him to another Scandinavian lord, he again to a third, and he to a fourth. The last purchaser of the young Irishman was just setting sail for the northern seas. "When all was ready he had Fintan securely bound, and put on board his own ship as a captive.
On the voyage northwards the ships of Fintan's party were met by another small fleet, making its way to Ireland, from Denmark. The commander of this expedition sent them a messenger to inquire about the soil of Ireland and the chances of conquest. One of the sailors on the homebound ship recognised the envoy as the murderer of his brother, and as soon as he came on board he killed him on the spot. This led to a fierce encounter between the two fleets, and in the thick of the fight poor Fintan, disarmed and bound, earnestly begged to be allowed to have a share in the combat in defence of his captain and crew. The intervention of a third squadron, however, put a stop to the struggle, and Fintan's ship was allowed to continue its course. The captain was greatly touched by the prisoner's desire to help him in the hour of danger. He had him at once released from his chains, and treated with moderation, and even kindness.
The odyssey, however, was not yet ended; stress of weather compelled the vessel to put into one of the un-inhabited Orcades, or Orkney Islands, off the north of Scotland, and whilst waiting there for a favourable wind the seafarers went about to explore the island. Fintan also, in consideration for his devotion, was allowed to wander whither he would. As he was not bound by any promise or obligation to his captors, he now began to think of effecting his escape.
In a remote corner of the island there was a huge rock hanging over the sea, and beneath it a deep cave which was barely accessible from the cliff above. Fintan crept into this recess, and awaited events in the confidence of his heart. As night came on the poor fugitive was pressed on every side. Around him all was damp, cold, and slimy. Before him the tide came on with mighty waves, and threatened to fill up the cave in which he shivered. Above him he could hear the wrathful voices of the northmen calling on him by name with hoarse curses and pagan oaths. Preferring, however, to be swept away by the sea rather than fall again into the hands of his enemies, Fintan resolved to stay motionless where he was. The whole night and part of the following day he remained in that frigid cave, without any food, the waves roaring at the cavern's mouth, and the winds howling as they only do at sea. When the tide allowed him to come forth from his hiding-place, he made his way, on his hands and knees, into a thicket of brambles, whence he could observe the land and sea. Not far off he spied a country which showed signs of life and cultivation; but the ocean intervened, and the wanderer was so exhausted with fatigue, cold, and hunger, that he could not think of swimming such a distance. For three days he went around the island, living on herbs and wild berries, which he could now search for in security, as the northmen, glad to take advantage of the tide and weather, had sailed away.
On the third day he sat down by the shore, and saw dolphins and sharks playing in the water; and as he thought of the Providence that rules the world, and provides even for dumb creatures a life suitable to their end, whilst he, a wanderer and a cast-away, was thus afflicted and abandoned, for the first time he gave way to tears. He soon, however, overcame his grief, and, taking refuge in that strong faith which in the midst of all their contentions was so remarkable a characteristic of the Irish in these days, he raised up his hands to heaven, and uttered the solemn vow which was to rescue him from danger, and to shape the course of his future life.
"O God!" he said, "who hast created these brute animals as well as me, and who hast suited them to the sea, and hast preserved them in life as Thou hast guarded me in my wanderings, with Thy usual pity, help me now in my great tribulation. To Thee, O Lord, from this hour I vow my body and soul, and declare that I shall never return to the allurements of this world. For Thy sake I shall visit the tombs of Thy holy Apostles, and travel away as a pilgrim, never to return to my native land. Thee alone shall I serve with all my strength, and never shall my eyes be turned from Thee again."
Having thus committed himself absolutely to God, Fintan, dressed as he was, plunged into the sea, breasted the waves, and summoning his wasted strength to a supreme effort, made for the opposite shore. By the divine aid he reached land in safety, and ascending an eminence close to the beach he could see houses and smoking chimneys in the distance. But the way to them was long and untrodden, and for two days more ho wandered about, living on water, grass and roots. It was only on the morning of the third day that he came within reach of assistance. When he saw some men walking in his direction he greatly rejoiced, and hastened to address them. They, finding that he was an intelligent man, and apparently well educated, brought him to the bishop of a neighbouring town, who had made his studies in one of the schools of Ireland, and could speak the Irish language. This prelate received him with the greatest kindness, and kept him in his house for two years. Fintan, in the interval, was not unmindful of his vow, and as soon as the bishop consented to his departure, he took with him a few companions and set out for Gaul. He first desired to venerate the relics of St., Martin, a kindred spirit, who like himself had wielded the sword, and for that purpose he went straight to Tours. In the monastery of that city he made a short sojourn, and then continued his pilgrimage. Always on foot, he passed on through France, Germany, and Switzerland. Then, crossing the Alps, he went down through Lombardy, and finally arrived in the city of Rome, in fulfilment of his promise, whilst Pope Leo III occupied the chair of Peter. When the pilgrim had satisfied his devotion in the Eternal City he retraced his steps northwards, and again penetrated into Switzerland. Here he remained for four years under the protection of a nobleman, who was greatly interested in the conversion and instruction of his people, and who was no other than the Wolffhart already mentioned, soon to be the founder of the monastery of Rheinau.
Impressed with the great virtues of the Irish cleric, Wolffhart thought that a most favourable time had come for the execution of his project, and with the counsel and encouragement of Fintan, the foundations of the famous monastery were laid. Fintan entered it as a simple monk, and was clothed in the habit of St. Benedict at the age of fifty-one.
For five years, the biographer says, the Irish monk edified his brethren by every virtue, and reached from stage to stage of perfection, till at last he determined to seek even more absolute seclusion from the world, and in memory of his promise, to live alone with God the life of a recluse. He did not take this step, however, with rashness or precipitation. He frequently prayed that God might manifest His will to him on the subject; and it was only when an angel's voice distinctly conveyed to him the approval of heaven, that he yielded to his inclination.
It is remarkable that the author of this biography, who was an Irish monk, of the monastery of Pfeffers in the diocese of Chur, and who after St. Fintan's death, also became a recluse, probably in the very cell which Fintan himself occupied when recording the angel's words, gives them in the Irish language, although the rest of the work is written in Latin. On four different occasions of a similar kind he repeats the same proceeding; not, we believe, through excess of patriotism, or because he thought Irish was the only language which an angel would make use of, but in order to record the exact words which were, under pressure, communicated to him by St. Fintan.
It was usually on the feast days of St. Patrick, St. Bridget, St.Aidan, and St. Columbkille, that the most important manifestations of the will of Heaven were made to him. Once on the feast day of St. Bridget he multiplied, by a miracle, his small allowance of bread, and supplied with it a large number of people who suffered from the famine which then decimated the country. Again on the feast of St. Columbkille, the scruples which he felt at taking food produced by the labour of others were set at rest by the angel's voice. The author says, that in a future work he intends to relate in full the history of all these miracles; but if the promise was ever kept, the result has not come down to us. Nevertheless, in what he says, he gives us an insight into the sort of life which the hermit led; and there is not much to be read of in the lives of the fathers of Egypt or Asia Minor more austere and unearthly than what he records of Fintan. Like them, the Irish saint was made a special object of attack by the enemies of mankind. Legions of demons surrounded his cell. He could see them on the ground and in the trees. The very air was filled with their horrid cries. In Fintan, however, the words of Cardinal Newman were literally realised:—
"But when some child of grace, angel or saint.
Pure and upright in his integrity
Of nature, meets the demons on their raid,
They scud away, as cowards from the fight.
Nay, oft hath holy hermit in his cell,
Not yet disburdened of mortality,
Mocked at their threats and warlike overtures:
Or dying, when they swarmed like flies around,
Defied them, and departed to his Judge."
For twenty-two years the hermit lived in his secluded cell, apart from the world, holding outward converse only with the poor, who sometimes came to ask him for alms, and with the confessor who visited him from the neighbouring monastery. Then, as the Latin so forcibly expresses it, "after having subdued his body by unheard-of abstinence” his stormy life came to a peaceful end.
The miracles due to his intercession did not, however, cease with his life. They were continued over his grave, and became so remarkable that the fame of the dead recluse spread far and wide, and that the people of the district unanimously venerated him as a saint. His claim to this honour was, moreover, not only admitted, but confirmed by the Holy See. Father Van der Meer, the historian of the monastery, tells us that when Notker, the eleventh Abbot of Rheinau, visited Rome, about the year 1000, he brought the cause of St. Fintan before the tribunal of the Holy See; and that, as a result, the saint was duly canonized. Thenceforward he was venerated as the patron of the monastery.
In the choir of the Church of Rheinau the grave of St. Fintan is still pointed out. On one side of it lies Wolffhart, the founder of the monastery; and on the other, a son of the Emperor Rudolf, who was drowned in the Rhine. A chapel was also built over the cell of the saint, and was handsomely decorated by the forty-fifth abbot of the monastery, Bonaventure I, Prince of Wellenberg.
Although the people of the little town of Rheinau and of the neighbourhood around it have remained strong in the Catholic faith, the scene of so many religious events is now comparatively desolate. The mountains look down as of old on the island in the water, and the river flows by it with the same rapid and sometimes angry current. But the chant of the monks of St. Benedict, that resounded here for eleven centuries, is no longer heard.
The church is silent and unfrequented. The memory only of its history calls up a solemn thought to the peasant or the visitor. But even though it should never revert to its rightful owners or to its original purpose, the name of St. Fintan is indelibly impressed on the region around it; and when all else has vanished of the old religious establishment of the island, the name and influence of St. Fintan will remain. From the day that the Church enrolled him on her calendar, his immortality was assured.
And as for the establishment which he protected so long, it can only be said that when the spirit of faith is impeded or checked in one part of the Catholic world, it easily finds an outlet in another. It is thus that the Swiss monks, whose ministry was thwarted at home, transferred the scene of their activity beyond the seas. Like the early fathers of their order, they directed their energies to the reclamation of the savage races who know not yet the Christian law. They pitched their tents in the primeval forests of Indiana, Dakotah, and Arkansas, where one of them now rules as bishop of a vast region on which civilization is rapidly gaining; and another, Fintan Mundweiler, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Menrad, in Spencer County, Indiana, directs the missions of his brethren to the Indians and distant settlers of the Far West.
J. F. HOGAN.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.