A Saint for Senior Citizens • ca. 530–January 18, 625 • Memorial: January 18
Circumstances permitting, we expect the elderly to retire and do their own thing. After all, they have worked hard for decades; now they should enjoy the rewards of their labors. We certainly don’t expect them to bear much fruit during this period in their lives. However, Saint Deicolus of Lure shows us otherwise.
Deicolus was born in Ireland, and while a monk there he met and became an early disciple of Saint Columban. When this great monastic discerned God’s call to win souls for Jesus in continental Europe, Deicolus and his brother Saint Gall were among the twelve men chosen to accompany him.
In 576 they arrived in Gaul, modern-day France, and Columban established his base at Luxeuil. The work was hard, but Saint Deicolus did whatever his abbot asked of him in the service of the gospel. People everywhere felt attracted to the monks’ humility, kindness, and charity, like moths to a flame. These men lived simply, subsisting on herbs, vegetables, wild berries, and even tree bark. This was in stark contrast to the barbarians who routinely made raids, the noblemen who pretended at Christianity but were pagan at heart, and many clergy who edified few by their behavior.
Soon huge crowds were flocking to Luxeuil and another monastery Columban established. In fact, so many aspirants came that the monks had to build a third abbey. For twenty years life was good.
But it was too good for some. The local bishops grew jealous of Columban’s popularity and growing influence, although this alone probably wouldn’t have hurt him too badly. What really caused Columban trouble was his John the Baptist–like efforts against royal vice.
King Theuderic II of Burgundy was under the firmly pressed thumb of his grandmother Brunhild, who encouraged him toward licentiousness. She feared that if he married, his queen would either diminish or usurp her power. Theuderic needed little encouragement, and he sired four sons by as many women. At the same time he looked up to Columban, so the saint tried to coax him into a moral lifestyle. This threatened Brunhilda, who stoked the bishops’ resentment of the abbot. In 610, Theuderic sentenced Columban to prison.
Although he was in his eighties and older than Columban, Deicolus resolved that, as he had followed Columban this far, he would not leave him now. Walking with him to jail, the old man lasted just twelve miles. His age and infirmities prevented him from going any farther. He asked Columban to release him to finish out his years there in the woods.
Columban didn’t want to leave the old man. This was his oldest and most faithful companion. But he couldn’t carry him. Furthermore, given the political situation, he couldn’t stay with him. Recognizing this as God’s inscrutable will, Columban sadly bid his countryman Slán a fhágáil ag duine, “Good-bye.” And blessing one another, they parted, never to see one another again this side of heaven.
Saint Columban had once asked Deicolus, “How does it happen that your face is always shining with joy and nothing seems to trouble your soul?”
“Because,” Deicolus said, “nothing can ever part me from my God.”
Now it was just God and he alone in the forest, and a marshy, carnivore- and mosquito-filled forest at that. Deicolus had to find shelter.
Further and further into the woods he went under a burning sun. But at sundown he hadn’t found a suitable place to settle.
The next morning, faint from thirst, he knelt in prayer, asking God to do for him what he had done for Moses in the desert. Filled with faith, Deicolus rose and struck the ground with his walking staff, and water bubbled up, allowing him to drink. Refreshed, he traveled until he came upon a pasture. There he found a herd of swine feeding themselves. The swineherd was shocked to see another person in such a remote place and someone so aged besides, wearing what was to him strange garb. Was this a bandit?
Putting the man at ease, Deicolus asked where he should establish his home. The herdsman suggested the nearby wilderness called Lure, since it had water. When Deicolus asked him to show the way, the man demurred. He couldn’t leave his animals. Deicolus plunged his staff into the ground, assuring his new friend it would guard the pigs in his absence. After taking the saint to his new home and helping him set up his tent, the swineherd returned and found his swine close to the staff.
Not long after Deicolus had built himself a more suitable home, King Clotaire II—cousin of Theuderic and great-grandson of Saint Clotilde and King Clovis—was out hunting boar nearby. Fleeing Clotaire’s hounds, one large porcine specimen sought refuge in the monk’s cell, hiding behind the saint. Deicolus patted the wild pig on his head and, smiling, said, “Since thou hast sought charity here, thou shalt find safety also.”2Out stepped Deicolus onto his stoop. The king’s dogs were in full pursuit of the beast, but they skidded to a stop short of the door. It was as if they dared go no further.
When Clotaire arrived, the scene intrigued him. Who was this aged man living alone in the woods? On learning of Deicolus’s relation to Columban, whom the king loved, His Highness began talking with our saint, and Clotaire left awed by the man’s sanctity. Shortly thereafter he gave Deicolus all the land around Lure as well as the town of Bredana, its church, and a nearby vineyard.
Now, the pastor didn’t think much of the king’s gift. Each night the priest made a show of territoriality by locking the church doors, and each night angels would let Deicolus in. The curate accused him of sorcery and called him an itinerant monk.
The parishioners, however, sensed something else about this strange old fellow. In the spirit of Gamaliel in Acts, they counseled Father that if this man’s work wasn’t of God, it would soon become painfully evident. They would see to that. However, if it was of God, they had no right to stand in his way (see Acts 5:33–39).
Sadly, the more the monk’s holiness became evident, the more jealous and spiteful the pastor became. Finally he encircled the entire church with large branches from nearby thorn bushes. No matter. The next morning Deicolus was found praying before the Blessed Sacrament as usual.
Now this priest was really mad, and he asked the nefariously cruel Count Werfarius to have Deicolus killed. The count agreed. However, immediately on giving the order, the nobleman fell dead. His widow Berthilda sent for the saint. Arriving hot and tired from the journey, Deicolus took off his cloak. When a servant came to take it, he found it suspended, the story says, on a ray of sunlight. Amazed, Berthilda prostrated herself before the holy man’s feet and begged forgiveness for what her husband had attempted.
Deicolus labored to complete a monastery for the many men who had joined him by this time, but the work taxed what was left of his strength. On January 18, 625, knowing he would die that day, he called for his monks. He urged them to follow the law of charity above all others and to persist in their struggle for sanctity and thus heaven, as nothing else matters. After hugging each of them, he rested his head and slept, never to reawaken in this world.
Almost twelve hundred years later, French revolutionaries would destroy Deicolus’s monastery, as they did so many others. But unlike other saints whose remembrance disappeared once their shrines were destroyed, Deicolus is not completely obscure. Indeed, around Lure there are many children named after him. And the water that miraculously sprang up to quench his thirst that one hot day still flows and attracts local pilgrims. On the trees that surround the spring, parents hang their children’s clothes as votive offerings for cures, since this water is especially beneficial against childhood diseases.
Why Saint Deicolus deserves our attention and devotion
Society today so little values our aged, and yet Saint Deicolus accomplished his greatest work in his autumn years. The reason is simple: He always worked for God’s glory rather than his own. “Nothing can ever part me from my God,” he said.
Such beautiful, humble trust in divine providence usually comes only after much experience. Deicolus helps us see what is important and why we should value all our brothers and sisters, regardless of their age or condition. After all, look hard enough at them, and maybe we’ll see Christ.
Dear Lord Jesus, through the prayers of Saint Deicolus, help me follow his example of humility, perseverance in pursuing holiness, and radical reliance on your grace and providence. Also, please enable me to recognize you in all the persons whom I encounter, now and for the rest of my life
This is an excerpt from Saint Who?: 39 Holy Unknowns by Brian O’Neel.