The Vita (or Passio) of Venerable Meinrad, the Hermit
The following text is from the Latin account of the life of the martyr Meinrad, who is known as the patron saint of hospitality, and was probably written in the tenth century by a monk of Reichenau Abbey. The English translation was completed by the monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, Indiana. [The original document URL is: http://www.saintmeinrad.edu/gen_lifeofstmeinrad.aspx]
Before I tell the story of the passion and death of the venerable man Meinrad, it will be good as a kind of foretaste to write briefly of when he was born, whence he came and where he went, where or rather to whom he was first sent to learn to read and write, under what abbot he took upon himself the keeping of the monastic life and, how also, from battle in common with his brothers, he entered into the single contest of the desert. Then I will go back to the things I propose to deal with more fully.
In the time of Charles, most glorious emperor of the Franks and the first among them to receive the name of Caesar, Meinrad was born in Alamannia, in the country which of old was called Sulchgau after the village of Sulchen [modern Rottenburg]. His parents were Alamanni and were noted more for the nobility of their lives than for their familiarity with riches.
When at length he had reached the age when he might suitably learn to read and write, his father took him to the island which old people called Sindlazaugia, from the name of a certain priest called Sindlaz. Sindlaz was the first to build lodgings for monks on the island. At the command of the most noble Peratold of the Alamanni, he persuaded St. Pirmin with his companions to live there, in the time of Pippin, king of the Franks, and named the island for himself [actually in the time of Charles Martel, circa 724].
It was here, then, that the boy Meinrad was led by his father, and put in the care of a man in all things most honorable, the monk Erlebald, who was as well related to Meinrad by marriage. When he saw that the child was of good character, Erlebald willingly accepted the task of rearing him. He taught him carefully and instructed Meinrad so thoroughly that he was instilled with no small knowledge of Sacred Scripture. For from the earliest age, the boy avoided the frivolities and errors in which youth is usually entangled, and set his mind to take in those things which his teacher had taught.
When he was 25 years old, Meinrad was raised to the office of deacon, and not long afterwards to the rank of priest, doing as did his teacher. This was when Louis, the son of Charles, reigned as emperor, and the abbot of the island was a man named Hatto [abbot from 807 to 823; the events are to be dated from 814 to 823]. Hatto was very distinguished for his teaching, good works, and nobility of life, and was bishop of the church of Basel. He renounced the affairs of the active life, however, and gave himself over to the beauty of the contemplative life.
So it was that, elected by all the brethren, Erlebald was put in charge of the island and the brothers, and with the permission of Louis, the emperor, placed in the office of abbot [in the year 823]. Once he took up this charge, he immediately persuaded the venerable man Meinrad to accept the yoke of the rule (Rule of St. Benedict) and undertake to keep the standard of monastic life. Meinrad consented to this sound advice, made his promise, and strove with every effort to keep what he had promised. He was always prompt to obey, strict in fasting, zealous in prayer, generous in works of mercy, and most of all in humility did he place himself beneath everyone else.
While he grew strong in these ways, Meinrad was assigned by the abbot to a certain small cell belonging to the monastery, close by Lake Zurich, into which the river Limmat empties, so that Meinrad could be in charge of the school there, and share with many to the Lord's advantage the talent with which he had been enriched.
Some time passed while he was so engaged. One day, he took with him some students he had brought up, and crossing the lake, entered a deserted place which adjoined the lakeshore. He went all the way to the Swiss Alps [in the text, the Penine Alps, but would be too distant from Lake Zurich] and came to the village of Chama to do some fishing — and to find a place for a hermitage. So they came to a certain river which flowed down in that solitude. And there the blessed man engaged his companions in fishing, while he on the other hand wandered about, alone with himself, contemplating the solitude. For he was very much on fire with love for this solitary place.
After pasturing his mind for a long time on this thought, he returned to his comrades and found them weighed down with no small catch of fish. And he said to them: "Thanks be to God, who in his generosity has mercifully enriched us with his gifts. Now my sons, if you please, we must return and look after our home." They went back and came down to the village located not far from the shore.
There they entered the inn of a certain woman, rested a little while, and refreshed themselves with food and drink. But the man of God, discerning that this woman was God-fearing and very ready to look after guests, opened to her the secret desire of his mind.
And he began in these words: "O woman dear to Christ, did you want to hear it, I would tell you the secret of my heart. But before I do, I ask you to keep my will and words hidden, until you see whether the work can be accomplished which I think myself to have conceived with a devout mind. Living in this lonely place delights me beyond all riches, and if I found someone who wanted to supply my bodily necessities out of the love of God, I would want even now to put my cabin here, so that I could be free to pray more frequently. But since I am denied this consolation at present, I ask that in the meantime what I desire be hidden."
Inspired by God (as I believe), the woman replied: "I will reveal your secret to no one as long as it is against your wish, but you should know that if you decide to persist in your undertaking, I will supply your necessities for the sake of God, and help you in your vow as much as I can."
Returning thanks for this promise, Meinrad walked back to his cell, whence he had set out, and there he begged God continually with fasting and prayer to deign to establish in his soul His Divine Will about this matter. And at length, strengthened with divine inspiration, Meinrad left the cell and the school he had presided over, and visited the woman again, for he wanted to find out whether or not she was willing to persist in her promise.
When he saw that she had remained constant in the offer of the promised aid to him, he built a hut for himself in a lonely place [on Mount Etzel], not far from the village where the woman lived [the year is about 829]. And there Meinrad served the Creator unceasingly with fasts and prayers; and the woman and other pious folk provided him with the necessities of life.
For seven years Meinrad served the heavenly King there; but since he was not strong enough to bear the multitude of people who came to him, he moved and found a patch of level ground among the mountains, very difficult to reach, four miles from the lakeshore. There, with the help of pious folk and especially a certain abbess by the name of Helwiga, he built a cabin, the bare necessity for his vow, and he remained in that place for the rest of his life [the year is about 836]. He mortified himself with the greatest fasts, as much as human frailty allowed, and prayed without ceasing. He gave out as alms to his visitors all those things which faithful men and women used to send him.
One day while he was praying, it happened that a great host of demons surrounded him from every side, and the servants of darkness so overshadowed him that he could no longer see even the light of day. With terrible threats and the greatest dread, they exhausted him. Prostrate in prayer, as the situation then required, he commended himself with every desire to the holy Lord. Things went on in this way for a long time.
Then, he saw a light from the east. Following this light, an angel came to him where he was lying prostrate in prayer in the midst of the evil spirits; and with great authority, the angel ordered the impious array to depart and to dare not inflict further temptation or terror on Meinrad. After the host left, the angel consoled Meinrad, as one friend another, and departed. And so from that day on, as the venerable man himself used to say, he suffered no further terror from evil spirits.
Afterwards, it happened as well that a certain brother from the monastery came to visit Meinrad. Meinrad received him and the companions who had come with him willingly, and he kindly furnished all the things that befit guests, as much as was possible. When the time for vespers had come, and the stars by their shining suggested sleep, they renewed themselves with the sweet discourse of holy things, and after compline went in to sleep, the visiting brother in one place, his companions in others, and the venerable man in his private chamber.
After he had refreshed his body with sleep for a little while, the man of God arose and watched in vigil with his accustomed prayers. The visiting brother, though resting in bed, passed the whole night practically sleepless. While he cast his eyes curiously here and there, he saw a child of wondrous beauty in white robes, who seemed to him about seven years old, come out of the oratory. And the child went in to the man of God, prayed with him, and spoke of various matters with him.
Although the brother could hear the sound of the boy's conversation, he nevertheless did not understand the sense of it. And the child stood by the brother, who was fully awake, and warned him of certain things, which the brother himself said he was altogether forbidden to speak about openly.
For the sake of brevity, I omit many wonders concerning Meinrad, which a full and faithful account would set forth, and turn to how he gained the palm of martyrdom.
After Meinrad had lived in that lonely place for 26 years, serving the Lord in fasts and by abstinence from all worldly things, it came about by the inspiration of the one who entered the serpent and through its mouth deceived our first parents and threw them out of paradise that two men made their way to his cell in order to kill him [perhaps in 861]. They came to the village on the shore of Lake Zurich, asked where lay the path that led to his cell, and had it pointed out to them.
And getting up in good time the next morning, they went up the path shown them, driven by the terrible spirit with which they were filled. For a long time, however, they strayed from the right path leading to his cell. Greatly put out, they at length got to where they wanted to go after the greater part of the day was spent. Meinrad, keeping watch with his accustomed prayers, was devoutly offering the solemnity of the Mass to the Creator.
Now before the evil men entered his cell — one of whom was called Richard and was from the nation of the Alamanni, and the other of whom was called Peter and was born of the nation of the Raetians — (before they entered his cell, I say,) the chickens which the venerable man kept there saw the men come near, scattered through the hermitage as if they were being chased by a fox, and filled the woods with a resounding and unusual clamor and unheard of noise, such that the thieves themselves were astonished and wondered greatly at it, and in their own minds perceived that it was unnatural. Still, they were not distracted from their task, and approached the chapel.
Here, as was said, the man of God was reconciling God to himself with abundant prayers. Foreseeing what would happen, he had received the Lord's body as the viaticum of his death with a pure heart and devout mind. For already the man of God sensed that his slayers were at hand. Still, he did not offer himself to them at once, but delaying yet a little while, kept the door of his chapel closed so that he could linger yet a little while in prayer. So he finished his prayer with force, and taking up in his hands the reliquaries of the saints one by one, he kissed them reverently, and was commending his agony to the Lord and to the saints whose relics he reverently embraced.
The evil men had now arrived, and were watching him do this through a kind of chink in the wall. At last this strong athlete went out to the fight with God's help, and did not deny his presence to the murderers. First offering them words of greeting, he then said: "O friends, why did you come so late? Why didn't you hurry and come and hear my humble Mass so that I could pray to our common Lord on your behalf? But even now go in, ask God and his saints to be gentle with you, and afterwards return to me, so that I may share for the love God whatever blessing I can offer you that he bestows. And so finish the work that you have come to do."
So they went into the oratory, not intent on what he had urged them to do, but rather on the evil they had come to commit, and they came back to him quickly. The man of God gave them his tunic and cuculla, and added as well bread and drink, saying: "Take these things from my hands; indeed, once you finish what you have come to do, you can take for yourselves whatever you want of these things here. For I know that you have come to kill me. But one favor I beg of you. After you have ended the course of my present life, place these candles which you see and which I made for this very purpose, one burning at my head and one at my feet. Then afterwards quickly leave this place, lest those who are used to visit me come upon you and force you to pay the penalty of your crime."
Then all at once Richard seized the blessed man with his filthy hands, and locked his little body fast in his arms, weakened as it was by fasting. And with an oath, he ordered his companion to club the holy man. Peter disabled Meinrad by beating him on his sides and legs, while the holy man raised his hands to God. Richard said: "We haven't got all day; hit him in the head and finish him off. Hurry up, or I'll do it myself." And at once he took up the club and landed a blow on Meinrad's head with all his might. So stricken, the holy man sank to the ground half dead. And they flung themselves on him and strangled him with their hands until he breathed out his spirit.
Meinrad's soul then went forth, and in the very last gasp of breath, an odor of such sweetness came out and filled the whole cell, as if perfumes of all aromas had been strewn around and were sending out their fragrance. Then the thieves stripped him of the clothing he was wearing, carried the man of God to the bed where he used to rest, and put him in it. They put a cloak underneath him, and a blanket over him; and, as the man of God had asked when alive, they took the candles, placed one at his head, and ran with the other to the chapel to get a light from the flame that burned constantly in the oratory.
Coming back to the little body of the dead man, they found the unlit candle that they had put there burning brightly. And all at once, such a great fear entered them that they did not dare to touch any of the things related to the service of the altar. So taking up the clothing and some bed coverings, they retraced their steps in haste back to where they had come from.
Now there were some ravens who used to come regularly to the servant of God when he was alive and take what was offered from his hands. And as if wishing to avenge the dead man, the ravens followed the thieves while they were fleeing from the hermitage, and filled the woods with loud cawing. And flying as close to the murderers' heads as they could, they published the crime that had been committed.
Not long afterwards, the evil men were arrested, and the crime which they had committed in secret was revealed, since God did not wish to postpone the punishment of the sin that they had merited by killing the servant of God. For indeed, after the judges and the Christian people under count Adalbert condemned them to it, they were burned alive.
Now the candle they had put at the head of the man of God and which was lighted by heaven burned down to the straw they had put over his body. The fire burnt part of the straw and went all the way up to the limbs of the dead man. But when it touched his limbs, just as it was divinely lit, so also it was extinguished at the command of God. From this, however, the news of his death spread abroad.
When it became known, the venerable abbot Walter [abbot from 858 to 864] and the brothers living under him took the body of the man of God from his hermitage, and transferring it to the monastery of Reichenau, buried it there with due honor. So suffered the holy martyr, on the 21st day of January in the eight hundredth and sixty-third year from the incarnation of the Lord, while Louis reigned as king over the east Franks, in the 28th year of his reign.
Translated from the "Vita S. Meginrati," edited by O. Holder-Egger, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores v. 15, pt. 1, pp. 444-448. Further notes are from this edition. Holder-Egger supposes the author is a monk of Reichenau, writing not long after the beginning of the 10th century, and thinks its attribution to Abbot Berno of Riechenau (1008-1048) by Chr. Hartmann (whom Mabillon follows in this) is without foundation.