Never was such a booty won as that obtained by the sons of King Clovis in their expedition against Thuringia towards the year 530. Receive this blessing from the spoils of the enemy (1 Kings 30: 26) might they well say on presenting to the Franks the orphan brought from the court of the fratricide prince whom they had just chastised. (St. Radegonde was born about 520 to Berthaire, one of the three kings of Thuringia. St. Radegonde's uncle, Hermanfried, killed Berthaire in battle, and took Radegonde into his household. After allying with the Frankish King Theuderic, Hermanfried defeated his other brother Baderic. However, having crushed his brothers and seized control of Thuringia, Hermanfried reneged on his agreement with Theuderic to share sovereignty. In 531, Theuderic returned to Thuringia with his brother Clothaire I. Together they defeated Hermanfried, conquered his kingdom, and took St. Radegonde under their care.)
God seemed in haste to ripen the soul of Radegonde. After the tragic death of her relatives followed the ruin of her country. So vivid was the impression made in the child's heart, that long afterwards the recollection awakened in the Queen and the Saint a sorrow and homesickness which naught but the love of Christ could overcome. "I have seen the plain strewn with the dead and palaces burnt to the ground; I have see women, with eyes dry from very horror, mourning over fallen Thuringia; I alone have survived to weep over them all."
The licentiousness of the Frankish kings was as unbridled as that of her own ancestors; yet in their land the little captive found Christianity, which she had not hitherto known. The Faith was a healing balm to this wounded soul. Baptism, in giving her God, sanctified, without crushing, her high-spirited nature. Thirsting for Christ, she wished to be martyred for Him; she sought Him on the cross of self-renunciation; she found Him in His poor suffering members; looking on the face of a leper, she would see in it the disfigured countenance of her Savior, and thence rise to the ardent contemplation of the triumphant Spouse, whose glorious face illumines the abode of the saints.
What a loathing, therefore, did she feel when, offering her royal honors, the destroyer of her own country sought to share with God the possession of a heart that Heaven alone could comfort or gladden! First flight, then the refusal to comply with the manners of a court where everything was repulsive to her desires and recollections, her eagerness to break, on the very first opportunity, a bond which violence alone had contracted, prove that the trial had no other effect, as her biographer Baudonivia says, but to bend her soul more and more to the sole object of her love.
Meanwhile, near the tomb of St. Martin, another Queen, St. Clotilde, the mother of the most Christian kingdom, was about to die. Unfortunate are those times when the men after God's own heart, at their departure from earth, leave no one to take their place; as the Psalmist cried out in a just consternation: Save me, O Lord, for there is now no saint! (Ps. 11: 2) For though the elect pray for us in Heaven, they can no longer fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in their flesh, for His body, which is the Church (Col. 1: 24). The work begun at the Baptistery of Rheims (the baptism of Clovis) was not yet completed; the Gospel, though reigning by faith over the Frankish nation, had not yet subdued its manners. Christ, Who loved the Franks, heard the last prayer of the mother He had given them, and refused her not the consolation of knowing that she should have a successor. St. Radegonde was set free, just in time to prevent an interruption in the laborious work of forming the Church's eldest daughter; and she took up in solitude the struggle with God, by prayer and expiation, begun by the widow of Clovis.
In the joy of having cast off an odious yoke, forgiveness was an easy thing to her great soul; in her monastery at Poitiers she showed an unfailing devotedness for the kings whose company she had fled. The fortune of France was bound up with theirs; France the cradle-land of her supernatural life, where the Man-God had revealed Himself to her heart, and which she therefore loved with part of the love reserved for her heavenly country. The peace and prosperity of her spiritual fatherland occupied her thoughts day and night. If any quarrel arose among the princes, say the contemporary accounts, she trembled from head to foot at the very thought of the country's danger. She wrote, according to their different dispositions, to each of the kings, imploring them to consider the welfare of the nation; she interested the chief vassals in her endeavors to prevent war. She imposed on her community assiduous watchings, exhorting them with tears to pray without ceasing; as to herself, the tortures she inflicted on herself for this end are inexpressible.
The only victory, then, that St. Radegonde desired was peace among the princes of the earth; when she had gained this by her struggle with the King of Heaven, her joy in the service of the Lord was redoubled, and the tenderness she felt for her devoted helpers, the nuns of Sainte-Croix, could scarcely find utterance: "You, the daughters of my choice," she would say, "my eyes, my life, my sweet repose, so live with me in this world, that we may meet again in the happiness of the next." And they responded to her love. "By the God of Heaven it is true that everything in her reflected the splendor of her soul." Such was the spontaneous and graceful cry of her daughter Baudonivia; and it was echoed by the graver voice of the historian-Bishop, St. Gregory of Tours, who declared that the supernatural beauty of the Saint remained even in death; it was a brightness from Heaven, which purified while it attracted hearts, which caused the Italian St. Venantius Fortunatus to cease his wanderings, made him a saint and a Bishop, and inspired him with his most beautiful poems.
The light of God could not but be reflected in her, who, turning towards Him by uninterrupted contemplation, redoubled her desires as the end of her exile approached. Neither the relics of the Saints which she had so sought after as speaking to her of her true home, nor her dearest treasure, the Cross of her Lord, was enough for her; she would fain have drawn the Lord Himself from His Throne, to dwell visibly on earth. She only interrupted her sighs to excite in others the same longings. She exhorted her daughters not to neglect the knowledge of divine things; and explained to them with profound science and motherly love the difficulties of the Scriptures. As she increased the holy readings of the community for the same end, she would say: "If you do not understand, ask; why do you fear to seek the light of your souls?" And she would insist: "Reap, reap the wheat of the Lord; for, I tell you truly, you will not have long to do it. Reap, for the time draws near when you will wish to recall the days that are now given you, and your regrets will not be able to bring them back." And the loving chronicler to whom we owe these sweet intimate details continues: "In our idleness we listened coolly to the announcement; but that time has come all too soon. Now is realized in us the prophecy which says: I will send forth a famine into the land: not a famine of bread, nor a thirst of water, but of hearing the Word of the Lord (Amos 8: 11). For though we still read her conferences, that voice which never ceased is now silent; those lips, ever ready with wise advice and sweet words, are closed. O most good God, what an expression, what features, what manners Thou hadst given her! No, no one could describe it. The remembrance is anguish! That teaching, that gracefulness, that face, that mien, that science, that piety, that goodness, that sweetness, where are we to seek them now?"
Such touching sorrow does honor to both mother and daughters; but it could not keep back the former from her reward. On the morning of the Ides of August 587, while Sainte-Croix was filled with lamentations, an Angel was heard saying to others on high: "Leave her yet longer, for the tears of her daughters have ascended to God." But those who were bearing St. Radegonde away replied: "It is too late; she is already in Paradise."
Let us read the liturgical account, which will complete what we have said:
St. Radegonde was the daughter of Berthaire, King of Thuringia. When ten years old she was led away captive by the Franks; and on account of her striking and queenly beauty their kings disputed among themselves for the possession of her. They drew lots, and she fell to the share of Clothaire, King of Soissons. He entrusted her education to excellent masters. Child as she was, she eagerly imbibed the doctrines of the Christian Faith, and renouncing the worship of false gods which she had learned from her fathers, she determined to observe not only the precepts, but also the counsels of the Gospels. When she was grown, Clothaire, who had long before chosen her, took her to wife, and in spite of her refusal, in spite of her attempts at flight, she was proclaimed Queen, to the great joy of all. When thus raised to the throne, she joined charity to the poor, continual prayer, frequent watching, fasting and other bodily austerities to her regal dignity, so that the courtiers said in scorn that the king had married not a Queen, but a nun.
Her patience shone out brightly in supporting many grievous trials caused her by the king. But when she heard that her own brother had been unjustly slain by command of Clothaire, she instantly left the court with the king's consent, and going to the Blessed Bishop Medard, she earnestly begged him to consecrate her to the Lord. The nobles strongly opposed his giving the veil to her whom the king had solemnly married. But she at once went into the sacristy and clothed herself in the monastic habit. Then, advancing to the altar, she thus addressed the Bishop: "If you hesitate to consecrate me because you fear man more than God, there is One Who will demand an account of my soul from you." These words deeply touched Medard; he placed the sacred veil upon the Queen's head, and imposing his hands upon her, consecrated her a deaconess. [In the early Church, before the foundation of the great Religious Orders, a woman could be consecrated to God in two ways: if she were a young maiden, by the Consecration of a Virgin; if she were a widow, or an older marred woman with consent of her husband, by the Consecration of a Deaconess. The title meant merely that she was dedicated to the service of the Church; it had nothing to do with the Sacrament of Holy Orders.] She proceeded to Poitiers, and there founded a monastery of virgins, which was afterwards called “of the Holy Cross.” The splendor of her virtues shone forth and attracted innumerable virgins to embrace a religious life. On account of her extraordinary gifts of divine grace, all wished her to be their superior; but she desired to serve rather than to command.
The number of miracles she worked spread her name far and wide; but she herself, forgetful of her dignity, sought out the lowest and humblest offices. She loved especially to take care of the sick, the needy, and above all the lepers, whom she often cured in a miraculous manner. She honored the Divine Sacrifice of the Altar with deep piety, making with her own hands the bread which was to be consecrated, and supplying it to several churches. Even in the midst of the pleasures of a court, she had applied herself to mortifying her flesh, and from her childhood she had burned with desire of martyrdom; now that she was leading a monastic life she subdued her body with the utmost rigor. She girt herself with iron chains, she tortured her body with burning coals, courageously fixed red-hot plates of metal upon her flesh that it also might, in a way, be inflamed with love of Christ. King Clothaire, bent on taking her back and carrying her off from her monastery, set out for Holy Cross; but she deterred him by means of letters which she wrote to St. Germanus, Bishop of Paris; so that, prostrate at the holy prelate's feet, the king begged him to beseech his pious Queen to pardon him, who was both her sovereign and her husband.
St. Radegonde enriched her monastery with relics of the Saints brought from different countries. She also sent some clerics to the Emperor Justin and obtained from him a large piece of the wood of Our Lord's Cross. It was received with great solemnity by the people of Poitiers, and all, both clergy and laity, sang exultingly the hymns composed by Venantius Fortunatus in honor of the Blessed Cross (Vexilla Regis and Pange Lingua, which form part of the Office of Passiontide). This poet was afterwards Bishop of Poitiers; he enjoyed the holy friendship of St. Radegonde and directed her monastery. At length the holy Queen, being ripe for Heaven, was honored a few days before her death by an apparition of Christ under the form of a most beautiful youth; and she heard these words from His mouth: "Why art thou consumed by so great a longing to enjoy My presence? Why dost thou pour out so many tears and sighs? Why comest thou as a suppliant so often to My altars? Why dost thou break down thy body with so many labors, when I am always united to thee? My beautiful pearl! Know that thou art one of the most precious stones in My kingly crown." In the year 587 she breathed forth her pure soul into the bosom of the heavenly Spouse who had been her only love. St. Gregory of Tours buried her, as she had wished, in the church of St. Mary.
Thine exile is over, eternal possession has taken the place of desire; all Heaven is illumined with the brightness of the precious stone that has come to enrich the diadem of the Spouse. O St. Radegonde, the Wisdom Who is now rewarding thy toils led thee by admirable ways. Thy inheritance, become to thee as a lion in the wood (Jer. 12: 8) spreading death around thee, thy captivity far from thy native land; what was all this but love's way of drawing thee from the dens of the lions, from the mountains of the leopards (Cant. 4: 8), where idolatry had led thee in childhood? Thou hadst to suffer in a foreign land, but the light from above shone into thy soul, and gave it strength. A powerful king tried in vain to make thee share his throne; thou wert a Queen but for Christ, Who in His goodness made thee a mother to that kingdom of France, which belongs to Him more than to any prince. For His sake thou didst love that land become thine by the right of the Bride who shares the scepter of her Spouse; for His sake, that nation, whose glorious destiny thou didst predict, received without limit all thy labors, thy unspeakable mortifications, thy prayers and thy tears.
O thou, who art ever Queen of France, as Christ is ever its King, bring back to Him the hearts of its people, for in their blind error they have laid aside their glory, and their sword is no longer wielded for God. Protect, above all, the city of Poitiers, which honors thee with a special devotion together with its great St. Hilary. Teach us to seek Our Lord, and to find Him in His Holy Sacrament, in the relics of His Saints, in His suffering members on earth; and may all Christians learn from thee how to love.
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