The Life of St. Salvius

Seer of Heavenly Mysteries

In addition to the twenty chapters of the Life of the Fathers, the writing of St. Gregory contain several other substantial Lives of 6th-century saints of Gaul. These will be presented as an appendix to the complete text of the Life of the Fathers

The first of these Lives is of a saint personally well-known to St. Gregory: St. Salvius, Bishop of Albi. His Life, contained in the History of the Franks (Book VII, 1 and V, 50), affords one of the classic examples in Christian literature of a saint who beheld heaven itself and returned to tell of it; it may well be placed beside such Eastern Lives as that of St. Andrew the Fool for Christ of Constantinople.

THE FEELING OF REVERENCE which I have for him compels me to say something about St. Salvius. He often used to tell how, during his years as a layman, while he was occupying himself with worldly affairs he never permitted himself to be ensnared by the carnal desires which so frequently fill the minds of young people. When the Holy Spirit finally found a place in his heart, he gave up the struggle of worldly existence and entered a monastery. As one now consecrated to Almighty God, he understood that it was better to serve the Lord in poverty and to humble oneself before Him, rather than to strive after the wealth of this transient world. He spent many years in his monastery and observed the rule instituted by the Fathers.

When the time came for the abbot of this monastery to die, Salvius took over the charge of feeding the flock, for he had by then reached the fullness of his physical and intellectual powers. Once he had been given this appointment, it was his duty to be more with the brethren, in order to maintain discipline; but instead he became even more withdrawn, and chose for himself a cell which was still more remote. Once he was elected abbot, he lived just as ascetically as before, devoting all his time to reading and prayer. He was persuaded that it was more fitting for him to remain secluded among his monks, than to appear in public and be addressed as abbot. Being thus persuaded, he bade farewell to the monks. He became a recluse, and in the solitude of his cell he subjected himself to even greater abstinence than before. At the same time he took good care to observe the law of Christian charity, offering up prayers for all who came to visit the monastery, and giving them the bread of offering with abundant grace. Again and again those who came with grave afflictions went away healed.

One day when Salvius lay in bed, gasping for breath and weakened by a high fever, his cell was suddenly filled with a bright light and the walls seemed to shake. He stretched out his hands to heaven, and as he gave thanks he breathed forth his spirit. The monks, together with his own mother carried his dead body out of the cell with lamentation; then they washed it, vested it and placed it upon a bier. They passed the long night in weeping and singing psalms.

When morning came and all was ready for the funeral, the corpse began to move on the bier. Salvius' cheeks became flushed, he stirred himself as if awakened from a deep sleep, opened his eyes, raised his hands and spoke: "Oh merciful Lord, why hast Thou done this to me? Why hast Thou decreed that I should return to this dark place where we dwell on earth? I would have been much happier in Thy compassion on high, rather than having to begin once again my profitless life here below." Those around him were in perplexity. When they asked him the meaning of the miracle which had occurred, he gave no reply. He rose from the bier, feeling no ill effects from the illness which he had suffered, and for three days he remained without food or drink.

On the third day he called the monks, together with his mother. "My most dear friends," he said, "hear what I am about to say. You must understand that all you see in this world is entirely without value. All is vanity, exactly as the prophet Solomon proclaimed. Blessed is he who behaves in such a way in this earthly existence that he is rewarded by beholding God in His glory in heaven."

As he said this, he wondered whether he should say more or stop with this. He was silent for a while, but the monks begged him to tell them what he had seen. "When my cell shook four days ago," he continued, "and you saw me lying dead, I was raised up by two angels and carried to the highest peak of heaven, until I seemed to have beneath my feet not only this miserable earth, but also the sun and moon, the clouds and stars. Then I was conducted through a gate that shone more brightly than the light of the sun and entered a building where the whole floor shone with gold and silver. The fight was impossible to describe. The place was filled with a multitude of people, neither male nor female, stretching so far in all directions that one could not see where it ended. The angels made a way for me through the crowd of people in front of me, and we came to the place towards which our gaze had been directed even when we had been far away. Over this place there hung a cloud more brilliant than any light, and yet no sun or moon or star could be seen; indeed, the cloud shone more brightly than any of these with its own brilliance. A voice came out of the cloud, as the voice of many waters. Sinner that I am, I was greeted with great respect by a number of beings, some dressed in priestly vestments and others in ordinary dress; my guides told me that these were the martyrs and other holy men whom we honor here on earth and to whom we pray with great devotion. As I stood here there was wafted over me a fragrance of such sweetness that, nourished by it, I have felt no need of food or drink until this very moment."

"Then I heard a voice which said: 'Let this man go back into the world, for our churches have need of him.' I heard the voice, but I could not see who was speaking. Then I prostrated myself on the ground and wept. 'Alas, alas, O Lord!' I said. 'Why hast Thou shown me these things only to take them away from me again? Thou dost cast me out today from before Thy face and send me back again to a worldly life without substance, since I am powerless to return on high. I entreat Thee, O Lord: turn not Thy mercy away from me. Let me remain here, I beseech Thee, lest, falling once more to earth, I perish.' The voice which had spoken to me said: 'Go in peace. I will watch over you until I bring you back once more to this place.' Then my guides left me and I turned back through the gate by which I had entered, weeping as I went."

As he said this, those who were with him were amazed. The holy man of God wept. Then he said: "Woe to me that I have dared to reveal such a mystery! The fragrance which I smelled in that holy place, and by which I have been nourished for three days without food or drink, has already left me. My tongue is covered with sores and has become so swollen that it fills my whole mouth. It is evident 'that it has not been pleasing in the eyes of my Lord God that these mysteries should be revealed. Thou knowest well, O Lord, that I did this in the simplicity of my heart, and not in a spirit of vainglory. Have mercy on me, I beseech Thee, and do not forsake me, according to Thy promise." When he had said this, Salvius became silent; then he began to eat and drink.

As I write these words, I fear that my account may seem quite incredible to some of my readers; and I am mindful of what the historian Sallust wrote: "When we record the virtue or glory of famous men, the reader will readily accept whatever he considers that he might have done himself; anything which exceeds these bounds of possibility he will regard as untrue." I call Almighty God to witness that everything that I have related here I have heard from the lips of Salvius himself.

Many years later Saint Salvius was forced to leave his cell in order to be elected and consecrated bishop against his will. According to my reckoning, he had held this position for 'ten years when the plague broke out in Albi and most of the people died of it. Only a few of the citizens remained alive, but Saint Salvius, as a good shepherd, refused to leave his city. He stayed there, exhorting those still among the living to pray without ceasing, not to grow faint in their vigils, and to concentrate their minds and bodies on doing only what was good. "Always act in such a way," he would say, "that if God should decide to call you from this world, you may enter not into His judgment, but into His peace."

After a certain council which Salvius and I attended together, I was about to depart for home when I realized that I could not leave without bidding farewell to Salvius and embracing him. I found him and told him that I was about to leave. We went a little way outside the house and stood there conversing. "Look at the roof of 'that building," he said; "do you see what I see?" I answered, "I see only the new tiling which the King has had put there not too long ago." "Can you see nothing else?" he asked. "No," I replied, "I can see nothing." I began to think that he was mocking me. "Tell me if you can see something else," I said. He sighed deeply and said: " I see the naked sword of the wrath of God hanging over that house." He was not wrong in his prophecy. Twenty days later the two sons of King Chilperic died.

When the time came that God revealed to Salvius the nearness of his own death, he prepared his own coffin, washed himself carefully, and put on his shroud. He died in blessed contemplation, with his thoughts turned towards heaven. He was an extremely holy man. He had no desire at all for possessions and refused to accept money; if anyone forced him to accept it, he would immediately give it to the poor.

While he was bishop, the patrician Mummolus carried into captivity many of the inhabitants of Albi, but Salvius followed him and persuaded him to free them all. The Lord gave him such influence over these people that the captors accepted a reduction in the ransom which they had asked and even gave presents to Salvius. In this way he liberated the people of his own diocese and restored them to their former condition.

I have heard many other edifying stories about him. He died in the ninth year of the reign of King Childebert (584 A.D.).

From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 13, No. 5 (76) (September-October, 1977), pp. 197-200. The book referred to in the opening remarks is Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St. Gregory of Tours.