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An Account of the Extraordinary Death of a Gentleman who Died of Love on Mount Olivet

By Saint Francis de Sales (1567–1622)

From ‘A Treatise on the Love of God’

I SHALL add to the examples I have already related, a history which has come to my knowledge, and which, though very extraordinary, is not on this account less deserving of belief, since, as the apostle says, “charity believeth all things”: that is, she cannot easily persuade herself that duplicity has been used when there are no evident marks of falsehood in what is advanced, especially with regard to the love of God for man, or of man for God: nothing is too extraordinary to be expected from charity, which is the queen of virtues; and which, like the princes of the earth, takes pleasure in performing great exploits to extend her dominion, and increase the glory of her empire.

Though the fact I am about to state is not so generally known, or so well authenticated, as so wonderful an event seems to require, it is, however, no less true. St. Augustine has observed that miracles, however extraordinary, are never well known in the place where they have been performed, and are scarcely believed though related by witnesses. Yet they are not less true on this account; pious and upright minds easily believe whatever does honor to religion, and are more inclined to credit these prodigies in proportion as they are more wonderful and difficult to believe.

A gentleman remarkable for his virtues still more than for his bravery and illustrious birth, went to Palestine to visit the holy places where the great work of our redemption was accomplished. After having prepared himself for this holy exercise by an exact confession and a fervent communion, he went first to Nazareth, where the eternal Word was conceived, after the angel had announced to the ever-blessed Virgin the mystery of the incarnation. Here the devout pilgrim began to penetrate by contemplation the abyss of the mercy of God, who to rescue us from the state of perdition to which we had been reduced by sin, deigned to assume a human form.

He then proceeded to Bethlehem; visited the stable in which the divine Infant was born, and kissed the earth which had supported the tottering steps of his infancy. We could enumerate the tears he shed, in reflecting on those which had streamed so abundantly from the divine eyes of Jesus Christ! He then proceeded to Bethabara, and entered Bethany. There, remembering that the Son of God had taken off his garments to be baptized, he stripped himself of his, bathed in the Jordan, and drank of its waters to satisfy his devotion. In doing so, he imagined that he beheld the heavens opened, that he saw Jesus Christ receiving baptism from the hands of his Precursor, and the Holy Ghost descending visibly on him in the form of a dove; whilst a voice was heard from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. iii. 17.)

He quitted Bethany, and entered into the desert; where in spirit he contemplated Jesus Christ fasting and resisting temptation, and also the angels who approached after his victory, and gave him to eat. After considering his Savior transfigured on Mount Tabor, he proceeded to Mount Sion; where he imagined himself in the presence of Jesus Christ in the cenacle, washing the feet of his apostles, and giving them his adorable body to eat, after the institution of the blessed Eucharist.

He passed over the torrent of Cedron, and entered the garden of Gethsemane, where he felt his heart penetrated with a delicious sorrow, which caused his tears to flow afresh, at the recollection of his divine Redeemer’s cruel agony and sweat of blood. He next considered him bound by the soldiers, conducted to Jerusalem as a criminal; he followed him in spirit by the traces of his blood, to all the different places where he was dragged,—to the houses of Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod,—where he considered him mangled with blows, despised, covered with spittle, crowned with thorns, exposed to the ridicule and derision of the populace, and condemned to death, loaded with his cross, walking to Calvary; and meeting soon after his blessed Mother overwhelmed with anguish, and the daughters of Jerusalem, who compassionated his sufferings and wept for the ignominious state to which he was reduced.

The devout pilgrim, following exactly the steps of his Master, arrived at length on the summit of Mount Calvary: there he in spirit viewed the cross placed on the earth; he beheld Jesus Christ stripped of his garments and fastened thereon, his hands and feet being cruelly pierced with nails; he then saw the cross elevated and Jesus Christ suspended in the air between heaven and earth, his blood flowing in copious streams from every part of his sacred body. He casts a look at the Mother of Jesus, transfixed with the sword of sorrow according to the prophecy of Simeon; and then returning to the contemplation of his Savior, he listens attentively to his expiring words; he wishes to receive his last sigh, to consider him after death, to penetrate if possible into the innermost recess of his adorable heart, through the opening made in his side by the spear.

He does not quit Calvary until he has seen the mangled body of his divine Redeemer taken down from the cross; he follows him to the sepulchre, bedewing with a torrent of tears the road which had been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ. He enters the sepulchre, as if to entomb his heart near the body of his departed Lord. After having died spiritually with him, by compassion, he rises with him, by the joy he experiences at his glorious resurrection. Having accompanied him to Emmaüs, and meditated on his conversation with his two disciples, he returned to Mount Olivet where the mystery of the Ascension was accomplished, that he might end his life on the spot where Jesus Christ had terminated his mortal career.

There, viewing the last traces which the sacred feet of his Redeemer had imprinted on earth, he prostrated himself, to embrace them a thousand times with inexpressible transports of love. Then uniting his powers and affections, as an archer draws the string of his bow before he shoots the arrow, he stood erect, and raising his eyes and hands to heaven, exclaimed, “My divine Savior, I no longer know where to seek thee on earth: grant then that my soul may ascend with thee, that it may soar to the regions of never-ending happiness.” These inflamed words, pronounced by a last effort of his united affections, like a bow violently bent, freed the soul from her prison, and enabled her to dart like an arrow to the object at which the holy pilgrim aimed.

The companions of his pilgrimage, seeing him fall suddenly, hastened to his assistance: and quickly called a physician, who, finding him lifeless, and being unable to divine the cause of so sudden a death, inquired into his habits, temper, and constitution; and being informed that he was of a gentle, affectionate disposition, inflamed with a great devotion and an ardent love of God, he concluded that a violent effort of love must have opened his heart; and to ascertain it beyond a doubt, he recommended that his body should be opened. They actually found that his heart had opened; and through the aperture, the words “Jesus, my love” were seen imprinted thereon. Love performed the office of death, by separating the soul from the body: this separation could not be attributed to any other cause. The account of this extraordinary death is given by St. Bernardin of Siena,—an author no less venerable for his learning than his sanctity,—in his first sermon on our Lord’s Ascension.

Another author, nearly contemporary with the saint, who has concealed his name through humility, though worthy of being universally known, relates a still more, wonderful circumstance in a work entitled ‘The Spiritual Mirror.’

He says that a young nobleman of Provence, remarkable for his ardent love of God and his great devotion to the adorable Sacrament of the Altar, being dangerously ill, and fearing that he could not retain the blessed Eucharist because of the incessant vomiting attendant on his malady, entreated of the clergyman to form the sign of the cross over him with the sacred Host, and then to apply it to his bosom; which was accordingly done. Immediately his heart, burning with divine love, opened; and Jesus Christ, attracted by his ardent desires, entered through the aperture under the form of the sacred species, and the invalid expired.

I am aware that so extraordinary a circumstance requires to be better authenticated: but after the miracle performed on St. Clare of Montfalcon, whose heart is still to be seen with the instruments of the Passion engraved on it; after the impression of the stigmates on St. Francis, of which there can be no doubt,—I have no difficulty in believing the most miraculous effects of Divine love.