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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume IX: September. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

September 27

SS. Elzear, Count of Arian, and Delphina

ST. ELZEAR was descended of the ancient and illustrious family of Sabran, in Provence; his father, Hermengaud of Sabran, was created count of Arian, in the kingdom of Naples; his mother was Lauduna of Albes, a family no less distinguished for its nobility. The saint was born in 1295 at Ansois, a castle belonging to his father in the diocess of Apt. Immediately after his birth, his mother, whose great piety and charity to the poor had procured her the name of The Good Countess, taking him in her arms, offered him to God with great fervour, begging that he might never offend his divine majesty, but might rather die in his infancy than live ever to be guilty of so dreadful an evil. The child seemed formed from his cradle to piety and virtue; nor could he by any means be satisfied if he saw any poor beggar, till he was relieved; for which reason his nurses and governesses were obliged to have their pockets always furnished with bread and small money, in order to give something to every poor person they met when they took him abroad; and it was his delight to divide his dinner with poor children. The first impressions of virtue he received from his mother; but these were perfected by his religious uncle, William of Sabran, abbot of St. Victor’s, at Marseilles, under whom he had his education in that monastery. In his tender age he wore a rough knotty cord, armed with sharp pricks, which galled his flesh, so that it was discovered by blood issuing from the wounds. The abbot severely chid him for this and some other extraordinary austerities which he practised, calling him a self-murderer; yet he secretly admired so great fervour in a tender young lord.  1
  The saint was only ten years old when Charles II., king of Sicily and count of Provence, caused him to be affianced to Delphina of Glandeves, daughter to the lord of Pui-Michel, she being no more than twelve years of age. Three years after, in 1308, the marriage was solemnized at the castle of Pui-Michel; but, at the suggestion of the young lady, they both secretly agreed to live together as brother and sister. The austerity with which they kept Lent, revived the example of the saints of the primitive ages; and they fasted almost in the same manner Advent and many other days in the year. They lived seven years at Ansois; after which they removed to the castle of Pui-Michel. Elzear had till that time lived with his parents in the most dutiful and respectful subjection to them. He left them, with their consent, only for the sake of greater solitude, and that he might be more at liberty to pursue his exercises of devotion and piety. The saint was twenty-three years old when, by their deaths, he inherited his father’s honours and estates; but these advantages he looked merely upon as talents and instruments put into his hands to be employed for the advancement of piety, the support of justice, and the relief and protection of the poor. By fervent and assiduous prayer, and meditation on heavenly things, he fortified his soul against the poison of all inordinate love of creatures; he perfectly understood the falsehood and illusion of all those things which flatter and dazzle the senses, and he had a sovereign contempt and distaste for all that can only serve to feed self-love. Eternal goods were the sole object of his desires. He recited every day the office of the church, with many other devotions, and he communicated almost every day, striving to do it every time with greater devotion. He said one day to Delphina: “I do not think a man on earth can enjoy any pleasure equal to that which I feel in the holy communion. It is the greatest delight and comfort of a soul in her earthly pilgrimage, to receive most frequently this divine sacrament.” In prayer he was often favoured with raptures and heavenly graces. By the constant habitual union of his soul with God he never found any difficulty in keeping it recollected in all places and at all times. He often watched great part of the nights on his knees in prayer. His devotion was not morose, because it was true and perfect; it rendered him always pleasant, mild, and agreeable to every one in conversation, though if in company the discourse turned on worldly trifles, his thoughts took their flight so intensely towards God, that he was not able to listen to what was said, or he found some genteel excuse to withdraw to his closet.  2
  It is a dangerous mistake to imagine that one can be devout merely by spending much time in prayer, and that devout persons can fall into a slothful and careless neglect of their temporal concerns. On the contrary, only solid virtue is able to do business, and to despatch it well. It taught Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be careful housekeepers, and excellent masters of families; it taught Moses to be a great legislator and commander, Josue to be a brave general, David a wise king, and the Machabees invincible soldiers. In like manner St. Elzear was rendered by his piety itself most faithful, prudent, and dexterous in the management of temporal affairs, both domestic and public; valiant in war, active and prudent in peace, faithful in every duty and trust, and diligent in the care of his household. When he first began to keep house at Pui-Michel, he made the following regulations for his family, which he took care to see always observed.  3
  “1. Every one in my family shall daily hear mass, whatever business they may have. If God be well served in my house, nothing will be wanting. 2. Let no one swear, curse, or blaspheme, under pain of being severely chastised, and afterwards shamefully dismissed. Can I hope that God will pour forth his heavenly blessings on my house, if it is filled with such miscreants who devote themselves to the devil? Or, can I endure stinking mouths which infect houses, and poison the souls of others? 3. Let all persons honour chastity, and let no one imagine that the least impurity in word or action shall ever go unpunished in Elzear’s house. It is never to be hoped for of me. 4. Let all men and women confess their sins every week: and let no one be so unhappy as not to communicate at least on all the principal festivals, namely, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the feasts of our Lady. 5. Let no persons be idle in my house. In the morning, the first thing shall be, that every one raise his heart to God with fervent prayer and oblation of himself, and of all his actions: then let all go to their business, the men abroad, the women at home. In the morning a little more time shall be allowed for meditation; but away with those who are perpetually in the church to avoid the business of their employments. This they do, not because they love contemplation, but because they desire to have their work done for them. The life of the pious woman, as described by the Holy Ghost, is not only to pray well, but also to be modest and obedient, to ply her work diligently, and to take good care of the household. The ladies shall pray and read in the mornings, but shall spend the afternoons at some work. 6. I will have no playing at dice, or any games of hazard. There are a thousand innocent diversions, though time passes soon enough without being idly thrown away. Yet I desire not my castle to be a cloister, nor my people hermits. Let them be merry, and sometimes divert themselves; but never at the expense of conscience or with danger of offending God. 7. Let peace be perpetually maintained in my family. Where peace reigns, there God dwells. Where envy, jealousy, suspicions, reports, and slanders are harboured in one family, two armies are formed, which are continually upon the watch and in ambush to surprise one another, and the master is besieged, wounded, and devoured by them both. Whoever will well serve God, he shall be dear to me; but I will never endure him who declares himself an enemy of God. Slanderers, detractors, and disorderly servants tear one another to pieces. All such as do not fear God, cannot be trusted by their master; but they will easily make a prey of his goods. Amidst such, he is in his house as in a trench, besieged on every side by enemies. 8. If any difference or quarrel happen, I will have the precept of the apostle inviolably observed, that the sun set not before it he appeased; but, in the instant that it falls out, let it be quashed, and all manner of bitterness laid in the tomb of forgetfulness. I know the impossibility of living among men, and not having something to suffer. Scarcely is a man in tune with himself one whole day; and if a melancholy humour comes on him, he knows not well what he himself would have. Not to be willing to bear or pardon others, is diabolical; but to love enemies, and to render good for evil, is the true touchstone of the sons of God. To such servants my house, my purse, and heart shall be always open: I am willing to regard them as my masters. 9. Every evening all my family shall assemble to a pious conference, in which they shall hear something spoken of God, the salvation of souls, and the gaining of paradise. What a shame is it, that though we are in this world only to gain heaven, we seldom seriously think of it; and scarcely ever speak of it but at random! O life, how is it employed! O labours, how ill are they bestowed! For what follies do we sweat and toil! Discourses on heaven invite us to virtue, and inspire us with a disrelish of the dangerous pleasures of the world. By what means shall we learn to love God if we never speak of him?—Let none be absent from this conference upon pretence of attending my affairs. I have no business which so nearly toucheth my heart as the salvation of those who serve me. They have given themselves to me, and I resign all to God, master, servants, and all that is in my power. 10. I most strictly command that no officer or servant under my jurisdiction or authority injure any man in goods, honour, or reputation, or oppress any poor person, or ruin any one under colour of doing my business. I will not have my coffers filled by emptying those of others, or by squeezing the blood out of the veins, and the marrow out of the bones of the poor. Such blood-sucking wicked servants to enrich their masters, damn both masters and themselves. Do you imagine that a master who giveth five shillings in alms, wipeth away the theft of his servants who have torn out the entrails of the poor, whose cries for vengeance mount up to heaven? I had rather go naked to paradise, than, being clothed with gold and scarlet, be dragged with the impious rich man into hell. We shall be wealthy enough if we fear God. Any substance acquired by injustice or oppression will be like a fire hidden under the earth, which will rend, waste, and throw down or consume the whole. Let fourfold be restored if I be found to have anything which is another’s: and let my dealings be public, that all who have been aggrieved on my account, may find redress. Shall a man whose treasures are in heaven, be so fond of earthly dirt? I came naked out of the womb of my mother, and shall quickly return naked into the womb of our common mother, the earth. Shall I, for a moment of life between these two tombs, hazard the salvation of my soul for eternity? It so, faith, virtue, and reason would be wholly eclipsed, and all understanding blasted.”  4
  St. Elzear set himself the first example, in every point, which he prescribed to others. He was particularly careful that if any one let fall the least injurious or angry word against another, he should ask pardon, and make satisfaction, this humiliation being the most easy and effectual remedy of a passion which always takes its rise from pride. Delphina concurred with her husband in all his views, and was perfectly obedient to him. No coldness for so much as one moment ever interrupted the harmony or damped the affections of this holy couple. The pious countess was very sensible that the devotions of a married woman ought to be ordered in a different manner from those of a religious person; that contemplation is the sister of action, and that Martha and Mary must mutually help one another. Her time was so regulated, that she had certain hours allotted for spiritual exercises, and others for her household affairs and other duties. The care with which she looked into the economy of her house was a sensible proof of the interior order in which she kept her own soul. Nothing was more admirable than her attention to all her domestics, and her prudent application that peace should be observed, the fear of God and all virtues well entertained, and all brawling, tale-bearing, and other plagues of families banished. She loved her servants as her children, and she was honoured by them as a mother and as a saint. In this example it appeared how truly it is said, that good and virtuous masters make good servants, and that the families of saints are God’s families. Alasia, sister to Delphina, lived with her, and was her faithful companion in all her pious exercises. It seemed that all who came under the roof of Elzear contracted a spirit of sincere piety; so great is the influence of good examples set by masters and mistresses.  5
  The gate through which the rich must enter heaven is mercy and charity to the poor. St. Elzear often visited the hospitals, especially those of lepers, whose loathsome sores he frequently kissed, cleansed, and dressed with his own hands. He every day washed the feet of twelve poor men, and often served them himself, performing the office of a carrier and cupbearer. He was the common father of all who were in distress, and provided large granaries of corn and storehouses of all other provisions for their relief. Being one day asked, why he so tenderly loved beggars? he answered with great feeling: “Because the bosom of the poor is the treasury of Jesus Christ.” He used to say: “How can we ask God to bestow on us his kingdom, if we deny him a cup of water; how can we pray for his grace if we deny him what is his own? Does not he too much honour us in vouchsafing to accept any thing from us?” In a time of scarcity, in 1310, his alms seemed to surpass all bounds. After his father’s death he was obliged to go into the kingdom of Naples, to take possession of the county of Arian. But the people being inclined to favour the house of Arragon against the French, and despising the meekness of the young prince, revolted, and refused to acknowledge him. Elzear opposed to their rebellion for three years no other arms than those of meekness and patience; which his friends reproachfully called indolence and cowardice. His cousin, the Prince of Tarento, one day told him, that his conduct hurt the common cause of his country, and said: “Allow me to take these rebels to task for you. I will hang up half a thousand, and make the rest as pliant as a glove. It is fit among the good to be a lamb, but with the wicked to play the lion. Such insolence must be curbed. Take your ease: say your prayers for me, and I will give so many blows for you, that this rabble shall give you no more trouble.” Elzear, smiling, replied: “What! would you have me begin my government with massacres and blood? I will overcome these men by good offices. It is no great matter for a lion to tear lambs; but for a lamb to pull a lion in pieces is admirable. Now by God’s assistance, you will shortly see this miracle.” The prince could not relish such language; but the effect verified the prediction. For the citizens of Arian of their own accord became ashamed of their rebellion, and with the greatest submission and respect, invited the saint to take possession of his territory, and ever after loved and honoured him as their father. Elzear discovered the true motive why he bore so patiently these insults, and injuries, saying: “If I receive any affront, or feel any movement of impatience begin to arise in my breast, I turn all my thoughts towards Jesus Christ crucified, and say to myself: Can what I suffer bear any comparison with what Jesus Christ was pleased to undergo for me?” Thus to triumph over injuries, was not want of courage, but the most heroic greatness of soul, and true Christian generosity. This was the constant conduct of our saint.  6
  To mention one other instance: among the papers which his father left, the good count found the letters of a certain officer under his command, filled with outrageous calumnies against him, and persuading his father to disinherit him, as one fitter to be a monk than to bear arms. Delphina was moved to indignation upon reading such impudent invectives, and said she hoped he would crush, and never foster in his breast such a scorpion, who, whilst he looked and spoke fair, could bear such deadly poison in his tail. St. Elzear told her, that Christ commands us not to revenge, but to forgive injuries, and to overcome the venom of hatred by charity: that therefore he would destroy, and never make mention of those letters. He did so, and when this officer came to his chamber to wait upon him, he affectionately embraced him, made him a rich present, and so entirely gained his affection, that the captain offered himself afterwards to be cut in a hundred pieces for his service. In like manner, on other occasions, he burnt or suppressed informations that were given of injuries which others had done him, that he might spare the parties the confusion of knowing that he had received intelligence of them. In his county of Arian he settled a rigorous administration of justice, and punished without mercy the least oppression in any of his officers. He visited malefactors who were condemned to die, and many who had persisted deaf to priests, were moved by his tender exhortations to sincere compunction, and to accept their punishment in a spirit of penance. When their goods were confiscated to him, he secretly restored them to their wives and children. Writing out of Italy to St. Delphina, he said: “You desire to hear often of me. Go often to visit our amiable Lord Jesus Christ in the holy sacrament. Enter in spirit his sacred heart. You know that to be my constant dwelling. You will always find me there.”  7
  Elzear having settled his affairs in Italy, obtained leave of King Robert, the son and successor of Chartes II., and brother of St. Lewis, bishop of Toulouse, to return into Provence for two years. He was received at Ansois with incredible joy. Not long after, Elzear being in the twenty-fifth year of his age, and Delphina, after receiving the communion, pronounced publicly, at the foot of the altar, in the chapel of the castle, mutual vows of perpetual chastity, which Elzear had till then kept unviolated without a vow, though Delphina had before made a secret vow. In the lives of this holy couple, the world saw pious retirement in the midst of worldly pomp, silent contemplation amidst the noise of public scenes, and in conjugal friendship a holy emulation to outvie one another in piety, goodness, and charity. Such happy strifes are carried on with sweet tranquillity and peace, and are crowned with never-fading comfort and joy. The count had remained two years in Provence when King Robert recalled him into Italy, and conferred on him the honour of knighthood, of which he had approved himself worthy by many actions of uncommon valour and address, and notable feats of arms. The saint had according to custom, spent the night before this ceremony in the church watching in prayer; he went to confession and communicated in the morning. 1 The king on this occasion shed tears of joy at the sight of his extraordinary devotion and piety; and the whole court admired a prince who was at once a great soldier, a courtier, a married man, a virgin, and a saint.  8
  King Robert chose him among all the lords of his dominions to be governor to his son Charles, duke of Calabria. The young prince was sprightly, but understood too well his high extraction, was untractable, and had contracted the contagious air of the court. The count took notice of his pupil’s dangerous inclinations, but dissembled this for some time till he had won his affections, and gained sufficient credit with him. When he saw it a fit time, he made him tender remonstrances on his defects, on the necessity of a sublime virtue to support the dignity of his high rank, and on the life to come. The young prince was so penetrated with his discourses, that, leaping about his neck, he said: “It is not yet too late to begin: what then must I do?” Elzear explained to him the virtues of piety, magnanimity, justice, and clemency, showing that a prince who fears God, has always a sure comfort and protection in heaven, though earth should fail him, and that he who undertakes any business without first consulting God, deserves always to be unhappy and ruined: and is always impious. “Only assiduous devotion,” said he, “can be the safeguard against the dangers of vanity, flatterers, and the strong incentives of the passions. Go to confession and communion every great festival. Love the poor, and God will multiply his favours upon your house. When you are angry, speak not a word; otherwise you undo yourself. More princes are ruined by their tongues and anger, than by the edge of the sword. You must hate flatterers as a plague; if you do not banish them, they will ruin you. Honour good men, and the prelates of the church; this will be your principal greatness,” &c. Elzear by his diligence and instructions corrected the vices of his pupil, who became a grave and virtuous prince. King Robert, going into Provence, left his son regent of Naples under the tuition of Elzear, who was chief of the council, and despatched almost all the affairs of state. Elzear entreated the duke to declare him advocate for the poor, and their agent in court. The duke heartily laughing, said: “What kind of office do you beg? You will have no competitors in this ambition. I admit your request, and recommend to you all the poor of this kingdom.” Elzear made a low reverence, and thanked him heartily. For the discharge of this troublesome office he caused a great bag of purple velvet to be made, and with this passed through the streets, receiving in it all the requests and suits of the poor, with a cheerful countenance, full of commiseration, hearing grievances, dealing about alms, comforting all the world, so that he seemed another Joseph in Egypt. He pleaded the causes of widows and orphans with wonderful eloquence, and procured them justice and charitable relief. Whilst the chief authority of the state was lodged in his hands, many offered him rich presents, which he refused, saying to those that called him on that account churlish: “It is more safe and easy to refuse all presents, than to discern which might be received without danger. Neither is it easy for one who begins to take any, afterwards to know where to stop, for these things are apt to create an appetite.” The law of nature itself condemns as bribes all presents received by judges; they giving insensibly a bias and inclination to favour the party, as is evident by general experience. St. Elzear was so sincere a lover of truth that he was ready to die for it in the smallest points.  9
  The Emperor Henry VII. invaded Naples with a great army, nor was Pope Clement V. able to divert him from his expedition. King Robert sent against him his brother John, and Count Elzear with as great an army as he was able to raise. Two pitched battles were fought, in both which Henry was defeated, chiefly by the valour and conduct of Elzear, so that the emperor desired a peace, which was readily concluded. King Robert gave Elzear many great presents, which he accepted with one hand not to disoblige the king, but with the other distributed them all among the poor. This king sent Elzear ambassador to Paris, attended with the flower of the nobility of Naples, to demand of Charles IV. Mary, the daughter of the Count of Valois, in marriage for the Duke of Calabria. The negotiation was carried on with great success and the marriage concluded, and the good count was received at court not only with the greatest honour, but also with veneration, and as a living saint. In the meantime, the holy ambassador fell sick at Paris. He had made his will in 1317, at Toulon, by which he left his movable goods to his wife Delphina, his real estates to his brother William of Sabran, and legacies to his relations and servants, and especially to many convents and hospitals. When the saint, three years before, made his public vow of chastity, he on the same day enrolled himself in the third Order of St. Francis, into which seculars or laymen are admitted, upon condition of their wearing a part of the Franciscan habit under their clothes, and saying certain prayers every day: but these conditions are not binding under sin. St. Elzear in his sickness made a general confession with great compunction and many tears, to the provincial of the Franciscans, and he continued to confess almost every day of his illness, though he is said never to have offended God by any mortal sin. The history of Christ’s passion, which mystery had always been the favourite object of his devotion, was every day read to him, and in it he found exceeding great comfort amidst his pains. Receiving the holy viaticum he said with great joy: “This is my hope; in this I desire to die.” After extreme unction, and a painful agony, he happily expired on the 27th of September, in the year 1323, the twenty-eighth of his age. His death was exceedingly lamented by the Kings of France and Naples, and by their whole courts. His body, according to his orders, was carried to Apt, and there interred in the church of the Franciscan Friars in that town, where it is still kept. Juridical informations were taken of his miracles by order of Pope Clement VI. Urban V. signed the decree of his canonization, but it was only published by Gregory XI. in 1369, forty-six years after the saint’s death, Delphina being still living. The King and Queen of Naples would by no means suffer her to leave their court, to which she was a perfect model of piety. King Robert dying in 1343, the queen whose name was Sancia, and who was daughter to the King of Majorca, wearied with the empty greatness of the world, and loathing its vanity, put on the habit of a Poor Clare in a nunnery which she had founded at Naples. In this state she lived ten years with great fervour, and would still have her dear Delphina near her, learning from her all the exercises of a spiritual life. After her death, Delphina returned into Provence, and led the life of a recluse in the castle of Ansois, in the heroic practice of penance, charity, assiduous prayer, and all other virtues. She died at Apt, near that castle, in the year 1369, the seventy-sixth of her age, on the 26th of September; on which she is named in the Martyrology of the Franciscan Order. Her mortal remains were deposited in the same tomb with those of St. Elzear. See the life of St. Elzear published by Surius: also Vite delli Santi del Terz. Ordine di S. Francesco, c. 14, 15, 16. p. 30. Suysken, t. 7. Sept. p. 528.  10
Note 1. This religious preparation always preceded the ceremony of conferring knighthood, and usually the enrolling a soldier in the army. See Ingulphus, History of Croyland, &c. [back]