Home  »  Volume VII: July  »  St. Victor of Marseilles, Martyr

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

July 21

St. Victor of Marseilles, Martyr

THE EMPEROR Maximian, reeking with the blood of the Thebæan legion, and many other martyrs whom he had massacred in different parts of Gaul, arrived at Marseilles, the most numerous and flourishing church in those provinces. The tyrant breathed here nothing but slaughter and fury, and his coming filled the Christians with fear and alarms. In this general consternation, Victor, a Christian officer in the troops, went about in the night time from house to house visiting the faithful, and inspiring them with contempt of a temporal death and the love of eternal life. He was surprised in this action, so worthy a soldier of Jesus Christ, and brought before the prefects Asterius and Eutychus, who exhorted him not to lose the fruit of all his services and the favour of his prince for the worship of a dead man; so they called Jesus Christ. He answered, that he renounced those recompenses if he could not enjoy them without being unfaithful to Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who vouchsafed to become man for our salvation, but who raised himself from the dead, and reigns with the Father, being God equally with him. The whole court heard him with tumultuous shouts of indignation and rage. However, the prisoner being a person of distinction, the prefects sent him to Maximian himself. The incensed countenance of an emperor did not daunt the champion of Christ; and the tyrant seeing his threats to have no effect upon him, commanded him to be bound hands and feet and dragged through all the streets of the city, exposed to the blows and insults of the populace. Every one of the heathens seemed to think it a crime not to testify their false zeal, by offering some indignity or other to the martyr. Their design was to intimidate the Christians, but the example of the martyr’s resolution served to encourage them.  1
  Victor was brought back bruised and bloody to the tribunal of the prefects, who thinking his resolution must have been weakened by his sufferings, began to blaspheme our holy religion, and pressed him again to adore their gods. But the martyr, filled with the Holy Ghost, and encouraged by his presence in his soul, expressed his respect for the emperor and his contempt of their gods, adding: “I despise your deities, and confess Jesus Christ; inflict upon me what torments you please.” The prefects only disagreed about the choice of the tortures. After a warm contest Eutychius withdrew, and left the prisoner to Asterius, who commanded him to be hoisted on the rack, and most cruelly tortured a long time. The martyr, lifting up his eyes to heaven, asked patience and constancy of God, whose gift he knew it to be. Jesus Christ appeared to him on the rack, holding a cross in his hands, gave him his peace, and told him that he suffered in his servants, and crowned them after their victory. These words dispelled both his pains, and his grief; and the tormentors being at last weary, the prefect ordered him to be taken down, and thrown into a dark dungeon. At midnight God visited him by his angels; the prison was filled with a light brighter than that of the sun, and the martyr sung with the angels the praises of God. Three soldiers who guarded the prison, seeing this light, were surprised at the miracle, and casting themselves at the martyr’s feet asked his pardon, and desired baptism. Their names were Alexander, Longinus, and Felician. The martyr instructed them as well as time would permit, sent for priests the same night, and going with them to the sea-side he led them out of the water, that is, was their godfather, and returned with them again to his prison.  2
  The next morning Maximian was informed of the conversion of the guards, and, in a transport of rage, sent officers to bring them all four before him in the middle of the market-place. The mob loaded Victor with injuries, and would fain have compelled him to bring back his converts to the worship of their gods; but he said, “I cannot undo what is well done.” And turning to them he encouraged them saying, “You are still soldiers; behave with courage, God will give you victory. You belong to Jesus Christ; be faithful. An immortal crown is prepared for you.” The three soldiers persevered in the confession of Jesus Christ, and by the emperor’s orders were forthwith beheaded. Victor prayed in the mean time with tears that he might, by being united with them in their happy death, be presented in their glorious company before God; but after having been exposed to the insults of the whole city as an immovable rock lashed by the waves, and been beaten with clubs and scourged with leather-thongs, he was carried back to prison, where he continued three days, recommending to God his martyrdom with many tears. After that term the emperor called him again before his tribunal, and having caused a statue of Jupiter, with an altar and incense, to be placed by him, he commanded the martyr to offer incense to the idol. Victor went up to the profane altar, and by a stroke of his foot threw it down. The emperor ordered the foot to be forthwith chopped off; which the saint suffered with great joy, offering to God these first fruits of his body. A few moments after the emperor condemned him to be put under the grindstone of a handmill and crushed to death. The executioners turned the wheel, and when part of his body was bruised and crushed, the mill broke down. The saint still breathed a little; but his head was immediately ordered to be cut off. His and the other three bodies were thrown into the sea, but being cast ashore were buried by the Christians in a grotto hewn out of a rock. The author of the acts adds: “They are honoured to this day with many miracles, and many benefits are conferred by God and our Lord Jesus Christ on those who ask them through their merits.”  3
  In the fifth century Cassian 1 built a great monastery near the tomb of this saint, which afterwards received the rule of St. Bennet, but was subsequently secularized by Benedict XIV. The relics of St. Victor remain in that church, the most ancient in all France, full of illustrious monuments of primitive saints. Some part of the relics of St. Victor was conveyed to Paris and laid in a chapel built in his honour, which soon after, in the reign of Lewis the VI. was enlarged, and the royal monastery of regular canons founded there, which bears the name of this saint, its glorious patron. 2 This institute and abbey were commenced by William of Champeaux, archdeacon of Paris, a man of eminent piety and learning, who having taught for many years rhetoric and theology, with extraordinary reputation, in the cloister of the cathedral, retired to this little chapel of St. Victor, then in the skirts of the town. There with certain fervent clergymen he lived in close solitude, assiduous prayer, and great austerity, allowing no other food to be served in his community but herbs, pulse, and roots, with bread and salt. By the pressing importunities of the bishop of Paris and other persons of distinction he was obliged to resume his theological lectures, which he seems to have continued at St. Victor’s, as F. Gourdan shows. Whence Rollin calls this monastery the cradle of the university of Paris. In favour of this holy institute king Lewis VI. founded and built there a magnificent abbey, which still subsists in a most flourishing condition. Gilduin, a most holy man, was appointed first abbot, whilst William of Champeaux taught there, who in 1113 was consecrated bishop of Challons on the Saone. Dying in 1121, according to his desire he was buried at Clairvaux, by St. Bernard, who had received at his hands the abbatial benediction. 3 See St. Victor’s genuine acts, which are not unworthy the pen of Cassian, to whom some ascribe them; but without grounds. They are published and much commended by Bosquet in the fourth tome of his history of the Church of France, p. 202. See also Tillemont, t. 4, Ceillier, t. 3, p. 366. Fleury, l. 8, n. 20. Rivet, Hist. Littér, t. 2, p. 231, and Cuper the Bollandist, t. 5, Jul. p. 135. F. Gourdan has compiled at length the life of St. Victor, with an account of many miracles wrought through his intercession, and a collection of many devout hymns and prayers in his honour, and other various memorials relating to this saint, in the seventh tome of his MS. history of the eminent men of the royal abbey of St. Victor at Paris. See also Oudin, t. 2. De Script. Eccl. p. 1138.  4
Note 1. John Cassian, priest and abbot of the great monastery of St. Victor’s at Marseilles, was a native of Lesser Scythia, then comprised under Thrace. He inured himself from his youth to the exercises of an ascetic life in the monastery of Bethlehem. The great reputation of many holy anchorets in the deserts of Egypt induced him and one Germanus, about the year 390, to pay them a visit. Being much edified with the great examples of virtue they saw in those solitudes, especially in the wilderness of Sceté, they spent there and in Thebais several years. They lived like the monks of that country, went bare-foot, and so meanly clad that their friends would have been ashamed to meet them, and they gained their subsistence by their work, as all the rest did. (Col. 4, c. 10.) Their life was most austere, and they scarcely ate two loaves a day each of six ounces. (Col. 19, c. 17.) In 403 they both went to Constantinople, where they listened to the spiritual instructions of St. Chrysostom, who ordained Cassian deacon, and employed him in his church. After the banishment of that holy prelate, Cassian and Germanus travelled to Rome with letters from the clergy of Constantinople to defend their injured pastor, as Palladius informs us. Cassian was promoted to the order of priesthood in the West, and retiring to Marseilles, there founded two monasteries, one for men, and another for virgins, and wrote his spiritual Conferences and other works. He died in the odour of sanctity soon after the year 433. His very ancient picture is shown in St. Victor’s at Marseilles, where his head and right arm are exposed in shrines on the altar by the permission of Pope Urban V. the remainder of his body lies in a marble tomb which is shown in a subterraneous chapel. That abbey, by a special grant, celebrates an office in his honour on the 23rd of July.
  His works consist, first of a book On the Incarnation, against Nestorius, written at the request of St. Leo, then archdeacon of Rome. Secondly, Of Institutions of a Monastical Life, in twelve books. In the four first he describes the habit that was worn, and the exercises and way of living that were followed by the monks of Egypt, to serve as a pattern for the monastic state in the West. He says, their habit was mean, merely serving to cover their nakedness; having short sleeves which reached no farther than their elbows; they wore a girdle and a cowl upon their heads, but used no shoes, only a kind of sandals which they put off when they approached the altar; and they all used a walking-staff, as an emblem that they were pilgrims on earth. He observes that the monks forsook all things, laboured with their hands, and lived in obedience; he describes the canonical hours of the divine office consisting of psalms and lessons. He mentions that whoever desires to be admitted into a monastery, must give proofs of his patience, humility, and contempt of the world, and be tried with denials and affronts: that no postulant was allowed to give his estate to the monastery in which he settled: that the first lesson which is taught a monk is, to subdue his passions, to deny his own will, and to practise blind obedience to his superior. Thus he is to empty himself of all prevalence in his own abilities, learning, or whatever can feed any secret pride or presumption. Cassian observes, that young monks were allowed no other food than boiled herbs, with a little salt; but that the extraordinary austerities of the Oriental monks in eating are not practicable in the west. In the eight last books of this work he treats of eight capital vices, prescribing the remedies and motives against them, and explaining the contrary virtues. He shows (l. 6, Inst. c. 5, 6,) that chastity is a virtue which is not to be obtained but by a special grace of God; which must be implored by earnest prayer, seconded by watchfulness and fasting. He everywhere advises moderate fasts, but continual. (l. 5, p. 107, &c.) He observes (l. 11, c. 4,) that vain-glory is the last vice that is subdued, and that it takes occasion even from the victory itself to renew its assaults. This seems the best and most useful of Cassian’s writings, though the reading of his Conferences has been strongly recommended to monks by St. Bennet, St. John Climacus, St. Gregory, St. Dominic, St. Thomas, and others.
  In the book of his Conferences he has collected the spiritual maxims of the wisest and most experienced monks with whom he had conversed in Egypt. This work consists of three parts; the first contains ten Conferences, and was written in 423; the second comprises seven Conferences, and was compiled two years later: the third was finished in 428, and contains seven other Conferences. Cassian, in this work, teaches that the end to which a monk consecrates all his labours and for which he has renounced the world, is, the more easily to attain the most perfect purity or singleness of heart, without which no one can see God in his glory, or enjoy his presence by his special grace in this life. For this he must forsake the world, or its goods and riches; he must renounce or die to himself, divesting himself of all vices and irregular inclinations; and thirdly, he must withdraw his heart from earthly or visible things to apply it to those that are spiritual and divine. (Collat. 1 and 3.) He says, that the veil of the passions being once removed, the eyes of the mind will begin, as it were naturally to contemplate the mysteries of God, which remain always unintelligible and obscure to those who have only eyes of flesh, or whose hearts are unclean, and their eyes overclouded with sin and the world. (Coll. 5.) This purgation of the heart is made by the exercises of compunction, mortification, and self-denial; and the unshaken foundation of the most profound humility must be laid, which may bear a tower reaching to the heavens; for upon it is to be raised the superstructure of all spiritual virtues. (Coll. 9.)
  To gain a victory over vices he strenuously inculcates the advantages of discovering all temptations to our superior, for when detected, they lose their force; the filthy serpent being by confession drawn out of his dark hole into the light and in a manner exposed, withdraws himself. His suggestions prevail so long as they are concealed in the heart. (Coll. 2, c. 10, 11, and Instit. 1. 9, c. 39.) This he confirms by the example of Serapion, cured of an inveterate habit of stealing bread above his allowance in the community, by confessing the fault. (Coll. 2, c. 11.) But he teaches that these exercises are but preparations; for the end and perfection of the monastic state consist in continual and uninterrupted perseverance in prayer, as far as human frailty will permit. This is the conjunction of the heart with God. But this spirit of prayer cannot be obtained without mighty contrition, the purgation of the heart from all earthly corruption and the dregs of passions, and the illumination of the Holy Ghost, whose purest rays cannot enter an unclean heart. He compares the soul to a light feather which by its own levity is raised on high by the help of a gentle breath; but if wet by the accession of moisture, is depressed down to the very earth. The mind can only ascend to God when it is disburdened of the weight of earthly solicitude and corruption. (Coll. 9.)
  He inculcates the use of frequent aspirations, recommending that of the church, “Deus, in adjutorium meum intende,” &c.; and says, the end of the perfection of the monastic state is, that the mind be refined from all carnal dust, and elevated to spiritual things, till by daily progress in this habit all its conversation may be virtually one continual prayer, and all the soul’s love, desire, and study, may be terminated in God. In this her union with him by perpetual and inseparable charity, she possesses an image of future bliss, and a foretaste or earnest of the conversation of the blessed. Inveighing against lukewarmness in devotion he makes this remark. (Coll. 4, c. 19.) “We have often seen souls converted to perfection from a state of coldness, that is, from among worldlings and heathens; but have never seen any from among tepid Christians. These are, moreover, so hateful to God, that by the prophet he bids his teachers not to direct any exhortations to them, but to abandon them as a fruitless barren land, and to sow the divine word on new hearts, among sinners and heathens: ‘Break up the new or fallow ground, and sow not upon land that is overrun with thorns.’” (Jer. iv. 3.) He exceedingly extols the unspeakable peace and happiness which souls enjoy in seeking only God, and the great and wonderful works which he performs in the hearts of his saints, which cannot be truly known to any man except to those who have experience of them. (Coll. 12, c. 12, and Coll. 14, c. 14.) Cassian in the thirteenth Conference, under the name of the Abbot Cheremon, favours the principles of the Semipelagians, though that error was not then condemned, it being first proscribed in the second council of Orange in 529. Whence St. Prosper himself, in his book against this discourse, never names him, but styles him a Catholic doctor. (l. contra Collatorem, p. 828.) Cassian’s style, though neither pure nor elegant, is plain, affecting, and persuasive. His works were published with comments by Alard Gazæus or Gazet, a Benedictin monk of St. Vaast’s at Arras, first at Douay in 1616; and afterwards with more ample notes at Arras in 1618. They have been since reprinted at Lyons, Paris, and Francfort. See Dom Rivet, Hist. Lit. t. 2, p. 215, and Cuper the Bollandist, ad 23 Julij, t. 5, p. 458, ad 482. [back]
Note 2. See the most edifying history of the eminent and holy men of this monastery of St. Victor’s at Paris, compiled by F. Simon Gourdan, in seven volumes, folio, kept in MSS. in the curious public library of that house, t. 1, p. 128, &c. [back]
Note 3. Among the great men which this abbey produced in its infancy, the most famous are Hugh and Richard of St. Victor. Hugh, a native of the territory of Ypres in Flanders, became a canon regular in this monastery in 1115, was made prior, and taught divinity there from the year 1130 to his death in 1142. His works are printed in three vols. folio. In the first we have his literal and historical notes on the scripture; also mystical and allegorical notes on the same by some later author of this house. In the second tome are contained his spiritual works; the soliloquy of the soul, the praise of charity, a discourse on the method of praying, a discourse on love between the Beloved and the Spouse, four books on the vanity of the world, one hundred sermons, &c. The third tome presents us his theological treatises, of which the principal are his two books on the sacraments. He was called a second Augustin, or the tongue of that great doctor, whose spirit, sentiments, and style he closely follows. His notes on the rule of St. Austin, in the second tome, are excellent: also those on the Decalogue. The book De claustro animæ is very useful for religious persons, and shows the austere abstinence and discipline then observed in monasteries; but is the work of Hugh Foliet, a most pious and learned canon of this order, who was chosen abbot of St. Dionysius’s at Rheims, though he earnestly declined that dignity, in 1149. See Mabillon, Analecta, t. 1, p. 133; and Annal. l. 77, p. 141. Ceillier, t. 22, pp. 200, 224. Martenne, t. 5, Anecdot. p. 887.
  Richard of St. Victor, a Scotchman, regular canon of St. Victor’s at Paris, scholar of Hugh, chosen prior of that abbey in 1164, died in 1173. His works have been often reprinted in two vols. folio; the best edition is that given at Rouen in 1650. His comments on the scripture are too diffusive: his theological tracts are accurate, his writings on contemplation and Christian virtues, though the style is plain, are full of the most sublime rules of an interior life. The collection of spiritual maxims of these holy men which F. Gourdan has compiled from their writings and sayings, demonstrates their heavenly wisdom, lights, and experience in spiritual things, and in the perfect spirit of all virtues, to which they attained by an admirable purity of heart, and spirit of penance, prayer, and divine love. [back]