Home  »  Volume VIII: August  »  St. Walthen, or Waltheof, Abbot of Melross, Confessor

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

August 3

St. Walthen, or Waltheof, Abbot of Melross, Confessor

HE was second son of Simon, Earl of Huntingdon, and Maud, daughter to Judith the niece of William the Conqueror, who was married to Waltheof, the powerful Earl of Northumberland, grandson to the warlike Earl Siward, in his time the bulwark of his country. Walthen, the son of Siward, was the valiant count and governor of Northumberland, and part of Yorkshire, when the Norman conquered England, eminent for his martial exploits and much more for his devotion, immense charities, and all heroic Christian virtues. The Conqueror suspecting him to favour the exiled Saxon family which had taken sanctuary in Scotland, treacherously invited him to court as if it had been to honour him; then cast him into prison, and caused him to be beheaded at Winchester. The constancy, piety, and resignation with which he received his death, procured him the title of martyr among the people. His body was buried in St. Guthlake’s church at Croyland, and afterwards, upon the evidence of miracles wrought at his tomb, of which a history was compiled and kept in that abbey, was taken up and deposited behind an altar in that church, as Fordun relates. He left only one child, the Countess Maud, who was married to Simon, Earl of Huntingdon, by whom she had two sons, Simon and Walthen. In their infancy it was the pastime of Simon to build towers and castles, but Walthen’s to build churches and monasteries of paper and wood. When grown up the elder brother Simon inherited his father’s martial disposition together with his titles; but Walthen, from his cradle, discovered the strongest inclinations to piety, and was humble, modest, mild, obedient, beneficent, prudent, and devout much beyond his years. The first impressions of these virtues, together with a great esteem of angelical purity, he received from his pious mother Maud, who, after the death of her first husband, was given in marriage by king Henry I. to David, the most religious king of Scotland, and the worthy son of St. Margaret. Walthen followed his mother to that court, where he contracted an intimate friendship with St. Aëlred, in whose heart our saint sowed the first seeds of his perfect conversion from the world. The good king was charmed with the virtues of his son-in-law, gave him on all occasions marks of his particular affection, and took great delight in his company.  1
  The young nobleman was too steadfastly grounded in the maxims of humility and mortification to be seduced by the flatteries of the world; and the smiles of fortune served only to make him the more apprehensive of its dangers. To fence his heart against these illusions, and the contagion of the air which he breathed in the world, he was solicitous to put on the armour of God, that he might be able to resist all assaults, watch against the secret insinuations of a worldly spirit, and stand in all things perfect. Loving and valuing only heavenly things, and being always fervent in the exercise of good works, he seemed to be carried with wings in the path of every virtue. Whatever he did he used to say to himself: “What will this avail me to eternal life?” Such was his ardour for prayer, that he found opportunities to practise it in those very circumstances which often make others forget it. When he went out hunting with the king, his majesty would himself present him with a bow and quiver; but Walthen, giving them to some servant or other person, and withdrawing from the company into the wood, used to hide himself in some secret place amidst the thickets, and there employ the day in prayer, holy meditation, or reading some pious book which he carried in his pocket. The king having one day surprised him in this employment, told the queen at his return that her son was not a man of this world; for he could find no amusement or satisfaction in any of its diversions. By the strictest temperance, the assiduous mortification of his will and senses, and a constant watchfulness over his heart, supported by a life of prayer, he kept his passions in due subjection, and enjoyed a happy tranquillity within himself, in the constant and uniform pursuit of virtue.  2
  His purity he carried unsullied by the least stain from his birth into the heavenly paradise. A subtle assault which was made upon him against his virtue, contributed to disgust him entirely with the world. A certain lady of the first rank at court was fallen in love with him, and not daring to discover her passion, she sought to gain his heart insensibly. With this view she sent him one day a present of a rich gold ring in which the stone was a diamond of extraordinary value. Walthen received it as a civility without any further meaning, and innocently put the ring on his finger. Hereupon one of the courtiers said: “Walthen begins to have some regard for the ladies.” This reflection made the saint sensible of the snare, and of the tendency of such presents. He therefore immediately went out of the room, and to prevent the danger of any temptation ensuing, pulled off the ring, and threw it into a great fire, thus gaining a double victory over impurity, and a vain affection of worldly toys. This accident made him stand more upon his guard against the very shadow of dangers; and the consideration of the snares of the world, and of the unprofitableness of many of his moments in it, led him to a resolution of taking shelter in a monastery.  3
  To be removed from the distracting visits of friends, and from the neighbourhood of the court, he left Scotland, and made his religious profession among the regular canons of St. Austin, in St. Oswald’s monastery at Nostel, near Pontefract in Yorkshire. Here he lived concealed from the world, in the company of his crucified Jesus, humbling himself so much the lower in proportion as he had been exalted above others in the world. Kings and the great ones of the world were astonished at his humility; but his colleagues in a religious state were more surprised to see one come out of a court already perfect in the maxims of the cross. He was after some time promoted to the holy order of priesthood; and, agreeably to his inclinations, always to attend the altar, was appointed sacristan. He was soon after, against his will, chosen prior of Kirkham, a numerous house of that Order in the same county. Considering the obligations he then lay under for the sanctification of others as well as for his own, in this dignity he redoubled his fervour in the practice of austerity, regularity, and every virtue. Nothing appeared in him more remarkable than his devotion, and the abundance of tears with which his prayers were usually accompanied, especially when he was celebrating the divine mysteries. In saying mass one Christmas-day, after the consecration of the bread, he was ravished in the contemplation of that divine mystery of God made man, and melting into tears of love and tender devotion, was favoured with a wonderful vision. The Divine Word, who on that day had made himself visible to mankind by his nativity, was pleased to manifest himself not only to the eyes of faith, but also to the corporal eyes of his servant. The holy man saw in his hands, not the form of bread, but a most amiable infant of ravishing beauty, stretching out its hands as if it had been to embrace him, and looking upon him with a most gracious countenance: in which vision the saint finding himself penetrated with unspeakable sweetness and heavenly delights, paid a thousand adorations to that divine infant whom he could not sufficiently love. When he had laid down the host on the altar he saw only the sacramental form. He could never after remember this favour without tears of sensible joy, sweetness and love. The saint disclosed this favour only to his confessarius, who after his death told it to several others, and confirmed his testimony that he received the account from the saint himself with an oath. The author says he himself heard it from the mouth of this confessarius, and also from divers Cistercian monks both at Melross and at Holm-Coltrum. 1 Whilst a canon of Kirkham was saying mass, a spider fell into the chalice. The prior being called made the sign of the cross over the chalice, then bid the priest drink it; which he did without receiving any harm, or feeling any repugnance. 2  4
  Walthen, moved by the great reputation of the Cistercian Order, was very desirous to embrace it: in which resolution he was encouraged by the advice of his friend St. Aëlred, then abbot of Rievalle. Accordingly our saint took the habit of that Order at Wardon, a Cistercian convent in Bedfordshire. The regular canons, who both loved and honoured him, used all endeavours to retain him among them. Earl Simon, the saint’s brother, alleging that the austerities of this latter Order were too severe for his tender constitution, employed both the secular and ecclesiastical power to oblige him to quit it, and even threatened to destroy the monastery if he remained in it. The monks therefore sent the saint to Rievalle, their mother-house in Yorkshire, that he might be further out of the earl’s reach. During the year of his novitiate St. Walthen suffered much more from a most grievous interior trial than he had done from the persecutions of his kindred, or of the canons of Kirkham; but from these afflictions, his pure soul reaped infinite spiritual advantages; for St. John Climacus observes, 3 that God prepares souls for his choicest graces by interior crosses, by which all earthly dross in their affections is most perfectly purged, their constancy is put to the test, and occasions are afforded them for the exercises of the most difficult and heroic virtues. It was thus by an effect of the divine mercy, that the saint fell into a state of spiritual dryness, and interior desolation and darkness of soul.  5
  Though the canons allow a religious man to pass from one order to another that is more perfect and austere, he began, nevertheless, to be perplexed with scruples and anxious fears whether he ought not rather to have remained in his first vocation, and whether the extraordinary austerities of this new order were not above his strength. His body seemed to sink under the weight of his watchings, fasts, and labour, every exercise seemed heavy and grievous, his soul was drowned in bitterness, and he seemed in vain to seek comfort and strength by prayer. Had the enemy prevailed over him by this means to become more remiss in that holy exercise, the saint would have sunk under the trial; but notwithstanding the bitterness and heaviness with which he was overwhelmed so as to seem to himself almost incapable of prayer, the divine grace supported and directed him still to persevere, and even to redouble his fervour in continually laying before the eyes of his heavenly Father, the God of all Consolation, the anguish of his heart, and his earnest desires to raise up his soul to praise and love him, with his faithful servants, and to implore his mercy, though of all creatures the most unworthy. Nevertheless, his fears and inward darkness and agonies continued still to increase; but after a long conflict with this painful enemy, in great anguish of soul, he one day cast himself on the ground, as he had often done, to pray with the utmost earnestness, and in that posture poured forth a flood of tears, begging of God that he would vouchsafe to direct him that he might follow his holy will, to which he had always desired to consecrate himself without reserve. He no sooner rose from his prayer but he found the thick mists of darkness which had overwhelmed his mind scattered, and his soul suddenly filled with light, fervour, and an inexpressible holy joy, in which he sung the praises of the divine mercy with an interior jubilation which seemed to give him, in some degree, a foretaste of the joys of the blessed. From that moment he found the yoke of the Lord sweet and easy, and used to repeat that saying of St. Bernard, that worldlings who thought the austerities of devout persons hard, saw their crosses, but saw not the interior unction of the Holy Ghost by which they are made light. 4 Neither do they know the strength or wings which the fervour of divine love gives to the soul, nor the vigour and comfort with which the view and hope of an immortal crown inspires her.  6
  Walthen, four years after his profession, was chosen abbot of Melross, a great monastery in the marches of Scotland, on the river Tweed, for some time the burying place of the noble family of Douglas. The saint took upon him this charge with great reluctance, and only because he was compelled by obedience. In correcting others he tempered severity with sweetness, so as to make them love the correction itself, and to gain their heart to their duty. After the person had done penance for a fault, he would never suffer it to be any more mentioned, saying this was to act a worse part than that of the devils, who forget our sins when they have been wiped away by sincere repentance. In hearing confessions he often, out of tender compassion, wept abundantly over the penitent, and by moving words softened the hearts of the most hardened sinners to compunction and tears. If he perceived that he was fallen into the smallest failing of inadvertence he had recourse immediately to the remedy of confession, accused himself of it with many tears, and caused another severely to discipline his bare shoulders, often to blood. By the continual exercises of penance, and deep compunction, he endeavoured always to obtain the grace by which his soul might be cleansed more and more perfectly, that he might at prayer present himself without spot before God, who is infinite purity and infinite sanctity, and whose eyes cannot bear the least iniquity or uncleanness. Yet a certain cheerfulness and spiritual joy always shone on his pale countenance. His words were animated with a divine fire, and sweet unction, by which they penetrated the hearts of those who heard him; his voice was sweet and soft, but weak and low, which was owing to the feebleness of his body, and to his assiduous singing of psalms, which was usually accompanied with many tears. He founded the monastery of Kylos in Scotland, and that of Holm-Coltrum in Cumberland. By his great alms he supported the poor of the whole country round his abbey to a considerable distance. In a famine which happened in 1154, about four thousand poor strangers came and settled in huts near Melross, for whom he provided necessary sustenance for several months. He sometimes induced his monks to content themselves with half their pittances of bread, in order to supply the poor. He twice multiplied bread miraculously, and sometimes gave away at once all the cattle and sheep that belonged to his monastery.  7
  His humility and love of holy poverty appeared in all his actions. In travelling he would carry the baggage of his companions, and sometimes that of servants. He went once to wait on King Stephen in England, about certain affairs of his community, carrying a bundle on his back. His brother Simon, who was with the king, was moved with indignation at the sight, and said to his majesty: “See how this brother of mine, and cousin to your majesty, disgraces his family.” “Not so,” said the king; “but if we understand what the grace of God is, he does us and all his kindred a very great honour.” He readily granted all the saint desired, begged his blessing, and after his departure expressed how much he was moved by his example to a contempt of the world for the love of God. In 1154 Walthen was chosen archbishop of St. Andrew’s; but by his tears and repeated assurances that the weight of such a burden would in a short time put an end to his life, he prevailed with his superior St. Aëlred, not to oblige him by his command to accept that dignity. Our saint cured many sick by his prayers, but studied always to disguise whatever appeared miraculous. He was favoured with frequent visions and ecstacies. In one of these, whilst he was praying with ardent sighs that he might be so happy speedily to behold the King of kings manifested in his beauty and glory, and admitted to praise him, with his whole heart, in the company of all the saints, he saw the heavens opened, and God discovered to him the bright thrones in which his saints are seated in that kingdom which he had prepared for them from the beginning. The saint, who never ceased to excite in his monks the desire and expectation of eternal life, in order to encourage them in their penitential courses, in one of those exhortations mentioned this vision in the third person as of another; but at last by surprise spoke in the first person, which he no sooner perceived, but, cutting his discourse short, he withdrew with many tears, much afflicted for the word which had escaped him. The possession of God was the object of his longing and earnest desires night and day; and these were more vehement in the time of consolations than amidst crosses and in adversity. The contemplation of that day which would drown him in the boundless ocean of eternal joy, was the comfort and support of his soul during his last tedious and lingering illness, in which he bore great pains with the most edifying silence and patience. Having exhorted his brethren to charity and regular discipline, and received the last sacraments, lying on sackcloth and ashes, he calmly gave up his soul to God on the 3d of August, 1160. His body was found incorrupt thirteen, and again forty-eight years after his death. Several miracles wrought by his relics and intercession are recorded by the authors of his life. His name occurs in the English Calendars, and in those of his order. See his authentic life written by a disciple, extant in the Bollandists. See also Manriquez in the annals of his order, and Le Nain, t. 2, John de Fordun, Scoti-chronicon, l. 6, c. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, &c., t. 3.  8
Note 1. See his authentic life; also John de Fordun, Scotichronicon, l. 6, c. 8, t. 3, p. 518, ed Hearne. [back]
Note 2. Though some spiders are venomous, modern philosophers assure us that the domestic kinds which weave webs are harmless. See Philos. Transact. [back]
Note 3. Gr. 1. n. 23. [back]
Note 4. Cruces vident, unctiones non vident. S. Bero. Serm. in Cant. [back]