10 August 2009

'Rising to the Highest Summit of Religion'—St Samson of Dol

Besides St Paul of Xeropotamou, 28 July is also the feastday of St Samson of Dol (6th century), born in Wales but the ‘most venerated of the seven founding bishops’ of Brittany (Mother Nectaria [McLees] ‘Tro Breizh: A Pilgrimage to the Seven Saints of Brittany’, Road to Emmaus: A Journal of Orthodox Faith and Culture, Vol. IV, No. 4—Fall 2003 (#15), p. 22—see the pdf here), which bishops I’ve also mentioned here. According to Fr Maxime Le Dirisain, in this article:

We know quite a lot about him actually. St Samson lived in the 6th century, and probably reposed around 565. His father was Amon of Dyfed and his mother was Anna. He was born to her very late, in answer to prayer, and, according to some sources, as an infant he was dedicated to God and entrusted to the care of St Illtyd. St Gildas, writing in the Exidio Brittanae, says that Illtyd’s spiritual father had been a soldier of King Arthur. Illtyd was from an extremely ascetic island monastery and Gildas reports that he had earlier traveled to the East to learn from the desert fathers. When his abbot died, twenty year-old Samson was elected in his place an lived for some time with Irish ascetics. He moved to Brittany near the Severn river, and after many years of strict monasticism had a vision of the Apostles Andrew, James and John, telling him that he was not to be a hermit but was to serve others. A fortnight later he was made bishop of Dol, and as bishop brought peace to the fighting chieftans, consolidating the region into what today is Brittany.

One of my own favourite stories is that when he first arrived in mainland France, a man came [to] him and begged him to heal his sick family, ‘Holy man, heal them!’ St Samson replied, ‘I did not come to pretend to work miracles, I came to preach the true God in Three Persons.’ It looked as if it was only theology that St Samson was giving the poor man, but, when he returned home, he found his wife and children cured. I like this because it means that St Samson believed that true health is true faith, and this will heal everything. Look first for the kingdom of God and all else will be added.

In thanksgiving the man gave St Samson a parcel of land on which he built cells and a church. Within a few years fifty monks had gathered around him. Until the end of his very long life he ploughed the fields and helped gather crops. The monastery grew into the village of Dol . . . . Unfortunately, none of his original buildings are left and the present church is from the 13th century. St Samson gathered hundreds of monks in his lifetime and is considered the father of Brittany. More than anyone else, his sanctity and influence helped to created the nation. (p. 22)

Sadly, Fr Le Dirisain says that St Samson’s relics—which, unlike many of France’s relics, survived the Viking invasions as well as the French Revolution—were recently stolen, except for a ‘small portion’ which is kept at a Catholic convent at Boquan (p. 24).

Although I don’t have time to give but one excerpt from it today, T. Taylor’s recently emended (on the basis of Pierre Flobert’s 1997 edition) 1925 translation of the Vita S. Samsonis—which ‘claims to be compiled from information derived from Samson's contemporaries, which would refer it to about 600’ (Catholic Encyclopedia)—is available here, at the ‘Celtic Christianity e-Library’. The title of this post is from Vita S. Samsonis I.13, where the author writes, ‘In truth St Samson had grown so wonderful and, if I may so speak, so ineffable in the work of God, that from day to day, naturally rising as by a spiritual ladder higher and higher to the highest summit of religion, he was seen to emerge, by daily use, renewed and bettered.’ But here is a passage from VS II.11 that well summarises the author’s reverence for his subject:

But let us bethink ourselves of this saint, while we seek to call to mind everything which good report has spread concerning him. As we write, however, our consciences torment us, forasmuch as we well know we are sufficiently unworthy and unequal to this so wonderful and difficult a task. Yet the mercy of Almighty God, which is never lacking to those who trust in Him, has in this respect encouraged us to weave anew this work, to be of use for the benefit of others, yea, to the end of time, through us who are ignorant, without eloquence and clearly unworthy. And how far others may publish it, both as an example of a good work, by reading it aloud, and as a proof of the merits of His apostles and of all other saints, by following their examples, may be discovered in the mercy of God not to shed forth less of His grace upon us; inasmuch as to him, the illustrious saint, of whom we treat (and whose festival to day is happily beginning to shine forth among many Britons and Romans, beyond the sea, and on this side of it, and so to speak in heaven, and in earth upon us who sufficiently look for it), was so perfect and complete in the fulfilment of all works of righteousness that, rivalling the aforementioned apostles and other saints, to no one, in short, or in the very least, is he held to be inferior to them even in the manifestation of signs and wonders. For this reason, up to the present day, all, who through him earnestly seek from the Lord with all the strength of faith the healing of the body, find it. For what else, dearest brothers, do we look to proclaim, by this (festival), but the everlasting felicity of St Samson in the heavens, who, although absent from us in the body, yet from some kind of excellence which he enjoys with God, being of heavenly rank, is without any impediment ever at hand to us, if with honest and clean heart, with untroubled and pure conscience, with regret for mean act and rash alike, we keep the feast day of the same saint and strive, through him, for the help of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I conclude with an English apolytikion of the Saint, followed by a second one in French (found here):

Troparion of St Samson tone 3
Thy resplendent life, O holy Samson,/ enlightened all thy kindred./ They followed thee in the monastic life/ and themselves became shining lights./ When consecrated Hierarch thou didst obey the heavenly vision/and build monasteries to God's glory in
Brittany./ Pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

Athlète de la grâce et maître de tempérance, tu as illuminé les îles par tavertu, tel un phare spirituel. Imitateur des apôtres, tu as répandu lasemence de la connaissance du Dieu trine. Saint pontife Samson, prie le pourqu'Il accorde à nos âmes le salut.

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