Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

St. Gilbert of Sempringham, Founder (RM)

Thanks to St. Patrick’s in Washington, DC and For All the Saint:

Born at Sempringham, Lincolnshire, England, c. 1083-85; died there, February 4, 1189; canonized 1202 by Pope Innocent III at Anagni; feast day formerly on February 4.

Saint Gilbert, son of Jocelin, a wealthy Norman knight, and his Anglo-Saxon wife, was regarded as unfit for ordinary feudal life because of some kind of physical deformity. For this reason, he was sent to France to study and took a master’s degree.

Upon his return to England, Gilbert started a school for both boys and girls. From his father, he received the hereditary benefices of Sempringham and Torrington in Lincolnshire, but he gave all the revenues from them to the poor, except a small sum for bare necessities. As he was not yet ordained, he appointed a vicar for the liturgies and lived in poverty in the vicarage.

In 1122, Gilbert became a clerk in the household of Bishop Robert Bloet of Lincoln and was ordained by Robert’s successor Alexander, and was offered, but refused, a rich archdeaconry. Instead, upon the death of his father in 1131, Gilbert returned to Sempringham as lord of the manor and parson. By his care his parishioners seemed to lead the lives of religious men and, wherever they went, were known to be of his flock by their conversation.

That same year of 1131, he organized a group of seven young women of the parish into a community under the Benedictine rule. They lived in strict enclosure in a house adjoining Sempringham’s parish church of Saint Andrew. As the foundation grew, Gilbert added laysisters and, on the advice of the Cistercian Abbot William of Rievaulx, lay brothers to work the land. A second house was soon founded.

In 1148, Gilbert went to the general chapter at Cîteaux to ask the Cistercians to take on the governance of the community. When the Cistercians declined because women were included, Gilbert provided chaplains for his nuns by establishing a body of canons following the Augustinian rule with the approval of Pope Eugene III, who was present at the chapter. Saint Bernard helped Gilbert draw up the Institutes of the Order of Sempringham, of which Eugenius made him the master. Thus, the canons followed the Augustinian Rule and the lay brothers and sisters that of Cîteaux. Women formed the majority of the order; the men both governed them and ministered to their needs, temporal and spiritual. The Gilbertines are the only specifically English order, and except for one foundation in Scotland, never spread beyond its border.

This order grew rapidly to 13 foundations, including men’s and women’s houses side by side and also monasteries solely for canons. They also ran leper hospitals and orphanages. Gilbert imposed a strict rule on his order. An illustration of the enforced simplicity of life was the fact that the choir office was celebrated without fanfare.

As master general of the order, Saint Gilbert set an admirable example of abstemious and devoted living and concern for the poor. Gilbert’s diet consisted primarily of roots and pulse in small amounts. He always set a place at the table for Jesus, in which he put all the best of what was served up, and this was for the poor. He wore a hair-shirt, took his short rest in a sitting position, and spent most of each night in prayer.

And, he was never idle. He travelled frequently from house to house (primarily in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire), forever active in copying manuscripts, making furniture, and building.

The later years of his long life were seriously disturbed. When he was about 80, he was arrested and charged with assisting Saint Thomas á Becket, who had taken refuge abroad from King Henry II after the council at Northampton (1163). (Thomas, dressed as a Sempringham lay brother, was said to have fled north to their houses in the Lincolnshire Fens before doubling back on his tracks south to Kent.) Though he was not guilty of this kindness, the saint chose to suffer rather than seem to condemn that which would have been good and just. Eventually the charge was dropped, although Gilbert still refused to deny it on oath.

Later still there was a revolt among his laybrothers, who grievously slandered the 90-year-old man, saying that there was too much work and not enough food. The rebellion was led by two skilled craftsmen who slandered Gilbert, obtained funds and support from magnates in the church and state, and took the case to Rome. There Pope Alexander III decided in Gilbert’s favor, but the living conditions were improved.

Saint Gilbert lived to be 106 and passed his last years nearly blind, as a simple member of the order he had founded and governed. He had built 13 monasteries (of which nine were double) and four dedicated solely to canons encompassing about 1,500 religious. Contemporary chroniclers highly praised both Gilbert and his nuns. His cultus was spontaneous and immediate. Miracles wrought at his tomb were examined and approved by Archbishop Hubert Walter of Canterbury (who ordered the English bishops to celebrate Gilbert’s feast) and the commissioners of Pope Innocent III in 1201, leading to his canonization the following year. His name was added to the calendar on the wall of the Roman church of the Four Crowned Martyrs soon after his canonization. His relics are said to have been taken by King Louis VIII to Toulouse, France, where they are kept in the Church of Saint Sernin.

Because the Gilbertine Order was contained within the borders of England, it came to an end when its 26 houses were suppressed by King Henry VIII (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Graham, Husenbeth, Walsh, White).

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