“The Church in The British Isles will only begin to grow when she begins to venerate her own Saints” (Saint Arsenios of Paros †1877)
Saint Fursa (Fursey), a saint famous not only for his missionary labours in England and France but also for his visions of the afterlife. His Feast Day is Jan 16.
Saint Fursey – (+650), of Peronne in France, was an Irishman of noble birth. His father was Fintan, son of Finlogh, a chieftain of South Munster; his mother, Gelges, was daughter of Aedh Finn of the Hui Briuin of Connaught. Saint Fursey was born somewhere among the Hui Briuin, and baptised by St. Brendan the Traveller. His parents having returned to Munster, the child was brought up there, and from his boyhood he gave his attention to the reading of the Holy Scriptures and monastic discipline. He studied on the island of Inisquin in Lough Corrib, under abbot Saint Meldanr called his ‘ soul-friend. He later built a monastery for himself at a place called Rathmat, which appears to be Killursa (Fursey’s Church), in the north-west of the county of Clare.
One day Saint Fursey traveled to Munster to visit his relatives. After he arrived he had the first of several remarkable cataleptic seizures, during which he had visions of bright angels, who raised him on their wings, and soothed him by hymns. In one vision famine and plagues were foretold. This evidently refers to the second visitation of the plague known as the Buidhe Connaill, ‘the yellow or straw coloured plague,’ which visited Ireland about fourteen years after Saint Fursey’s death. Deeply impressed by them, Saint Fursey travelled through Ireland, proclaiming what he had heard. At Cork he had a vision of a golden ladder set up at the tomb of St. Finn Barr and reaching to heaven, by which souls were ascending.
For ten years, in accordance with angelic directions, Saint Fursey continued ‘to preach the word of God without respect of persons, for 10 years. In the notes on the ‘Calendar of Oengus’ a strange story is told of his exchanging diseases with St. Maignen of Kilmainham. To avoid admiring crowds and jealousy, Saint Fursey went away with a few brethren to a small island in the sea, and shortly after, with his brothers Foillan and Ultan, he passed through Britain (Wales), and arrived at East Anglia, where he was hospitably received by King Sigebert.
The Venerable Bede records the Saint’s arrival, in his works:
Whilst Sigbert still governed the kingdom, there came out of Ireland a holy man called Fursey. renowned both for his words and actions, and remarkable for singular virtues, being desirous to live as a stranger and pilgrim for the Lord’s sake, wherever an opportunity should otter. On coming into the province of the East Angles, he was honorably received by the aforesaid king, and performing his wonted task of preaching the Gospel, by the example of his virtue and the influence of his words, converted many unbelievers to Christ, and confirmed in the faith and love of Christ those that already believed. Here he fell into some infirmity of body, and was thought worthy to see a vision of angels; in which he was admonished diligently to persevere in the ministry of the Word which he had undertaken, and indefatigably to apply himself to his usual watching and prayers; inasmuch as his end was certain, but the hour thereof uncertain, according to the saying of our Lord, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour. ” Being confirmed by this vision, he set himself with all speed to build a monastery on the ground which had been given him by King Sigbert, and to establish a rule of life therein. This monastery was pleasantly situated in the woods, near the sea; it was built within the area of a fort, which in the English language is called Cnobheresburg, that is, Cnobhere’s Town. Anna, king of that province, and certain of the nobles, embellished it with more stately buildings and with gifts. This man was of noble Scottish blood, but much more noble in mind than in birth. From his boyish years, he had earnestly applied himself to reading sacred books and observing monastic discipline, and, as is most fitting for holy men, he carefully practiced all that he learned to be right. Now, in course of time he himself built a monastery, wherein he might with more freedom devote himself to his heavenly studies.
After another vision – twelve years since his last one – he hastened to build the monastery Cnoberesburg or Burghcastle, in Suffolk, on land granted by the king. Then, committing it to the charge of Goban and Dichull, he went away to his brother Ultan, with whom he lived as a hermit for a year.
Because of the disturbed state of the country he had to go to France and take refuge with Clovis, king of Neustria. The king being a child, the government was in the hands of Erchinoald, mayor of the palace, who gave him land at Latiniacum, now Lagny, on the Marne, six leagues from Paris. Here he erected a monastery in 644. According to the account in the ‘ Codex Salmanticensis,’ it was when travelling- with Clovis and Erchinoald that his last illness came on. He died on 16 Jan. in 650, at Macerias, now Mazeroeles. He was buried at Peronne, in the church built by Erchinoald, and with this place his name has since been associated. He was reputed to have performed miracles in his life-time, and even his pastoral staff, if sent to a sick person, was supposed to have a healing power. The brethren whom he took with him formed the nucleus of an Irish monastery, and the succession appears to have been kept up by emissaries from Ireland, as we read in the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ at 774, that ‘Moenan, son of Cormac, abbot of Cathair Fursa (the city of Fursa, i.e. Peronne) in France, died.’
Saint Fursey’s visions were placed on record soon after his death in ‘the little book’ to which Baeda refers, and which Mabillon considers to be the life published by Surius at 16 Jan. Baeda describes the agitation of a monk who, when describing what he heard from Fursey’s lips, though it was the severest season of the year, and he was thinly clad, broke out into a profuse perspiration from mere terror.
[Codex Salmanticensis, p. 77 (London, 1883); Bedae Eccl. Hist. lib. iii. cap. 19; Lanigan's Eccl. Hist. ii. 448-64; Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 774 ; Calendar of Oengus, p. xxxv; Dr. Todd's St. Patrick, p. 406.] T. 0.
L. Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XX (1889), 333-334
THE VISION OF SAINT FURSEY
Saint Fursey of Ireland was given the following experience by God about the events of the particular judgment; St. Fursey died on a journey and was brought back to life. The following is taken fromBarneval’s translation:
He was sick; his strength was exhausted; his life was despaired of. Leaning painfully on another’s arm, he went out, took a few steps outside of the house and began the evening office. All absorbed in prayer, he was murmuring psalmody, when he felt himself enveloped in darkness; his feet refused to proceed; he was brought back for dead.
After he felt himself enveloped in darkness, he beheld four hands stretched towards him from above, and take him by the arm; and hovering above four wings white as snow. He desired perfectly the hands and the wings; the rest of the bodies of the angels he could see but dimly. When they reached a certain height, he distinguished their heavenly countenances, shining with wonderful radiance; but in this splendor he perceived no corporeal form. Before him, too, he perceived a third angel, all glittering, armed with a white buckler, and a sword like a flash of lightning. The splendor which they diffused, the harmonious beatings of their wings, the melody of their chant, the divine beauty of their look, filled his soul with indescribable sweetness; for they chanted, the first intoning, the others taking it up: “The saints shall go from virtue to virtue; the God of gods shall be seen in Sion.” And the chant rose, then descended to the end. He heard also an unknown hymn chanted by thousands of angelic voices, but he could distinguish only one verse: “They shall go forth to meet Christ.” All these celestial countenances seemed to him alike; but the light was so brilliant that the corporeal form was hidden from his eyes.
Fain would he have remained in the world whose splendor and harmony he enjoyed; but he was to accomplish his human trial, and the angels brought him back; and his soul, ravished by their chants, knew not how it had returned to its prison.
Meanwhile the night had passed, and the cock was crowing. He heard no more the voices of heaven; he heard human voices groaning and lamenting. At that moment those who surrounded his body uncovered his face; a slight flush tinged his pallid cheeks and the man of God, addressing them, said, “Why do you cry and make this noise?” Then they told him all that had happened, how he had died the evening before, and how they had remained all night long watching beside his lifeless corpse. He arose; the sweetness and splendor of the angels returned to his mind, and remembering their promise to return, he regretted that no wise man was night to whom he could confide what he had seen. In order that the angels, on their return, might not find him unprepared, he asked and received the Body and Blood of the Spotless Lamb. Thus he remained that day and the next in great debility; but in the middle of the night, about the hour of Terce, as his relatives, his friends, and many of the neighbors were there to see him, the shades came upon him; his feet grew cold and stiff; he stretched out his hands in the attitude of prayer, feeling with joy the approach of death; for he remembered the delightful vision which had already been once announced to him by similar signs. He fell back on his bed, overcome by sleep, and he heard the frightful clamors, as it were a great multitude calling upon him to come forth. But opening his eyes his saw only the three angels standing beside him; the noise and the sight of men vanished; he already enjoyed the concerts and beauty of the angels. The one on his right hand said, “Fear not; thou shalt find a defense.”
They bore him off; the roof of his dwelling disappeared beneath his eyes. He passed through the howls and yells of the demons, and he heard one of them say, “Let us go and join battle before his eyes.” On his left he saw a dark whirlwind, where horrible countenance writhed, and ranged themselves in battle before him; for as far as he could see, the bodies of the demons were black and frightful, inspiring horror with their long, disproportioned necks, their wretched emaciation, their large, round, deformed heads. When they flew or fought, he saw only an undefined, sinister shadow. Who but knows the frightful forms that the unclean spirits can assume to terrify a soul? Moreover, their features were hidden from him by the dense darkness, as those of the angels by the intense light.
The demons fought, darting fiery arrows; but these were extinguished against the heavenly buckler, and the enemies fell before the face of the armed angel. Yet he would reason with them, saying, “Arrest not our steps, for this man has no part in your perdition.” But the adversary protested, and said, blaspheming, that God was unjust in permitting sinners to escape damnation when it is written, “Not only those who do evil, but those who agree with them that do evil, are worthy of death.” And the angel contended, and the holy man thought that the noise of the combat and the clamors of the demons were heard all over the world.
Satan, overcome, like a crushed serpent, lifted up his venomous head and said, “He has often held idle discourse, and he cannot without expiation enjoy bliss.”
The Angel replied, “If thou findest no capital accusations he shall not perish for such slight faults.”
Then the old accuser said, “If you forgive not one another, my heavenly Father will not forgive you.”
The Angel replied, “When has he done vengeance, or whom has he injured?”
The devil said, “It is not written, “If you take vengeance,” but, ‘Unless you forgive from your hearts.’ ”
The Angel replied, “Pardon was in his heart; there he kept it following human custom.”
The demon said, “As he has received the sin from human custom, so shall he receive chastisement from the supernal Judge!”
“Well,” replied the angel, “we will judge him before the Lord.” Thrice overcome, the enemy had not exhausted his viperous venom; he rejoiced: “If God is just, this man shall not enter the kingdom of heaven; for it is written, ‘Unless you become like little children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ This man has not accomplished this word.” “We will judge him before the Lord,” repeated the angel; and he combated, and his adversaries were crushed.
Then the angel who stood at Saint Fursey’s right said to him, “Behold the world.” The man of God looked, and he saw beneath him a darksome valley; and he saw, too, four fires, separated from each other by regular distances. “What are these fires?” asked the angel. As he did not know, the angel said, “These four fires gnaw away the world, although all sins have been effaced in baptism, by confessing Christ, and renouncing Satan, his works and pomps. The first is falsehood; for men fulfill not the promises made in baptism to renounce Satan and all his works. The second is cupidity; for they put the goods of this world before the love of heavenly things. The third is dissension; for they fear not, even without reason, to offend their neighbor’s soul. The fourth is impiety; for they esteem it as nothing to deceive and strip the weak.”
And the fires spread; they formed one conflagration, and it approached. The saint in fear said to the angel, “See! the fire is coming upon me.” The angel replied, “Thou has not kindled it; thous shalt not be consumed in it. Great and terrible as it is, it measures its ardor by each one’s faults; for in it all iniquity shall be consumed; and as the body is consumed by evil desires, so shall the soul be burned by a just expiation.” The saint then beheld the angels advance and divide the fire, which formed two walls, and on each side his two angels protected him.
In the very midst of the flames unclean spirits flew about; they took arms, and a new battle was joined.
One of them said, “The servant that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not, does he not deserve to be beaten?”
“And wherein,” replied the angel, “has this man failed to accomplish the orders of his Lord?”
“He has,” says Satan, “accepted the gifts of the wicked.”
“He has thought, ” observed the angel, “that they had done penance.”
“He should have tried their perseverance in penance,” said the demons, “and then taken their gifts; for presents blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the just.”
The angel replied, “We will judge him before God.”
The great deceiver, seeing himself baffled, burst forth in blasphemies against his Creator. “Till now,” he cried, “we have believed God truthful!”
“Well ?” asked the angel.
“The prophet Isaias,” continued the insolent spirit, “has promised that the fault not purged on earth shall be purged in heaven, when he cried to the Jews, ‘If you will hearken to me, you shall bear the fruits of the earth; but if you will not, and provoke my wrath, you shall be devoured by the sword.’ Now this man has not purged his faults on earth, and receives no punishment here; where then is God’s justice?”
But the indignant angel cried out, “Blaspheme not, for thou knowest nought of God’s secret judgments.”
And Satan said, “What is secret here?”
“As long as penance may be expected,” said the angel, “the Divine Mercy does not forsake the creature.”
“But,” objected Satan, “there is not time here for penance.”
“Perhaps there is,” observed the angel; “thou knowest not the depths of the Divine Mysteries.”
The demon closed, saying, “Let us go; there is no judgment here!”
But another continued: “There is still a narrow door which few pass, and there we can wait. It is written, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ ”
The Angel replied, “This man has done good to his neighbor.”
“It is not enough,” rejoined the enemy, “to do good, unless he loves his neighbor as himself.”
“To do good,” retorted the angel, “is the fruit of charity, and God will render to every man according to his works.”
But the devil persisted: “His charity has not fulfilled the precept; he must be damned!”
Then the accursed troop combated, but the angels triumphed.
Six times vanquished, the devil, according to his wont, burst forth into blasphemies. “If God is not unjust, if falsehood displeases him, and disregard of his word, this man shall not be exempt from torment; for he promised to renounce the world, yet loved the world, contrary to the order of the apostle, who says, ‘Love not the world, nor the things of the world.’ Now, this man was withheld neither by his own promise nor by the injunctions of the apostle.”
To which the holy angel replied, “Not for himself did he love the things of the world, but to distribute them to the needy.”
“No matter how a man loves them,” persisted the frightful spirit, “if he loves them, he violates God’s law and his Christian engagement in baptism.”
The Angels triumphed; their enemies succumbed; but the devil still had recourse to insidious accusations. ” ‘Unless you declare to the perverse their perversity, I will seek in your hands the trace of their blood.’ So it is written. This man has not, as in duty bound, preached penance to sinners.”
“It is written,” replied the angel, “in those times, the wise man shall be silent for these times are bad. When the hearers despise the word, the tongue of the master is tied.”
But the old accuser said, “Yet he should speak till he suffered and died; he can neither consent nor be silent.”
Thus did the demons fiercely dispute and combat, until by God’s judgment the angels gained the victory, and their enemies were overthrown and prostrated.
Then around the saint spread an immense brightness, and the angels and the elect chanted, “Pain and length of time are nought when an eternity of glory is gained.” Saint Fursey was inundated with sweetness and joy, and raising his eyes, he saw great radiant multitudes; their dazzling wings flashed in space. They came to him and surrounded him, and the trouble, the terror inspired by the fires and the demons, were banished afar. To his eyes appeared two venerable men whom he had known in the country of his birth, and he thought that they were dead. Approaching, they told their names–Bevan and Meldan; and they conversed familiarly with him.
At that moment, in heaven’s calm depths opened an ethereal door; two angels entered; around them gushed with new force the Divine Light, and the pure spirits were heard chanting in four choirs, “Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord God of Sabbaoth.” And as his soul was intoxicated with the inexpressible delight, the ravishing canticles of heaven, the angels grouped on his right and his left; and the one on his right asked him whether he knew where these transports of joy took place; and as he knew not the angel told him, “It is in the assembly on high, to which we belong.”
Meanwhile the melody became ever more clear and more penetrating, and Saint Fursey thought that they were chanting for him. He said to the angel, “It is a great joy to hear such concerts.” “It is a joy,” replied the heavenly spirits, “of which we are often deprived for the service of men; and even then the devil undoes our work by corrupting man’s heart. In this kingdom of peace and purity,” he added, ” no judgment is pronounced except on human wickedness.” But Saint Fursey’s soul was absorbed in the joy and delights of heaven.
But lo, from the invisible city came forth, luminous as angels, Meldan and Bevan; and coming to Saint Fursey, they had him return to his mortal life. In silence and with a troubled heart did he receive this order; and as the angels bore him away, the two saints said, “What fearest thou? Thy toil is but a day’s journey. Preach and announce to all that judgment is at hand.” Saint Fursey interrogating them as to the end of the world, they replied that it had not come, although it was not far off; that famine and disease would ravage the human race, and that a sign should be seen in the sun.
Bevan spoke long to the holy man, revealing to him that God’s wrath was suspended over the nations, but that it menaced especially their princes and doctors. In grave words, worthy of the Gospel and Heaven, he gave him wholesome advice and priceless instructions, which Saint Fursey was to transmit to Ireland. “Go, then,” he said at last, “proclaim to her princes that they must leave iniquity, do penance, and work out their salvation. Declare to the princes of the Church that God is jealous when they prefer the world to Him, and that it is serving the world to neglect the care of souls.”
Then the blessed company that attended him departed,and he remained alone with the three angels. They were soon near the great fire; and the angel, as on the first occasion, went before, clearing the way, dividing the flame right and left; but lo, from the midst of the furnace a human face, a man hurled by the demons, struck the saint’s shoulder, and cheek touched cheek. Saint Fursey felt his shoulder and cheek burn, and he saw that it was a man who on his death bed had left him a garment. The angel seized the damned one, and hurled him into the flames. But the spirit of malice cried, “Why repulse him who thou didst welcome? Thou didst share his goods: share his torment.” “It was not through avarice,” replied the angel, “that he accepted his present, but to save his soul.” The fire ceased. Yet the angel said to Saint Fursey, “The fire that thou hadst kindled has burned thee; if thou hadst not receive the clothes of this man dying in his sin, thou wouldest not have felt in thy body the fire of his torture.” And he too exhorted him to preach penance to men.
Saint Fursey found himself above his dwelling; but he recognized neither the house nor the crowd of persons lamenting, nor his garments, nor his body; and when the angel had him resume his mortal tabernacle, he feared to approach it, not recognizing the corpse. “Away with this fear,” said the angel; “even in it thou canst preserve thee from weakness and evils; thou hast just now triumphed over the assaults of the evil one; he shall not more prevail against thee.” At the same time, looking at his body, the breast opened as if to receive his soul, and the angel’s last words were, “Let pure water be poured over they limbs, and thou shalt feel no pain but that of the fire that has touched thee. Do good; till the end we will follow thy steps, and thus we shall receive thee amongst us.”
Issuing from the profound repose of death, he sat up, and beheld the multitude of his kindred, neighbors, and ecclesiastics, who surrounded him. Then he groaned over the greatness of human folly; and thinking how difficult and dangerous a passage death is, how divine the reward of those who reach the blissful abode, he revealed in order all that he had seen. He ordered pure water to be poured over him, and the print that that damned one had left became visible. The body, strange to declare, bore the mark of the pain that the soul alone had undergone.
Then leaving his house, he preached the word of God, and announcing to all the people what he had seen and heard. Grace was incomparable in him–disengaged from earth, giving himself to all, to prelates and the faithful, to nobles and kings, amiable to the good, terrible to the wicked; and the power of miracles was also in him.