Saints Who Saw Mary
St. Meinrad (d. 861) and
St. Conrad of Constance (d. 975)
Early in the ninth century, a saintly, quiet-loving young Benedictine monk named Meinrad, while passing through the city of Zurich on his way to become a teacher at the small monastery of Bollingen, was deeply thrilled when the Abbess-Princess Hildegarde gave him a lovely three-foot wooden statue of the Mother of God holding the Child Jesus in her arms.
Very often during his several years at Bollingen, young Father Meinrad used to gaze out of the window of his cell with ever-increasing longing at a forest-clad mountain on the other side of the lake, for he wished more than anything else to become a hermit and to live a life of prayer, penance and meditation all alone in those woods, like the great hermit-saints of old. Having at last obtained his superiors' permission, one day in the year 828 he took up in his arms his cherished statue of Mary and set out in a wide flat-bottomed boat to cross the lake and become a hermit in the Dark Wood on the slopes of Mount Etzel.
Soon after settling in a solitary retreat he found a nest with two young ravens, which he gladly adopted and tamed, perhaps because the Child Jesus of his statue held a small bird in one hand. Meinrad spent seven years on this mountain, and he was a happy young hermit except for one thing: more and more pilgrims were coming to visit him, attracted by his growing reputation as a saint.
Therefore he fled from his tiny cell, taking his statue and his two friends, the ravens, with him. He went still farther into the depths of the Dark Wood until one day he found, in the midst of the lofty pine trees on a small table-land surrounded by hills on three sides, a bubbling spring giving forth sparkling, fresh mountain water. Here he built himself a little log hut and a chapel, in which he reverently placed Our Lady's statue. His faithful ravens often perched on either side of a crucifix on the gable and watched the holy hermit as he worked and prayed. He was completely happy in this solitude.
But one day a woodcutter discovered Meinrad's retreat, and soon pilgrims were again flocking to receive his blessing and advice. Once some of his Brothers in religion came to visit him, and during the night one of them saw and heard Meinrad reciting his Office with a beautiful seven-year-old boy all dressed in white, who approached the astonished monk and secretly foretold many events which later occurred.
After more than twenty years of prayer and penance, while he was saying Mass in his little chapel on the morning of January 21, 861, the Feast of the Martyr St. Agnes, Meinrad learned by a divine revelation that this was to be his last Mass. With perfect resignation to the will of God, he devoutly received Holy Communion as if it were Holy Viaticum. Then with tears of love in his eyes, the old hermit looked up at his beautiful statue of Mary and begged Our Lady to strengthen him, asking her to offer to her Son the death which he was about to suffer for His glory.
During all the years which Meinrad had spent alone in the Dark Wood, he had never been harmed by the mountain bears or wolves or other wild animals who dwelt there. Now, however, two human beasts of prey, two hardened criminals, hearing that people made pilgrimages to the hermit, were tempted by the idea that he must have precious gifts and rich treasure hidden away in his lonely hermitage. And so this cold winter night they made their way through the deep snow to his retreat in the forest.
Meinrad was just finishing his Mass as they approached, and he now heard the shrill screams of warning of his faithful ravens. With a smile of heavenly joy on his lips, he went out and welcomed the two men with loving kindness and hospitality, setting before them some bread and wine. When they roughly demanded that he show them his hidden treasure he humbly led them into the little chapel, and pointing to the plain wooden statue above the altar, he said, "I have no other treasure."
Then with a last loving look at Mary, he folded his hands on his chest, bowed his head, and added calmly, "That for which you have come, do..."
In a mad rage the two robbers seized and brutally beat the saintly old hermit to death with a heavy club, while his two ravens flew wildly about, screaming and trying in vain to help their good friend by pecking at the murderers' foreheads.
Then the criminals dragged the Saint's body to his couch of dry leaves in his hut and were about to begin their search for the supposedly hidden treasure when all of a sudden they noticed that a strange yet delicious odor pervaded the place. When they perceived that two candles standing by the hermit's bed had somehow just been lighted without human hand, the two assassins fled in terror all the way to Zurich. But like the accusing finger of God, Meinrad's two ravens persistently followed and attacked the murderers until they were arrested and had confessed the crime.
The body of the holy martyr was taken by his Brothers to the great Abbey of Reichenau near Constance, in which he had entered the Order and been ordained priest.
In the years that followed, pilgrims kept coming to the abandoned little chapel in the Dark Wood, and a few hermit-monks settled there. In the year 906, St. Benno of Strasbourg began to restore and add to the old structures. And in 934, St. Eberhard, also from Strasbourg, arrived and set about building a large monastery and church, the latter enclosing and protecting Meinrad's holy little chapel, which was only eight and a half yards long by six yards wide. When this work was completed in the summer of 948, Eberhard, having become the first Abbot of Einsiedeln, invited St. Conrad, the Bishop of Constance, to consecrate and dedicate the Chapel of Our Lady of the Hermits.
Conrad's party, which included the Bishop of Augsburg and many princes and knights of the Empire, arrived at the hermitage in the Dark Wood on September 13 in the year 948, on the eve of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. And that night there occurred at the Shrine of Our Lady in Einsiedeln one of the most glorious events in all the history of the Catholic Church.
The holy Bishop of Constance retired to his room early in the evening in order to rest after the trip. However, despire his fatigue, he did not fail to get up, as was his custom, before midnight and to go with several religious to pray in the chapel which he was due to consecrate the next morning. While he was fervently beseeching the Blessed Virgin to accept this holy shrine and to make it henceforth a center of pilgrimages where for centuries and centuries she would heal and help her suffering children, suddenly, at exactly midnight, St. Conrad and those with him began to hear the sound of many harmonious voices chanting a melody of heavenly beauty. Looking up, he saw with amazement that the sanctuary of the chapel was filled wiht a brilliant light that made everything clearer than the brightest noonday sun, and that the altar was completely illuminated as for a solemn festival. Then he saw coming down from Heaven a magnificent procession of angels under the leadership of St. Michael the Archangel. Some of them formed the choir and were chanting celestial psalms, while others bearing swinging golden censers took their places before the altar.
After the angels came St. Peter with a crozier in his hand, followed by St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John, who preceded three great Doctors of the Church, St. Gregory, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose. Then came, vested as deacon and subdeacon, the Martyr Saints Lawrence and Stephen. And finally, as High Priest, arrayed in pontifical vestments and wearing a violet chasuble, there appeared in all the splendor of His Divinity, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Then, as a breathtaking climax, just before God the Son began the Mass that was to consecrate this holy shrine forever to His Immaculate Mother, Mary herself took her place above the altar of her chapel, radiant with dazzling glory and attended by her train of angelic spirits!
In speechless awe St. Conrad followed every detail of this extraordinary Mass. He observed with rapt attention that the solumn ceremony was performed in the minutest particulars according to the ritual prescribed by the Church for the consecration of a temple, except that at the Sanctus the angels sang: "Holy God, have mercy on us in the court of the Glorious Virgin! Blessed be the Son of Mary who has come to this place and who is to reign world without end!"
More than an hour later, having formally dedicated the shrine to His Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of the Hermits, the King of Kings returned in all His majesty to Heaven with His distinguished company of saints and angels. The beautiful living Virgin vanished too, leaving in her place the lovely statue. The singing ceased. The bright light was magically extinguished. And soon the newly consecrated shrine was to all outward appearances exactly as it had been before.
The saintly Bishop of Constance, however, remained kneeling for hours in ecstatic meditation over the marvels which he had just witnessed. Later that morning, when all the dignitaries had assembled and after he had kept them waiting quite a while, he was politely informed that it was time for him to begin the dedication ceremony. Still deeply moved, he firmly declared that the chapel had already been miraculously consecrated by God Himself during the night. But when the Abbot Eberhard and the other officials flatly refused to accept this story and insisted that the ceremony for which so many persons had come together should start at once, St. Conrad yielded. Then another striking supernatural intervention took place: as the Bishop put his foot on the first altar step, the great church was suddenly filled with a strong and impressive voice which everyone present heard exclaim three times:
"Stop! Stop, Brother. The chapel has been divinely consecrated!"
Later on, a full investigation of these extraordinary events was undertaken by the highest civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and in the year 964, in the presence of the Emperor Otto and of St. Conrad, His Holiness Pope Leo VIII issued a bull confirming the miraculous dedication.
It was not long before Einsiedeln became one of the three or four most popular pilgrimage centers in all Europe. For the past nine centuries it has been famous among the Catholic peoples of France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland as a great and beautifully situated shrine at which Our Lord performs many miracles through the merciful intercession of His compassionate Mother. For several centuries now, over 100,000 - and often as many as 200,000 - devout pilgrims have been visiting Einsiedeln every year. The large church has suffered half a dozen disastrous fires, but not once was Our Lady's little chapel damaged, until the sacking of the shrine during the wars of the French Revolution. The present great basilica and monastery, built in the first half of the 18th century, are one of the most impressive religious monuments in Europe. In 1861 the Benedictine monks solemnly celebrated the 1000th anniversary of the death of their founder, St. Meinrad, whose body had been brought back to his beloved Alpine retreat in 1039, the year in which he was canonized. And on September 14, 1948, Einsiedeln duly marked the 1000th anniversary of the miraculous consecration.
It is deeply significant that, probably in large part due to Our Lady of the Hermits, the sturdy little Christian democracy of Switzerland, whose patron St. Nicholas of Flue was a hermit and a frequent pilgrim to Einsiedeln, has been able to achieve a hermit-like state of peace and sober well-being amid all the international and civil wars of our times, while participating actively in unselfish brotherly relief and charity work for the unfortunate of all nations. Switzerland has rightly been called the heart of Europe. And the Catholic Canton of Schwyz, in which Einsiedeln is located, is in the heart of Switzerland.
Thanks to Mary, the heart of Europe and the heart of Switzerland have remained a special gateway for receiving graces from Heaven.
(Interesting Note: the headquarters of the SSPX is in Menzingen, Switzerland.)
Taken from Saints who Saw Mary by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.
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