17 November: Saint Hugh of Lincoln (Carthusian Monk)

From the Life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln by Adam the Carthusian

Hugh of Avalon made profession with the Augustinian Canons at Villarbenoît, in Dauphiné, where he entered at a very young age. In the opinion of all, he had already attained to the height of perfection aspired to by his order, and far in advance of his years, although he himself judged that he had never reached even the beginning of the way of perfection and godly living. Hugh already knew the reputation for extreme sanctity enjoyed by the monks of Chartreuse and wished with all his heart for the inspiration of their example. Carefully concealing his immense longing, he arranged matters so that he could see and speak with them. After this had happened, his heart was almost immediately inflamed with so great a love of their holy way of life, that he could hardly keep his passion to himself. In the happiness of his love, he understood the truth of the words of one who had loved unhappily, “The hidden fire burns the more fiercely, the more it is hidden.” Hugh gazed with awe at this place, situated almost in the clouds, with nothing between it and the sky, and so far removed from the turmoil of the world.

Hugh realized the great opportunity the Carthusian life offered of living alone with God, for which aim the rich collection of books would greatly help the long hours of reading and the unbroken silence for prayer. The whole place seemed to be planned just for this. He observed the physical austerities of the inhabitants, their untroubled spirit, their freedom of mind, their cheerful countenances and the simplicity of their words. Their rule encouraged solitude, not isolation. They had separate cells but their hearts were united. Each of them lived apart, but had nothing of his own, and did not live for himself. They combined solitude with community life. They lived alone lest any should find his fellows an obstacle to him, they lived as a community so that none of them should be deprived of brotherly help. He noticed these things there and also the security caused by obedience, of which many hermits are frequently deprived and so are exposed to great peril. Hugh was delighted and attracted by all this, in fact it carried him away and completely captivated him.

There were always in this holy community of Chartreuse, but especially at that particular time, monks and lay brothers of great sanctity and prudence, who were much venerated both by the chief secular princes, and the rulers of the Church. It was not easy to judge who among them was the most fervent or the most perfect. In their treatment of their bodies they tempered too great austerity with prudence, and thus, like the saints, achieved a happy mean. No one was content with mortifications below his capacity, but, even if he wished to he was not permitted to undertake anything beyond the limits of his strength. It is thus written of this order in the register of the pope who gave it his approval: “The Carthusian Order excels the others, in that it has restrained all desire for wealth.” What shall we say of Hugh’s life there and the progress he made? The love of learning which he had possessed from his earliest years was here given the books, masters and leisure, which enabled his natural genius to develop with the rapidity of a forest fire. He passed whole nights and days in these studies, and the only cloud on his happiness was that time was too short, for, although in a most remarkable way, both by day and night he was always occupied in reading, meditation or prayer, he still had less time than he desired for these activities.

When Hugh had been in his quiet nest for nearly ten years, dead to the world, and his wings and feathers were ready for flight, obedience compelled him, much against his own inclination, to accept the office of procurator of the community committed to him by the prior. He faithfully ruled the community committed to his charge and was most conscientious in instructing the lay brothers, living up to that description of Saint Honoratus of Arles which he often used to quote with marked approval, “He made the lazy shake off their sluggishness, and compelled those who were fervent in spirit to rest.” God was obviously with Hugh and directed all his activities, and when he took charge blessed the monastery exceedingly, causing it to have all good things in abundance. If anyone consulted Hugh concerning temporal matters, he received excellent advice on the subject at issue, and then immediately turned his attention from transitory things to eternal ones.

Some years later, the king of England sent envoys to ask for Hugh to be the prior of the first charterhouse that he had established in his realm. The whole community was finally convinced by the prayers and arguments of the envoys and granted what they asked. They all begged Hugh to consent, and he, since he could not do otherwise, left the decision to his prior. He knew that since he loved him as his soul, and in no circumstances wished him to be far away, he would be unlikely to command this. The eyewitnesses describe how he, when urged by the exhortations of the bishop and the prayers and tears of the whole company present, replied: “By the living God, I cannot utter the command which would cause Hugh to leave me in my old age, and deprive the Grande Chartreuse of his much loved and most necessary presence.” At last, shaken by the earnest pleading of all those present, and being at a loss as to what he ought to do, he turned to the lord bishop of Grenoble and said, “What I have said about myself still holds. No decision or word of mine shall remove Hugh from me. Do what seems best to you, since you are our bishop, our father and our brother. If you order and enjoin it, I will neither gainsay you nor resist.”

A few years later, Hugh became bishop of Lincoln. Whenever he returned from distant parts to the charterhouse of Witham, his beloved place of retirement, as soon as he approached the neighbourhood a delicate rosy flush used to mantle his cheeks and even his whole countenance. He often told his attendants that he felt that the first sight of the spot filled his heart with indescribable joy and spiritual delight. Whilst he was at Witham, divine grace effected such a restoration in every one of his faculties that it seemed that like the eagle both physically and mentally he had renewed his youth. He laid aside the outer cloak of black or russet cloth lined with white lambs wool which he wore in public, and wore sheepskin without a cloth covering. The hair-shirt which he wore, as always, next to his skin was concealed by a tunic worn under his leather cloak. His bedding consisted of only a blanket, a bolster and skins.

One day King Richard sent messengers to Hugh demanding military aid. Hugh resisted him saying: “I am well aware that the church of Lincoln is bound to serve the king in war, but only in this country, and it is a fact that no service is due beyond the frontiers of England.” After the king had received two or three messengers bearing the same response, in great wrath and indignation he ordered that all the bishop’s possessions should be confiscated. No one, however, dared to lay hands on the lands and goods of the bishop of Lincoln, because they feared to offend him, and dreaded his excommunication as much as a death sentence. Hugh presented himself before the king and remonstrated with him in a few forcible words for his recent wholly undeserved anger with him, giving him some very good reasons to show that he had never failed in his duty to him. The king could not contradict him. His indignation was thus dispelled and he conversed with Hugh. After Hugh had left his presence the king discussed him with his attendants and commented with much appreciation on his holiness. “Indeed,” he said, “if the other bishops were such as he, no king or ruler would dare raise up his head against them.”

In the course of a journey on the continent, Hugh visited and stayed at four houses belonging to his Order, the Grande Chartreuse, Arvieres, Lugny and Val Saint Pierre. Although Arvieres was not on his route, and very difficult to approach on account of its mountainous situation, he was particularly anxious to go there, because its former prior, Artold, who had thence become bishop of Belley, had resigned his office, to live there as an ordinary monk, in order to devote himself without distraction to the consideration of heavenly things. Artold had for a long time desired greatly the privilege of seeing and speaking with Hugh, and had often sent messages to this effect. The saintly man was in fact well advanced in years, and whilst awaiting the passing of this earthly light, was longing for his entry into eternal life. Although their ages were different, he very much resembled Hugh in temperament. From his early youth he had attached little importance to earthly things and regarded them with distaste. When the long-desired meeting took place, they revealed to each other their inmost thoughts, and each found the deepest recesses of their consciences were rendered clearer by means of the purity and holiness of the other.

Source: The Life of St Hugh of Lincoln, D. Louie and Hugh Farmer. In: Lectionary for Matins - Sanctoral C - 17 November: readings 1 to 8. Saint Hugh's Charterhouse (2021).

Picture: Aparición de ángeles músicos a San Hugo de Lincoln - Colección - Museo Nacional del Prado (museodelprado.es)