Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Little Known Saint: Gilbert of Sempringham (1083-1189)

Gilbert of Sempringham is hardly a household, or familiar ecclesiastical, name! The first time I ever encountered it was during my formation to become a professed Oblate of the Order of Julian of Norwich. I noticed in the Ordo for October 13 that the commemoration of St. Gilbert was observed as a Solemn Holy Day in the Order. Apparently it didn't bother me enough until four years later, October 17, 2001, when I emailed Fr. John Julian, OJN, founder of the Order and made enquiry. His reply: "That's an easy one! St. Gilbert is the second Patron of the Order of Julian of Norwich because he was the founder (in the 12th century) of the Gilbertine Order: the first religious order actually founded in England, and the first one with BOTH monks and nuns in the same Order. 

In fact, during my visit to England in 1982 (which resulted in the founding of the Order), I had also visited Sempringham as well as Norwich. So, on the plane home, when I decided to begin OJN, it was that recent visit to Sempringham which gave me the impetus to make ours a 'mixed' order. So, he's #2 for us, immediately after our Blessed Mother Saint Julian. 

And aside from all that, he was a fantastic guy, on a first-name basis with St. Bernard and Pope Eugenius III; he sheltered Thomas Becket when he was fleeing from Henry II; he was a great favorite for pilgrimages, and has dozens of healing miracles to his credit; and he was the first person to go through the then-new papal process to be recognized as a saint, and the Pope actually personally composed the Collect for his feast. Sadly, he is little known now."

Gilbert was the son of Jocelin, a wealthy Norman knight. When Gilbert showed no signs of becoming a soldier, his father sent him to Paris to study. Gilbert returned as a master of arts, and opened a school for children of the poor in Sempringham, paying special attention to training in religion. His father provided him a living from the rents of part of his land, but Gilbert redistributed most of this to the poor.

He became a clerk in the household of Bishop Robert Bloet of Lincoln, and was ordained at age 40 by Bishop Robert's successor, Alexander. Gilbert returned to Sempringham as Lord when his father died in 1131. That same year Gilbert began advising a group of seven young women who were living in enclosure with lay sisters and brothers, and he decided that the community should be incorporated into an established religious order. After several new foundations were made, he travelled to the Cistercian Abbey of Citeaux and requested that the Cistercian monks take over the community. They, however, declined to take on governing a group of women. 

With Pope Eugenius III's approval, Gilbert drew up a Rule for the nuns and continued the community with the addition of Canons Regular to serve as spiritual directors, while Gilbert himself served as Master General. It was a strict Rule, mirroring Gilbert's own austerities and concern for the poor. The community became known as the Gilbertine Order or the Gilbertines. Eventually, 26 monasteries were established and flourished until Henry VIII suppressed the English monasteries in the 16th century. When Gilbert was 90, some of the lay brothers revolted against him, but Pope Alexander III lent his support. Blind in his advanced years, Gilbert resigned as Master General and devoted himself to prayer and the communal life, living to be 106 years old. He was canonized in 1202. 

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