Life of Euphrasia (continued), Book 1d
When the Emperor heard that Euphraxia the wife of Antigonus was dead he summoned the senator to whom her daughter had been betrothed and told him the news, adding that the girl had joined a monastery. The senator begged the Emperor to send a letter by special messenger to the girl instructing her to come back to the city to be married. When Euphraxia received his letter she wrote back in her own hand.
"My Lord Emperor, are you really trying to persuade me to renounce Christ in order to unite myself to corruptible human flesh which to day is, and tomorrow will be food for worms? God forbid that your servant should do this thing. Therefore, my Lord Emperor, don't let that man trouble you any further. I have given my allegiance to Christ, and that it is impossible to deny. I beseech you that in your position of authority you bear in mind what my parents wanted, and gather together all my assets and distribute it to the poor and the orphans and to the churches. I know that you do remember my parents, especially my father, for I have heard that he was in constant attendance on you in the palace. Bearing in mind what you know about them, dispose of my money as you know they would wish. Free all our slaves and grant them legal rights. Instruct all my father's bailiffs to remit any debts incurred by tenants since the day my father died up until now. And so let me be found worthy to serve Christ unhindered, without having any responsibility for all these worldly affairs. He knows I have commended my soul to him. May you and Augusta pray for your servant, that she may be found worthy to serve Christ as a servant of his."
She signed the letter and gave it to the special messenger who took it and brought it back to the Emperor. He opened it and read it privately with Augusta, shedding many tears and offering many prayers for Euphraxia.
Next morning the Emperor summoned the whole senate, which included the father of Euphraxia's bridegroom, and ordered the letter to be read out loud to them all. The eyes of all filled with tears as they listened to it, and agreed together with one accord.
"Truly, my Lord Emperor, the daughter of Antigonus and Euphraxia is a true member of your family, a girl in whose veins runs noble blood. She is a true religious daughter of religious parents, a holy branch springing from a holy root."
And as if with one voice they all glorified God and prayed for the girl. The senator had no further chance of having his demands met.
Once the Emperor had disposed responsibly of Euphraxia's assets and distributed them well, he died and was buried in peace with his fathers. Euphraxia continued to flourish and prosper in the sight of God, increasing in her practice of fasting. She was now twelve years old and applying herself ever more strongly to the battle. At first she fasted from vespers to vespers, then she ate only every two days, then three days. She swept out the refectory, made the sisters' beds, and carried water for the kitchen.
There was a custom in the monastery that when any sister felt herself being tempted by the devil during sleep she would tell the abbess about it as soon as possible. The abbess would ask God in tears that the devil might depart, and direct that a layer of stones should be put under the blanket the sister slept on, and ashes sprinkled on the goatskin covering. She was to sleep like this for ten days. When Euphraxia was tempted by the devil one night, she sprinkled ashes over her bed. When the abbess noticed this she laughed.
"The girl is beginning to learn about temptation!" she said to one of the senior sisters. And she prayed to God:
"O God by whose will she was created, strengthen her in your fear."
She called Euphraxia to speak to her.
"Why didn't you tell me you were being tempted by the devil?"
"Forgive me, my lady," said Euphraxia as she fell at the abbess's feet. "I was too ashamed to tell you what it was about."
"Look, my daughter, you are now being called into the battle. Be strong, that you may conquer and win the crown."
A few days later her temptations were renewed and she told another sister called Julia about it who was very fond of Euphraxia, and who was also deeply engaged in the battle.
"Euphraxia, my friend," said Julia, "don't hide this from the abbess, but tell her about it so that she can pray for you. We are all tempted by the devil, but we trust in the name of Christ that we shall conquer. So don't delay, my sister. Tell the abbess what it is all about, and don't worry."
"Oh, thank you, Julia," said Euphraxia. "God reward you, my sister, for helping me and strengthening my soul. I will go, truly, and tell my lady abbess what is happening."
"You do that, and she will pray for you and prescribe some sort of abstinence for you."
She went to see the abbess and told her about her troubles.
"Never be afraid, my daughter," said the abbess, "of all the attacks of the devil, who is always doing his worst against us. Struggle against him by trying to keep your mind still, and he won't be able to prevail against you. You are bound to be tested a great deal by him, but struggle, that you may conquer and win the victory and receive the crown from your bridegroom Christ, and as far as possible increase your practice of abstinence. The more you strive, the greater the gifts you will receive. How many days do you go fasting?
"Three days, my lady."
"Add an extra day, then."
Euphraxia accepted this injunction gladly and departed.
By the time she had reached the age of twenty she had become strong and stable. She was very beautiful, as befitted a matron of imperial blood. When she was tempted anew she confided in the abbess.
"Fear not, my daughter," said the abbess. "God is with you."
Now there was a heap of stones in the courtyard of the monastery. The abbess decided to test the ability of Euphraxia to be obedient to herself as mother.
"Come, my daughter," she said, "pick these stones up and take them over to the bread oven."
Euphraxia immediately began to pick up the stones. Some of them were so big that it would almost need two sisters to carry one of them, but she was young and strong, and she lifted them up on to her shoulders without any help from anyone. She did not ask the abbess to let her get help from another sister. She did not say, "These stones are too heavy. I can't do it". She did not say, "I am fasting and I am too weak to carry this heavy load." She simply did what she was told in obedience and complete trust.
Next day the abbess said to her:
"It's not the right place for those stones to be next to the furnace. Take them back to where they were."
With complete trust she again did what the abbess said. And the abbess kept this up for twenty days, in order to test her patience. All the sisters could see what was happening and were quite amazed. Some of the sisters scoffed, but others shouted, "Go for it, Euphraxia!"
This went on for thirty days. The next day, as Euphraxia was going off to carry stones after the morning offices were said, the abbess said to her, "Finish doing that work, my daughter. Instead get flour and water and bake bread for you to serve to the sisters this evening." These commands also she fulfilled with true gladness and joy.
The devil tempted her again in her sleep, for she had a dream in which the senator to whom she had been betrothed came with a large band to snatch her out of the monastery and carry her off. She screamed out loudly as she lay in her bed, rousing the abbess and all the sisters in alarm at the terror of her voice.
"Whatever is the matter, my daughter?" asked the abbess.
She told the abbess of her dream, and the abbess directed that all the sisters should stand in prayer with her, which they did, right up to the third hour of the day. At the third hour, Euphraxia stood to lead the office while the others sat, after which Euphraxia carried out all the necessary tasks for the sisters. She swept out the refectory, made the beds, filled the water jars and carried them to the kitchen, chopped wood and cooked pulses, kneaded flour and cooked bread in the oven. And while doing all this she did not miss the night psalmody, or the offices of the third, sixth and ninth hours, or vespers. It was not until vespers were over that she had any time to herself. Julia also helped her in all her tasks, for she was very fond of Euphraxia. [No sanctions there against 'special friendships', then!]
The devil again began to tempt her in her dreams and increased the intensity of the battle to the highest degree. Again she opened up her fears to the abbess.
"Euphraxia, my daughter," said the abbess, after praying for her, "this is a time of battle. Take care that you do not let the devil soften your resistance and bring to naught all the work you have done. After struggling with you for a while he may retire in defeat, but will always come back again!"
Julia also had some advice for her.
"If we can't keep fighting and winning now, how shall we be able to do so when we are old?"
The Lord lives, Julia my sister," replied Euphraxia, "and if the abbess agrees I shall begin to fast for a whole week at a time, until with the help of the Lord I shall overcome."
"If you can manage to do that on earth, how blessed you will be in heaven! There is no one in this monastery who goes without food for a whole week except our lady abbess."
Euphraxia went to the abbess again to tell her of the attacks of the devil in her sleep and asked for permission to go for the whole week without food.
"Do what seems possible for you, my daughter," said the abbess, "and may God who created you strengthen you and give you victory against the devil."
So Euphraxia began to spend the week fasting, without missing any of the offices or the tasks she performed for the sisters. They were all astonished at how much such a young and beautiful girl cold put up with.
"We have been watching Euphraxia for the last year," some of them said among themselves, "and we have not seen her sitting down day or night, except when she goes to bed at night. She never even sits down to eat her bread."
All the sisters loved her because she was so humble, and took pains to act as if she were the slave of all the sisters, even though she was a member of the imperial family. So they all prayed for her very much, begging God for her salvation.
One of the sisters called Germana, who was from the working class, began to feel quite hostile towards Euphraxia, and cornered her one day in the kitchen.
"It's all very well for you to be told by the abbess to eat only once a week, Euphraxia," she said, "but some of us don't feel we could do that. How would we go on if the abbess told us to do that?"
"Sister," said Euphraxia, "our lady abbess has said that each one of us must act according to her own ability. She did not impose this ruling on me without good reason."
"You are just a scheming poser. Is there anyone who doesn't know that you are being clever and carrying on like this, so that you can become abbess after this one goes? I hope in Christ that you would never be found a fitting person to fill this abbess's shoes."
Euphraxia fell at her feet.
"Forgive me, sister," she said, "and pray for me."
When the abbess got to hear of what had happened, she called Germana out in front of everybody.
"You are a wicked servant," she said, "and very far off from God. What harm has Euphraxia ever done you for you to be so keen on spoiling her good intentions? You are an outsider as far as the rest of the sisters are concerned, you are a disgrace to our profession, and you are excluded from Chapter meetings forthwith." [Aliena es a sororum concilio, indigna es a ministerio, et collegio sororum extranea. Both concilium and collegium carry the meaning of 'assembly' or 'association', but collegium here seems to have a more formal sense, which I hope justifies translating it somewhat anachronistically as 'Chapter meeting']
Euphraxia pleaded strongly that Germana might be forgiven, but the abbess was implacable, and remained like that for the next month.
Euphraxia seemed to be getting nowhere with her pleas, until on the thirtieth day she got together with Julia and some of the senior sisters in the monastery and went to plead with the abbess to be reconciled with Germana. The abbess again called Germana out in front of everybody.
"You decided in your own heart, "she said, "to try and destroy the good work of this sister. Didn't it occur to you that although she is an aristocrat, and a member of the imperial family she has nevertheless humbled herself and made herself the slave of all for God's sake?"
The pleas of everyone on behalf of Germana won the day and the abbess relented.
The devil did not let up in his assaults upon Euphraxia. He raved furiously against her and tried to bring her to her death. When she was at the well one day to draw water, the devil picked her up along with the bucket and threw her in. Euphraxia was appalled to find her head hitting the bottom of the well, but she came up to the surface of the water, and holding on to the well-rope she called out: "Christ help me!" Her voice was heard, and the abbess and the sisters, realising that she had fallen in, ran to the well and pulled her out. As she came out she laughed and signed herself with the cross.
"My Christ is alive!" she cried. "So you can never conquer me, you old devil. I give no ground to you whatsoever! Up to now I have been carrying only one bucket of water at a time from the well. From now on I will carry two!" And so she did.
When the devil realised that he had not succeeded in drowning her in the well, he followed her when she went out to chop wood. After she had chopped for a while with the devil standing there watching her, he jerked her arm as she was bringing the axe down on to the wood, so that she cut her foot at the base of the shin. She saw this gaping wound with blood pouring out of it and dropped the axe and fell to the ground in a faint. Julia came in great haste and shouted out to the sisters that Euphraxia had been struck by an axe and was dead. Everyone cried out in alarm and ran to the scene, surrounding Euphraxia and weeping. When the abbess came she sprinkled water on Euphraxia's face, signed her with the cross and held her in her arms.
"Euphraxia, my daughter, how did you come to be so wounded?" she cried. "Come back to us. Speak to your sisters."
Euphraxia opened her eyes.
"Lord Jesus Christ," prayed the abbess, "heal your servant who has suffered so much for you."
She bound Euphraxia's foot with strips of cloth, helped her up, supported her with her hands and began to lead her back to the monastery. But Euphraxia saw the piece of wood still lying there that she had dropped.
"As the Lord lives," she cried, "I will not go back in until I have completed my set tasks."
"Don't be silly, sister," said Julia, "you won't be able to manage it. Leave it. I will pick it up. You go in and rest. You are hurt."
Euphraxia would not hear of it, but picked up an armful of wood to take in with her. Even then the devil did not spare her. She caught her foot in her tunic as she was going up the steps and fell forward on to the wood she was carrying, so that a splinter went into her face. It looked to the sisters as if it had gone into her eye.
"I told you you should have gone in to have a rest," exclaimed Julia, "but you wouldn't listen!"
"My eye is all right," said Euphraxia. "Just pull this splinter out."
As she did so, Euphraxia began to bleed, but the abbess anointed her with oil, prayed for her, and laid hands on her.
"You go and lie down," said the abbess. "I will get some of the other sisters to finish your work."
"As the Lord lives," said Euphraxia, "I will not lie down till I have finished my duties."
The sisters begged her to lie down and rest because of her injuries, but she would not, even though in her weakened state both wounds were still bleeding. She insisted on carrying out her usual services for the sisters; and she was just as insistent on attending the divine offices as she was in her serving duties.A modern monastic superior would condemn Euphraxia here as displaying inordinate pride in her disobedience to the abbess's orders. Instead, it is her endurance under suffering, comparable to the endurance of Christ under the attacks of the devil in his passion, which captures his attention here, in spite of his praise of her obedience as exemplified in her labours described in Chapter XVI above]
On another occasion she was going up with Julia to the third solarium, [In classical Latin solarium means 'sundial'. Rosweyde explains it as simply meaning 'the highest part of the building exposed to sun', and wonders why there should have been three of them] when the devil seized her and threw her down to the bottom. Julia screamed and the sisters came running, but Euphraxia simply got up and greeted them. They took her to the abbess who asked her if she had been hurt.
"As the Lord lives, my lady, "replied Euphraxia, "I have not the faintest idea how it was I came to fall, or how I ever got up again."
The abbess was amazed that she was completely uninjured after having fallen from such a great height and she glorified God.
"Go back to your work, my daughter" she said, "and the Lord will be with you."
Again the devil tried to kill her. It happened like this: She was pouring a boiling pot of cooked vegetables into another container, when the devil took her feet from under her, She fell backwards and the contents of the pot splashed all over her face. The sisters feared for her safety, but she simply got up and laughed.
"What are you worried about?" she said.
The abbess was relieved to see that she was uninjured. She looked in the pot and could see that what was left in it was still boiling hot.
"Amazing!" she said to Euphraxia. "It is just as if it were only cold water that fell over your face. God keep you, my daughter, and may he continue to grant you power to endure all things in his fear."
The abbess called a meeting of the senior sisters in the oratory.
"I suppose you realise that Euphraxia has earned special favours from God? As you know, she had a very great fall but was completely unharmed, nor did she suffer any injury from that scalding water."
"She truly is a handmaid of the Lord," they said, "and the Lord has a special care for her. In all these trials she has been preserved safely by the Lord."
Not only in the city but also in the whole province roundabout the custom had developed of bringing any sick children to the monastery, to these sisters who could work miracles. The abbess would receive them, take them into the oratory and pray for them to the Lord. Almost immediately their spirits would revive, and their mothers would receive them back healed, and they would all go forth glorifying God. [This next paragraph would seem more naturally to belong to the beginning of Chapter XXVII]
Now there was one devil-possessed woman in the monastery who had been imprisoned there from infancy for her own good. An unclean demon infested her spirit. She frothed at the mouth and ground her teeth and screamed out loud, so that even if her hands were tied everyone who heard her was filled with fear. The abbess and the senior sisters had often prayed for her without success. No one was able to go near her, not even to take her food to her; bread or vegetables were put into a pot hanging from the end of a stick, and offered to her from a safe distance. Sometimes she would overturn the pot and throw it, stick and all, in the direction of whoever was bringing her food.
One day the gatekeeper came to the abbess with an urgent message.
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