Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict – Saint Birnstan, Bishop

illustration of Saint Birnstan, Bishop, from the book 'Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict', designed by Father Amandus LiebhaberWith justice might England, after it had, thanks to Saint Gregory, received the blessings of the Faith, be called the home of the Benedictine Order; for, in addition to Canterbury, several of the minor Sees were entrusted to the care of our monks, and religious houses both for men and for women arose all over the island. In that then fortunate country, Saint Birnstan was born. While yet a boy he consecrated his innocence to the service of God and entered a monastery. Once a monk, he made it his aim to preserve his purity of heart, to practise piety, and to become thoroughly acquainted with, and carefully to observe, the rules of the Order. But what particularly distinguished Birnstan from other Religious was his zeal for the souls departed. He pleaded their cause by night and by day. Whenever he was released from choir, from working in the fields, or from any of his other duties, he prayed for the dead; in their behalf he sang the Requiem, he gave up his sleep, and scarred himself with the discipline.

Such zeal was not to be without its reward. When the See of Winchester became vacant, the souls whom Birnstan’s prayers had released from Purgatory were not forgetful of their benefactor. Through their influence with Heaven, the King of Wessex and the citizens of Winchester sent an embassy to invite Birnstan to become their Bishop. According to the practice of that time, few monks had Priests’ Orders; neither had Birnstan, though very deserving of this honour. So he was first ordained priest, and then consecrated Bishop of Winchester. His rule was of the greatest benefit to his subjects. He himself taught and preached in his cathedral; on foot he visited the homes of his people, especially those of the poor; the needy he assisted with food and money; he ministered unto the sick, heard their confessions, gave them the last Sacraments, and saw even to their burial.

Nor, while so busy with the wants of the living, did the Bishop neglect his old care – the dead. As his days were taken up with his pastoral duties, it was his regular custom to walk at night in the graveyards, and to pour forth prayers for the repose of the souls departed. And those whose bodies lay crumbling around were not too deaf to hear him who interceded for them. One night, as the Saint was taking his usual walk among the tombs, reciting the De Profundis, he had scarcely uttered the closing Requiescant in Pace, when from the surrounding graves came, as from the mouths of a mighty army, the answering Amen.

When Saint Birnstan was nearing his end, the blessed souls earnestly besought the Almighty that his release from the chains of the body should be a speedy and painless one. It was an old habit of the Bishop every day to wash the feet of a certain number of beggars, to wait on them at table, to send them away loaded with grifts, and then to spend an hour or more in meditation and prayer, the servants having strict orders that he should not be disturbed. One day, after dismissing his guests, several hours went by without the Bishop appearing. Towards evening, his attendant, alarmed by his long absence, entered the chamber, and found the Saint stretched lifeless on the floor, his hands still clasped in prayer. Thus peacefully, while pouring out his soul to his Maker, did Saint Birnstan lay down his earthly burden in the ninth century after Christ.

– text and illustration taken from Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict by Father Aegedius Ranbeck, O.S.B.