Stories of the Saints by Candle-Light – Saint Guthlac

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Guthlac of Croyland; artist unknown, 19th century; Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire, England; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsMany hundreds of years ago, in the days when England was ruled over by the Saxon Kings, there lived a boy called Guthlac. He was a very intelligent boy, not dull, like some children; he was obedient to the grown-ups, and, as the old book says, “blithe in countenance, pure and clean and innocent in his ways; and in him was the lustre of Divine brightness so shining that all men who saw him could perceive the promise of what should hereafter happen to him.”

But when he got to be about fifteen he forgot all the things he had been taught as a child. When he felt a kind of restless longing for adventure rising up inside him, and a desire to do wild things, and a cruel feeling that he did not care what happened to other people so long as he had a good time, he gave in to himself and began the most wild and reckless life you can imagine. He armed himself with a great ash-bow and a sharp spear from his father’s armoury. He slung a shield on his back, and stuck his belt full of knives and daggers and arrows. Then he went about and collected a gang of all the wildest boys he could find, and put himself at their head. Then, going through all the country round, these wild boys attacked anybody they thought was an enemy of theirs, paid off old grudges, killed and wounded innocent people, set fire to their houses, and did all the damage they could. Mad with excitement and lust for blood, they soon became just a robber band, attacking friend and foe alike, killing just for the pleasure of killing, or sacking farms and houses to satisfy their greed. They knew all the woods and by-ways so well that no one could catch them. After a time they began to build themselves huts where they could sleep, and also hide the treasure they had plundered from rich men. You can’t imagine any wicked or horrible thing they did not do. And, of course, they forgot God entirely, though once they had been Christian children and had been brought up to know and love God. Nine years passed like this, and then something happened.

One night as Guthlac, the chief, lay on his bed of rushes and soft, warm skins in the darkness of the wooden cabin, thinking over the excitements of the day and planning all the wicked things he would do the next day, a wonderful thought flashed into his mind, and it seemed to swallow up all the other thoughts. He lay still, gazing into the darkness and trying to understand what it was. Then, gradually, he found that it was God he was thinking about – God, Whom he had forgotten for nine long years.

He did not turn away his mind, but went on thinking about God until his heart was full of a kind of glow that was love. He was surprised, for he knew he did not really love God; for he was spending all his days fighting against Him by every wicked thing he could imagine. And then he began to understand that this feeling inside him was sent by God – it was God’s love for him, and not his love for God. Could it really be that God loved him? He was so very wicked and cruel, and God – God was so good and just and merciful.

The robbers, sleeping on their rush beds, breathed heavily; they were tired after a hard day. Guthlac listened to their breathing. They were his men; they obeyed him as their chief. He remembered the day, nine years ago, when he had thought of the bold robbers and sea-kings and brave men of the past, and longed to show that he was as daring as they, and could lead men to war. But as he lay, very wide awake, with the strange feeling of God near, he began to think of other great men he had heard of in his childhood – men just as brave and daring as the sea-kings, just as good leaders of men, more famous and wonderful, and – lovers of God.

God loved them, and they loved God and gave all their strength and courage to serve Him. They were His special friends. And now it seemed to Guthlac that God was filling his heart with love and asking him to be His special friend. A great feeling of shame came over him. How could God forgive him and want him for a friend after all the terrible things he had done? But suddenly a great longing filled him to be one of God’s special friends, and obey Him, and go on always loving Him. He longed for Christ to become his Chief and Leader; and then he began to understand that this would mean he must tell God from the bottom of his heart that he was sorry for all the wicked things he had ever done, and must promise on his honour that he would never again do a single one of them.

Guthlac sat up in bed and thought hard. This would mean that he must give up being a robber, give up his free life in the woods, give up leading his daring followers, give up all the unlawful pleasures of which his life was made up. It would be a terribly big giving up . . . but then, what a big, big thing he would get in exchange! He would get the friendship of God, and the knowledge that he had become very pleasing to Him. Stretching wide his arms in the darkness, he told God that he gave up all, all, all that was wicked, and he begged to be forgiven and made clean once more, like an innocent little child. Then, very happy, he lay back on his bed of skins and fell asleep.

The sun was streaming into the long, low room when Guthlac awoke. It was a glorious English spring morning. The sleeping robbers were stirring, one by one, beneath their warm deer-skins. They little thought that their chief, sitting up in bed with the morning sun in his eyes, was thinking about God, and how wonderful it was that He had come to him in the night and called him to become one of His friends. It was rather difficult to believe, in the light of day, with the coarse laughter and wild voices of the robbers ringing out on the morning air, and yet Guthlac knew it was true, and knew that he had made a great promise. He was too brave a man to go back on a promise, however hard to keep, so he stood up with a strong purpose in his heart.

The first step would be to tell his men. That would be terribly hard. He suddenly felt very lonely, and wished there was someone else there to back him up. Then he remembered that the Lord Christ was his Chief. Surely He would be near and help him in his first adventure?

So he stepped out into the dewy woods, where all the birds were singing as if they, too, loved God with all their hearts. And he called his men about him to hear the important thing he had to say. They all came crowding round, expecting to hear some splendid new adventure that Guthlac, their chief, had planned for them.

Then he stood up, taller than any of them and more splendid, and in his clear, ringing voice he told them that a wonderful thing had happened – God had called him to join the band of His brave friends. When God calls there’s no hanging back. And so he had given up for ever the robber’s life. He was no longer their chief. He had found a new Chief for himself, and was off, at once, on the adventure of God’s service. And so he bade them – good-bye.

The robbers looked at each other in horror and surprise. What had happened to their chief? Was he mad? What would happen to them without their brave leader? Falling down on their knees about him, they begged him to stay; but Guthlac’s eyes were already looking away at the new adventure he saw before him. The pleasures of his old life did not seem worth anything now; he scarcely heard the voices of his friends as they pleaded with him.

At last they gave up all hope of persuading him, and Guthlac walked away through the woods, leaving his old life behind him for ever.

He did not know where to go at first, but he felt sure Christ, his new Chief, would help him; and, sure enough, he presently remembered that not very far away there was an abbey of Saint Benedict’s monks. He knew those men were all Christ’s friends, and he was quite sure they would welcome him.

So he walked through the woods until he came to the abbey. There he knocked loudly on the great door, and presently a brother opened it. He must have been terrified when he saw the tall young chieftain standing before him, for all the countryside feared Guthlac. But very soon the brother saw the love of God shining in Guthlac’s eyes, and the gentle humility in his voice showed that he was no longer the cruel robber, but a servant of Christ.

The monks took Guthlac in and made him welcome. Soon he found that conquering himself and the Devil was a harder fight than he had ever fought against his enemies in the world, but he threw himself into the battle with all his heart. He did not do things by halves, but began to serve God with all his might, because before he had fought so hard against Him. Remembering how often he had got drunk with the wine he had stolen, he now would not drink one single drop even of the wine the monks were allowed to have. At first the brothers did not like this, but soon they began to understand the strong resolve of the young robber, and, seeing how very pure his heart was and how much he loved God, they all loved him. The curious old book which tells all about him says: “He was in figure tall, and pure in body, cheerful in mood, and in countenance handsome; he was modest in his discourse, and he was patient and humble, and ever in his heart was Divine love hot and burning.”

For two years he lived in that monastery, and then he began to long to live a harder life for Christ’s sake. He heard about the hermits of old days who used to live apart from other men in wild places, and he got leave from the Abbot to follow their example. So one day he set out.

He did not choose the beautiful green woods that he had once roamed in, but turned towards a most horrible place – a great marsh full of pools of slimy black water, and reeds, and rough scrub and bushes. It was the most lonely place you can imagine, and people feared to go there because they said it was haunted by evil spirits.

On an island in this lonely fen Saint Guthlac settled down with two servants. It was a very hard life, and the Devil sent him all sorts of horrible temptations and haunted him and gave him no rest; but Saint Guthlac rejoiced in the chance of fighting under his Captain, Christ, against the evil spirits.

It would take too long now to tell you of all the wonderful things that happened to Saint Guthlac on this island – we must keep them for another time. For God rewarded his love and his courage by giving him a wonderful gift of miracles and of great wisdom, so that the news of him gradually spread all over the country, and people began to understand that the great robber had now become a great Saint. And so from far and near, the people flocked to him. But one thing more about him I will tell you.

Though he had now no human companions, and chose to set all his love on God, he had a wonderful friendship with the wild animals that shared the island with him. In those days there were many wild beasts in England, such as wolves. These would come to Saint Guthlac and eat out of his hand. Even the fishes would come to him; and as to the birds, they did not fear him at all. The swallows, which are very timid birds, would come and settle all about on him, and there were some ravens which were a trouble because they were so tame and would come and steal things from his house. Once a holy man called Wilfrith, who had come to see Saint Guthlac, was surprised to see the swallows settle on him, and (as the old book says) asked him “wherefore the wild birds of the waste sat so submissively upon him.” Saint Guthlac explained to him in these words: “Hast thou never learnt, Brother Wilfrith, in Holy Writ, that he who hath led his life after God’s will, the wild beasts and wild birds have become the more intimate with him? And the man who would pass his life apart from worldly men, to him the angels approach nearer.”

So it was that the wild place called Croyland became a place of God, and Saint Guthlac, through God’s power, was able to do more good to his fellow-men than ever he had done them harm in his wild days. But though Saint Guthlac was doing miracles as wonderful as those of the Old Testament prophets, and preaching in his wilderness as wonderfully as Saint John the Baptist did in his, God did not mean to leave him there very long, for He wished to have His brave and true friend in heaven. After fifteen years Saint Guthlac, who was still almost a young man, fell ill. Knowing that God was calling him to Heaven, he gladly began to prepare. His illness lasted only seven days, and he himself knew that he would die on the eighth. But he had nothing to fear, for he had so truly repented of his sins that night when God spoke to him first that they had been all washed away. So he lay in his little house waiting. And when one of his faithful servants, who was some way off, at his prayers, chanced to look up, he saw the house with a kind of bright cloud of glory round it. And this brightness stayed there till day broke. And at dawn Saint Guthlac called his servant and gave him last messages for his friends. “And after that,” says the old book, “he raised his eyes to heaven and stretched out his arms, and then sent forth his spirit with joy and bliss to the eternal happiness of the heavenly kingdom.”

– text taken from the book Stories of the Saints by Candle-Light by Vera Barclay, 1922