The Itinerary of Saint Willibald, by Father Thomas Meyrick, SJ

Saint Willibald of EichstaettOf the Nun of Heidenheim

To the venerable priests and deacons, abbots, and brethren beloved in Christ, whom our holy bishop, as a good captain and tender father, has appointed throughout his diocese, some in the order of priesthood, others chaste Levites, others monks and novices, to all these living in holy religious observance, I, an unworthy Sister, of Saxon lineage, last and least in life and manners, venture to write, and for the sake of memorial give to you, Catholic and religious men, ministers of the Word of God, a brief account of the early life of the venerable Willibald. Notwithstanding my want of wisdom and erudition, and the weakness of my sex, I am desirous, according to my poor power, of gathering some few flowers from the blooming abundance of his virtues, and composing for you a lasting memorial of them. And here I repeat, it is not my presumption that impels me to attempt this task on which I scarce dare to venture, but relying on your high authority and kindness, I propose, with the aid of God s grace, to describe the marvels of the Word Incarnate, and the scenes of the Gospel narrative which the venerable Willibald visited and beheld with his own eyes, and trod with his feet, in the very footsteps of Him Who was born into this world, suffered, and rose again for us; of all which he has given us a faithful narrative. Therefore it seems right that we should not be silent, nor suffer to pass into oblivion, the things that God has shown His servant in these our times. For we heard them dictated by his own mouth, in the presence of two deacons as witnesses, on the 20th of June, the day before the summer solstice.

Indeed, I know that it may seem boldness on my part to write, when there are so many more excellent than myself, and holy priests, capable of doing so, but nevertheless, as their humble relative and the least of their race, I would commit to memory something of the acts and travels of these venerable men — the one of whom is our high priest, pastor, and bishop, the great Master Willibald, lover of the Gross, and the other is abbot, priest, and glorious servant of Christ, Winibald, guide in the path of perfection, missioner to the people, and bold rebuker of sin. Hoping, therefore, to find excuse and indulgence, by your kindness and favour, and looking for help to the grace of God, I present to you their history, traced in letters of ink, to the glory of God, the Giver of all good.

Early Life of Saint Willibald

First, then, I will relate the early life of the venerable bishop and pious servant of God, Willibald, and, beginning from his infancy, will follow it to his old age, now far advanced.

Nurtured by his parents with tender care, he arrived at the age of three years, when he was taken with such violent sickness as to be brought to extremity. His father and mother, seeing he was about to die, were exceedingly grieved at the likelihood of the loss of their tender child, whom they hoped to leave as their successor and heir. Yet it was not the will of the almighty and merciful God that he should die in his infancy, but live to instruct others in His law.

Accordingly, to continue, they being in very great fear and grief, made an offering of the child before the holy Cross of God our Saviour. For such is the custom of the Saxon nation, that on the estates of the noble and good they have commonly the emblem of the holy Cross in place of a church, dedicated to the worship of God, erected in a lofty place, to be frequented for the purpose of daily prayer. Placing him there before the cross, they earnestly besought God, the Creator of all things, to save his life by His almighty power; and they promised on their part, that if his health were restored, he should, as soon as possible, receive the tonsure, and be dedicated to the service of Christ as a monk and soldier of God. So when the noble child had come to the age of five years, and showed already wisdom before its time, they hastened to fulfill their vow, and to send him to begin his monastic life, having first obtained the consent of their relatives and adherents. And they committed him to the care of the faithful and venerable Theodred to take him to the monastery, and make all due provision for him. When, therefore, they came to the abbey called Waltham, they delivered him to the keeping of the venerable abbot of the monastery, Egbald by name, to live subject and obedient to his rule And immediately the abbot summoned together the monks according to custom, and asked them whether they were willing and of one mind to receive him amongst them; and they all signified their willingness.

Forthwith the wise and gracious child began to learn by rote the Psalms of David, and other books of the holy law, whilst he was so young, fulfilling the words of the Prophet, “From the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise.” And as he grew in stature, he grew also in grace, being wholly turned to the love of God, and meditating on the Scriptures day and night, while he considered the monastic rule, and how one day he should become a monk, joining the blessed company of religious men.

Meanwhile he began to ponder how he could most effectually leave the world with its riches and possessions, his parents and relations, country and home, by making a pilgrimage to a strange land. And when he had passed, by Gods grace, the dangerous and slippery years of early youth, and reached manhood, his gentle behaviour and obedience had gained the love of all the brethren, so that he was highly honoured and esteemed among them, making daily progress in study and strict observance. Then it was that, as said above, eagerly desiring to make a pilgrimage to distant lands, he opened his secret thought to his father by the ties of consanguinity, and besought him not only to grant his leave to the request, but himself also to accompany him in pilgrimage. And at first, when he thus urged his father to forsake the uncertain riches of the world and to enter into the service of the heavenly warfare, leaving home and family, and seeking the glorious threshold of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, he would not, but said that it was unfatherly to leave his children and wife, and leave them defenseless to others. But the young soldier of Christ our Lord continued to plead in behalf of the austere religious life, dwelling upon the terrors of eternity and the hopes of everlasting happiness in heaven, until he so wrought upon his mind, that in the end he prevailed, and his father and brother Winibald gave their promise to accompany him.

So when the summer was commencing, he and his father and youthful brother set out upon their pilgrimage. And having made all ready with provisions for the way, they came with a numerous company of friends and fellow-travelers to the appointed place, called Hamlemuth, near the mart called Hamwich. Then, the wind and tide favouring, they went on board a vessel, with its captain and crew hired to receive them. After a quick passage across the dangers of the sea, they came to land, and there pitched camp, setting up their tents on the banks of the river Seine, near a town called Rouen, where there is a mart.

Having rested there some days, they proceeded onwards, visiting the shrines of many saints upon their way, until at length they came to the Gorthonic land,* and after that to Lucca. Thus far Saint Willibald and Saint Winibald brought their father with them, and there he was taken with sudden sickness to death, and it became so sore, that he died; and his sons, having wrapped in fair burial cloths the body of their father, laid it in the tomb in the city of Lucca, at the Church of Saint Frigidian. In that place the body of their father sleeps in peace.

Proceeding forward in haste, over mountains and valleys of Italy, they passed in safety, by the aid of God and the saints, the Alpine heights, with all their company and comrades, secure from the dreaded ambush of enemies, and came to the glorious threshold and renowned patronage of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. And there they gave great thanks to Almighty God, that having passed the dangers of the sea and the harms to which pilgrims are exposed, they had safely reached the “ladder” of scholarly learning, and the sight of the glorious Basilica of Saint Peter. Then the two brothers remained there from Martinmas till the next Easter, occupied during the winter, until the spring and the joyous burst of the Easter festival, in the exercises of religious monastic life. But as the heats of summer came on, they were both taken with ague fever, so that they were brought to extremity; yet, by the merciful providence of God, they lay sick alternate weeks, so that they could wait in turn upon each other. And still they persevered in practices of religious observance and recitations, according to the words of truth, “He that perseveres to the end shall be saved.” Then, after his recovery, the glorious lover of the Cross, looking up to heaven, and pur- suing perfection, ardently desired to proceed yet further upon a more unfrequented pilgrimage, and petitioned leave and prayers of his fellow-countrymen, that he might set forth and arrive safe at the walls of the lovely and delectable city of Jerusalem.

Journey from Rome to Jerusalem

Accordingly, as soon as the Easter solemnities had again passed, the eager athlete, with his two companions, arose to commence his journey. And they went eastward to Tarracina, where they rested two days, and from thence to Gaieta on the sea shore, crossing the bay to Naples, where they stayed two weeks. These cities belong to the Romans, though they are in the kingdom of Beneventum. There they found, by God’s good providence, a ship from Egypt, on which they embarked and sailed to Reggio, a city of Calabria. Having stayed there two days, they set sail, and came to the isle of Sicily and city of Catana, where the body of Saint Agnes, virgin martyr, reposes. Hard by is Mount Etna, whose fires at times spread devastation over that country; and then the people of that city take the veil of Saint Agatha, and with it stop the progress of the flames.

There they abode three weeks, and setting sail from thence, crossed the Adriatic Sea to Manafasia, in the Sclavonic land, and from thence they sailed to Chios, leaving Corinth on the left, and from Chios they came to Samos. From it they crossed to Ephesus on the sea shore, one mile from the sea. Thence they went on foot to the place where the seven sleepers repose, and walked on to the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, situated in a delightful spot near Ephesus. From Saint Johns they walked two miles along the coast to a town of great size, called Figila. And they tarried there one day, and having begged some bread, went to a fountain in the midst of the city, and sitting beside it on the margin of the basin, they dipped the bread in the water, and so ate of it. Proceeding on foot from thence along the sea, they came to the city Strobole, standing on a lofty mountain. And from thence to a place called Patara; in which they stayed until the season of winter was over. From Patara they took ship to a city called Militena. J This place was once in peril of being destroyed by a flood, and two hermits dwelt there, being Stylites — that is, upon a pillar or wall of stone built very high, so that the waters could not reach them. And there, being without food, they were near being starved to death; but the Almighty Pastor of His people mercifully gave food to His poor. From this place they sailed to Cyprus, an island which lies between the Greeks and the Saracens. And they came to the city Paphos, and stayed there a week. And thus ended the first year of pilgrimage.

From Paphos they went to Constantia, in which city Saint Epiphanius lies at rest; and they stayed there until the Nativity of Saint John Baptist was over. From thence, setting sail, they came to the country of the Saracens, to the city of Tarratas on the sea,* and proceeded on foot from thence to the castle of Ortha, a distance of twelve miles. There they found a bishop of the Greeks, and they had Mass according to the Greek rite. Proceeding from thence, they walked inland twelve miles to the city of Emesa, where is a large church built by Saint Helena in honour of Saint John the Baptist, and his head was a long time preserved there — that is to say, in the land of Syria.

Now there were at this time with Saint Willibald seven companions of his own country, Saxons, and he was the eighth. Whereupon the heathen Saracens, perceiving that strange men and foreigners had come thither, laid hold of them and put them in ward, because they knew not whence they came, but took them for spies. And they led them before the presence of a rich old man to examine them who they might be. And he inquired of them whence they came, and what was their business. And they declared from the beginning the cause of their journey. Then the old man answered and said: “I have seen heretofore men of the same country as these coming hither from those parts, and they come for no evil purpose, but to fulfill their law.” Then they went to the palace of the King to ask permission to go to Jerusalem. But whilst they were detained in prison, by God’s merciful providence, Who protects His own in captivity and perils from their enemies, there came a merchant who, for the redemption of his soul by almsgiving, would have ransomed them and let them go free, but could not, and he sent them dinner and supper daily, and every fourth and seventh day of the week sent his son to lead them from the prison to the bath and back again, and on the Lord’s day took them to the church through the mart, that they might see and purchase what they pleased, for which he paid. And the citizens of the place came in numbers to behold them, for they were fair youths, and handsomely attired.

There came also a Spaniard to visit them in prison and converse with them. In answer to his inquiries, they told him who they were, and whence they came, and all that had befallen them in their journey. The Spaniard had a brother who was chamberlain in the palace of the King of the Saracens. Accordingly, when the alderman who had put them in prison went with them to the palace, the Spaniard and the captain of the ship with whom they sailed from Cyprus came also, and they all stood before the King of the Saracens, who is called Mirmumni (Commander of the Faithful). When their cause was heard, the Spaniard bid his brother to explain the matter to the King, and plead their cause. Then the King asked whence the men came? and was told in reply, “They come from the land of the west, where the sun sinks into the sea — and beyond them is no land known, only the sea.” And the King spoke, saying, “For what reason should we punish them, they have done us no wrong. Give them, therefore, leave to go upon their way.”

So they were let go free, but the others in prison with them were required to pay three pounds in ransom; they were men of Cyprus not bearing arms, for there was peace and amity between the Greeks and Saracens. That region is large in extent, and there were twelve bishoprics there. Having received permission, they departed from Emesa and went to Damascus, a journey of a hundred miles. It is situated in the land of Syria, and there rests the body of Saint Ananias. They tarried there one week. And two miles out of Damascus is a church, the place of the conversion of Saint Paul, where the Lord said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” and having prayed there, they went on their pilgrimage into Galilee, until they came to the place where Gabriel first came to Saint Mary with the salutation, “Hail, full of grace.” A church now stands over the spot, and the name of the town is Nazareth. The heathen would many times have destroyed the church, but the Christians as often ransomed it There, having commended themselves to the Lord, they passed on, walking on foot to Cana, where the Lord turned water into wine. A great church stands there, and in the church an altar, composed of one of the six water pots filled with water, by our Lord’s command, which was changed into wine, and of that they received some. They stayed there one day, and proceeded from thence to Mount Thabor, where the Lord was transfigured. Upon it stands a monastery, and the church upon the summit is dedicated to the Lord and to Moses and Elias. The citizens of the place call it Agemons, the Holy Mount Having prayed, they passed on to the city of Tiberias, situated upon the shore of that sea over which the Lord walked as on dry land, but Peter walking upon it sank. In that city there are many churches, and a synagogue of the Jews; but the Lord’s day is solemnized with much honour. They tarried there some days. And thereby the Jordan flows to its outlet through the midst of the sea. From thence they coasted along the shore, and passed by the town of Mary Magdalen, until they came to Capharnaum, where the Lord raised to life the rulers daughter. There was a house there, and much wall standing, in which the people of the place said that Zebedee abode, and his two sons James and John. From Capharnaum they came to Bethsaida, the city of Peter and Andrew, in which a church now stands over the place where their house was. Having stayed the night, they went on to Chorozaim, where the Lord cured the pos- sessed and sent the devil into the herd of swine. In this city there was a church of the Christians, and having prayed there, they proceeded until they came to the place where two fountains take their rise, J or and Dan, and these flowing from the mountain sides, join into one river and make the Jordan. And there they stayed a night between the two sources of Jordan, and the shepherds gave ” us sour milk to drink; and there we saw cattle of a strange form, with long backs, short legs, and very large horns, all of one red colour, which, when the midday heat is great, rise and go down to the deep pools in that place, and plunge in so that the head alone is visible above water.” Proceeding, they went on to Cesarea Philippi, where there is a church and a great number of Christians. And again setting forth, they came to the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, where they found about twenty monks. And they rested there a night, and went on from thence more than a mile distance to the Jordan, where the Lord was baptized. A church stands there now, raised upon pillars of stone over the spot where our Lord was baptized; and there they now baptize. Beneath the church is dry ground, a wooden cross stands in the midst, a streamlet of water is brought in by a sluice, and a rope stretched across the Jordan is made fast on either side. Thus in the solemnity of the Epiphany, the sick and infirm hold by the rope, and are dipped into the water. The barren also receive the gift of childbearing. Our bishop, Willibald, bathed in that place in the Jordan. Proceeding from thence five miles, they came to Gilgal, where stands a church of wood of no great size, in which are the twelve stones which the children of Israel took and carried thus far from the Jordan in memory of their passage. Having prayed there, they went on to Jericho, which is above seven miles from the Jordan. There flows the fountain, rising from a mountain ridge whose waters were barren until the Prophet Eliseus blessed them; after which the city made use of it to water fields and gardens by irrigation and all other purposes, for its waters bring with them fertility and salubrity from the blessing of Eliseus.

From Jericho they came to the monastery of Saint Eustachius, situated in the valley midway between Jericho and Jerusalem. Leaving this, he came to Jerusalem, to the place where the Cross of the Lord was found. Over it now stands a church built upon Mount Calvary, which was previously outside of Jerusalem; but the blessed Helena, when she found the Cross, encompassed the place so as to be within the walls of Jerusalem. Outside of the church, against the eastern wall, stand three wooden crosses in memory of the holy Cross of Christ and those who were crucified with Him. These crosses are not within the church, but stand outside close under the roof, and beside the church is the garden in which was the sepulchre of our Lord. This sepulchre was hewn out of the rock, and of that rock there stands a portion above ground, quadrangular at the base, and rising in a pyramidal form, and on the summit is a cross, and over it is built a glorious church. On the east side of this rock of the sepulchre is a door by which one enters to pray, and the tomb of stone is within, whereon the Body of the Lord was laid. And there stand upon it fifteen golden bowls full of oil, burning night and day: The said tomb is on the north side within the rock of the sepulchre, on the right hand of one who enters to pray. Before the door lies a great square stone, like the stone which once the angel rolled back from the door of the sepulchre. And soon after he came there he fell sick, and lay until a week before Christmas ill of that sickness, from which, as soon as he had somewhat recovered, he rose and went to the church called Holy Sion, which stands in the midst of Jerusalem, and having prayed there, he went to the porch of Solomon. Then to the pool where the sick lay waiting for the moving of the water into which the first who descended was healed; where the Lord said to the paralytic, “Take up thy bed and walk.”

He also narrated, that in front of the gate of the city there stands a great pillar, and on the top of it a cross, for a sign and memorial, upon the spot where the Jews would have seized the body of the holy Virgin Mary. For when the eleven Apostles bearing the body of the holy Virgin Mary were carrying it out of Jerusalem, as they came out of the gate of the city, the Jews would have laid hands upon it, but the men who stretched forth their hands to lay hold of the bier and stay its passage remained with their arms outstretched and motionless, as though they stuck fast to the bier, neither could they draw them back until, by the mercy of God, at the Apostles’ prayer, they were loosed, and so they suffered it to pass on. The holy Virgin Mary made her transit out of this life in the place called Holy Sion, in the midst of Jerusalem, and then the eleven Apostles, as said above, carried her forth, and the angels came and took her from the hands of the Apostles and bore her to heaven.

From Jerusalem to Monte Cassino

Then the bishop, Willibald, went down into the Valley of Josaphat. This lies to the east, outside of the city Jerusalem. In that valley is the Church of the Holy Virgin, and in the church her tomb, not that her body rests in it, but it is for a memorial of her. And haying prayed there he ascended to Mount Olivet, which is over against the valley on the eastern side. The valley is between Jerusalem and Mount Olivet, and on the ascent of the mountain stands a church, on the place where the Lord prayed before His Passion and said to His disciples, ” Watch and pray.” From thence he went up to the church on the summit where the Lord ascended into heaven. And in the midst of the church stands a piece of finely-sculptured bronze, in form quadrangular! It stands on the central spot where our Lord ascended, and in the middle of the. bronze is a hollow four-square, in which is a lanthorn, or light, enclosed with glass, and it is so enclosed that it may burn always, both in wet and dry, for the church is open above and without a roof. Moreover, two pillars stand in the church against the wall on the northern side, opposite the south wall, in memory of the two angels who said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?” Whosoever passes between those pillars and the wall may gain a plenary remission of sins. From thence he came to the place where the angel appeared to the shepherds, saying, “I give you tidings of great joy.” And from thence to Bethlehem, where Christ was born, seven miles from Jerusalem. The place of the Nativity was of old a cave beneath the ground, and is now a house, in form four-square, cut out of the rock, and the earth dug away around it and removed. Above it a church is built, and over the place of the Nativity stands an altar above the grotto, and another portable altar is carried within the grotto when they wish to say Mass there, and after Mass is carried out again. The church over the grotto of the Nativity is a glorious building, cruciform. Having made their adoration there, they proceeded and came to a large town called Thecua, and the place where the come into the presence of the holy Pontiff, he prostrated before him and saluted him. Then the Pastor of all people asked him to give an account of his travels, and the seven years spent by him in foreign heathen lands. Then the pilgrim and servant of Christ humbly recounted to the glorious governor of the world the story of his travels; how he had passed through various parts in his pilgrimage, and visited the place of the birth of the Lord God in Bethlehem, and of His baptism in the Jordan, and how he himself had bathed there; how he had gone to Jerusalem and holy Sion, and the place where the Saviour of men was crucified, dead, and buried, and to Mount Olivet, where He ascended into heaven; that four times he had visited Jerusalem to commend himself in prayer to God. All this he related to the Pope.

After they had thus held sweet conversation, the holy apostolic chief Pontiff seriously signified to blessed Willibald that the holy Boniface had made request to him to send him Willibald from Monte Cassino to be his assistant in the conversion of the Franks. Moreover, the Apostolic Father Gregory declared that it was his will and desire that he should go to Saint Boniface. Then the athlete of Christ promised immediate obedience so soon as he should obtain the leave of his abbot. Upon which the head of supreme authority replied that “his order was sufficient,” saying, “Should I please to send anywhere the Abbot Petronax himself, he certainly would have no power nor right to disobey me.” Then Saint Willibald answered “that he was ready to go not only thither but wheresoever in the world he should please to send him. Then, after his converse with the Pope, Saint Willibald left Rome in Easter time, having come on Saint Andrews day, but Diapert remained at Monte Cassino. And Willibald came on his way to Lucca, where his father lay buried in peace. From Lucca he came to Ticino, and then to Brixia, and from Brixia to Charinta. And the Duke Odilo of Bavaria received him in his house, and he abode a week, and then the Count Suitgar, with whom he abode a week, and the count and Saint Willibald went together to Linthrat to Saint Boniface. And Saint Boniface sent them to Eichstadt to view the place and see how it pleased him, for Suitgar had given those lands to Saint Boniface for the good of his soul. And Saint Boniface gave those lands to our bishop, Saint Willibald, when it was as yet all waste and no habitation there, except the little church of Saint Mary, which still stands, lesser than the other church which Saint Willibald built there. And when they had remained a time there choosing a place for a monastery they returned to Saint Boniface to Frisinga. And then all three went again to Eichstadt, and there Saint Boniface consecrated Willibald priest, and the day of his consecration was the feast of Saint Mary Magdalen, the 22nd of July. And after the space of a year Saint Boniface sent for him to come to Thuringia to him, and he immediately came and lodged in the monastery of his brother Winibald, whom he had not seen for the space of nearly eighteen years, since they parted company in Rome, and they rejoiced together upon meeting again. It was autumn when he came to Thuringia, and shortly after Saint Boniface, Archbishop, and Burchard and Wizo, ordained him bishop, and thus, having been raised to the summit of the priestly honour, he stayed a week, and then returned to the appointed place of his habitation.

Saint Willibald was forty-one years old when he was consecrated bishop, about three weeks before Martinmas, in a place called Salpurg.

Thus ends the narrative of his journeys and his seven years’ pilgrimage, all which we have endeavoured faithfully to declare, and that not from hearsay but from his own mouth, as it was dictated to us in the monastery of Heidenheim, with two of his deacons and others present as witnesses. And this I mention that none may hereafter lightly question it When he arrived he had three companions; and being consecrated bishop at the ripe age of forty-one, he began to build his monastery at Eichstadt. And there he both practiced himself and taught to others the holy rules of monastic life, as he had seen it observed at Monte Cassino and in other houses in his travels. And though at first the labourers were few, he sowed the seed of the holy Word and toiled for the future harvest. Being like the prudent bees, who come home from the flowers and fields laden with honey, so he imparted to others the good he had gathered by his experience in his travels.

And after he had founded the monastery, many soon came from far and near to listen to his wisdom. These he gathered as a hen gathers her chickens beneath her wing, and gave new children to the Church. They in their turn, nourished by the milk of piety, have become themselves the masters of others.

This, then, is that Willibald who, though helped by few at first, is now surrounded by many assistant priests, and has won to the Lord much people. So that far and wide throughout Bavaria the Gospel is preached, churches are built and adorned with relics, Masses are said, psalms and antiphons are singing, holy lessons reading, and Christ’s glorious miracles and the praises of the Creator are in the mouths of a multitude of the faithful.

And what shall I now say more of him who is your pastor and my master? Why speak of his piety, humility, patience, continence, meekness? Who is more strenuous than he in comforting the sorrowful, feeding the poor, clothing the naked. This is not said for the sake pf vainglory, but only according to what we have seen and heard — the work of the grace of God and not of man, for, as the Apostle says, ” He that glories let him glory in the Lord.” Amen.