Never was such a booty won as that obtained by the sons of Clovis in their expedition against Thuringia towards the year 530. “Receive this blessing from the spoils of the enemy” (1 Samuel 30:26), might they well say on presenting to the Franks the orphan brought from the court of the fratricide prince whom they had just chastised. God seemed in haste to ripen the soul of Radegonde. After the tragic death of her relatives followed the ruin of her country. So vivid was the impression made in the child’s heart, that long afterwards the recollection awakened in the queen and the Saint a sorrow and a home sickness which nothing but the love of Christ could overcome. “I have seen the plain strewn with dead and palaces burnt to the ground. I have seen women, with eyes dry from very horror, mourning over fallen Thuringia. I alone have survived to weep over them all.” (De excidio Thuringiæ I:V:5-36, Fortunatus ex persona Radegundis)
The licentiousness of the Frankish kings was as unbridled as that of her own ancestors. Yet in their land the little captive found Christianity which she had not until then known. The faith was a healing balm to this wounded soul. Baptism, in giving her to God, sanctified, without crushing, her high-spirited nature. Thirsting for Christ, she wished to be martyred for Him. She sought Him on the cross of self-renunciation. She found Him in His poor suffering members. Looking on the face of a leper, she would see in it the disfigured countenance of her Savior, and from there rise to the ardent contemplation of the triumphant Spouse whose glorious Face illumines the abode of the Saints.
What a loathing, therefore, did she feel when offering her royal honors, the destroyer of her own country sought to share with God the possession of a heart that Heaven alone could comfort or gladden! First flight, then the refusal to comply with the manners of a court where everything was repulsive to her desires and recollections, her eagerness to break, on the very first opportunity, a bond which violence alone had contracted, prove that the trial had no other effect, as her Life says, but to bend her soul more and more to the sole object of her love. (Baudonivia, Vita Radegundis 2)
Meanwhile, near the tomb of Saint Martin, another queen, Clotilde, the mother of the most Christian kingdom, was about to die. Unfortunate are those times when the men after God’s own heart, at their departure from Earth, leave no-one to take their place. As the Psalmist cried out in a just consternation, “Save me, O Lord, for there is now no saint!” (Psalm 11:2).
For, though the elect pray for us in Heaven, they can no longer “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in their flesh, for His body, which is the Church” (Colossian 1:24). The work begun at the baptistery of Rheims was not yet completed. The Gospel, though reigning by faith over the Frankish nation, had not yet subdued its manners. Christ who loved the Franks heard the last prayer of the mother He had given them, and refused her not the consolation of knowing that she should have a successor. Radegonde was set free just in time to prevent an interruption in the laborious work of forming the Church’s eldest daughter, and she took up in solitude the struggle with God, by prayer and expiation, begun by the widow of Clovis.
In the joy of having cast off an odious yoke, forgiveness was an easy thing to her great soul. (Baudonivia 7) In her monastery at Poitiers she showed an unfailing devotedness for the kings whose company she had fled. The fortune of France was bound up with theirs. France the cradle-land of her supernatural life, where the Man-God had revealed Himself to her heart, and which she therefore loved with part of the love reserved for her heavenly country. The peace and prosperity of her spiritual fatherland occupied her thoughts day and night. If any quarrel arose among the princes, say the contemporary accounts, she trembled from head to foot at the very thought of the country’s danger. She wrote, according to their different dispositions, to each of the kings, imploring them to consider the welfare of the nation. She interested the chief vassals in her endeavors to prevent war. She imposed on her community assiduous watchings, exhorting them with tears to pray without ceasing. As to herself, the tortures she inflicted on herself for this end are inexpressible. (Baudonivia 11)
The only victory, then, that Radegonde desired, was peace among the princes of the Earth. When she had gained this by her struggle with the King of Heaven, her joy in the service of the Lord was redoubled and the tenderness she felt for her devoted helpers, the nuns of Sainte-Croix, could scarcely find utterance: “You, the daughters of my choice,” she would say, “my eyes, my life, my sweet repose, so live with me in this world that we may meet again in the happiness of the next.” And they responded to her love. “By the God of Heaven it is true that everything in her reflected the splendor of her soul.” Such was the spontaneous and graceful cry of her daughter Baudonivia, and it was echoed by the graver voice of the historian-bishop, Gregory of Tours, who declared that the supernatural beauty of the Saint remained even in death. (Greg. Touron. De gloria confessorum, 106) It was a brightness from Heaven which purified while it attracted hearts, which caused the Italian Venantius Fortunatus to cease his wanderings, (Fortunat. Misc. 8, 1, 2, etc.) made him a Saint and a Pontiff, and inspired him with his most beautiful poems.
The light of God could not but be reflected in her who, turning towards Him by uninterrupted contemplation, redoubled her desires as the end of her exile approached. Neither the relics of the saints which she had so sought after as speaking to her of her true home, nor her dearest treasure, the Cross of her Lord, was enough for her. She would fain have drawn the Lord Himself from His throne to dwell visibly on Earth. She only interrupted her sighs to excite in others the same longings. She exhorted her daughters not to neglect the knowledge of divine things and explained to them with profound science and motherly love the difficulties of the Scriptures. As she increased the holy readings of the community for the same end, she would say: “If you do not understand, ask. Why do you fear to seek the light of your souls?” And she would insist: “Reap, reap the wheat of the Lord, for I tell you truly, you will not have long to do it: reap, for the time draws near when you will wish to recall the days that are now given you, and your regrets will not be able to bring them back.” And the loving Chronicler to whom we owe these sweet intimate details continues: “In our idleness we listen coolly to the announcement, but that time has come all too soon. Now is realized in us the prophecy which says: ‘I will send forth a famine into your land: not a famine of bread, nor a thirst of water, but of hearing the Word of the Lord’ (Amos 8:11). For though we still read her conferences, that voice which never ceased is now silent. Those lips, ever ready with wise advice and sweet words, are closed. O most good God, what an expression, what features, what manners you had given her! No, no-one could describe it. The remembrance is anguish! That teaching, that gracefulness, that face, that mien, that science, that piety, that goodness, that sweetness, where are we to seek them now?” Such touching sorrow does honour to both Mother and daughters, but it could not keep back the former from her reward. On the morning of the Ides of August 587, while Sainte-Croix was filled with lamentations, an Angel was heard saying to others on high: “Leave her yet longer, for the tears of her daughters have ascended to God.” But those who were bearing Radegonde away replied: “It is too late, she is already in Paradise.” (Baudonivia)
Radegonde was the daughter of Berthaire, King of Thuringia. When ten years old she was led away captive by the Franks; and on account of her straining and queenly beauty their kings disputed among themselves for the possession of her. They drew lots, and she fell to the share of Clothaire, King of Soissons. He entrusted her education to excellent masters. Child as she was, she eagerly imbibed the doctrines of the Christian faith and renouncing the worship of false gods which she had learnt from her fathers, she determined to observe not only the precepts, but also the counsels of the Gospel. When she was grown up, Clothaire, who had long before chosen her, took her to wife, and in spite of her refusal, in spite of her attempts at flight, she was proclaimed queen, to the great joy of all. When thus raised to the throne, she joined charity to the poor, continual prayer, frequent watchings, fasting, and other bodily austerities to her regal dignity, so that the courtiers said in scorn that the king had married no a queen, but a nun.
Her patience shone out brightly in supporting many grievous trials caused her by the king. But when she heard that her own brother had been unjustly slain by command of Clothaire, she instantly left the court with the king’s consent, and going to the blessed bishop Medard, she earnestly begged him to consecrate her to the Lord. The nobles strongly opposed his giving the veil to her whom the king had solemnly married, but she at once went into the sacristy and clothed herself in the monastic habit. Then advancing to the altar she thus addressed the bishop: “If you “hesitate to consecrate me because you fear man more than God, there is one who will demand an account of my soul from you.” These words deeply touched Medard; he placed the sacred veil upon the queen’s head, and imposing his hands upon her, consecrated her a deaconess. She proceeded to Poitiers and there founded a monastery of virgins which was afterwards called of the “Holy Cross.” The splendor of her virtues shone forth and attracted innumerable virgins to embrace a religious life. On account of her extraordinary gifts of divine grace, all wished her to be their mistress; but she desired to serve rather than to command.
The number of miracles she worked spread her name far and wide; but she herself, forgetful of her dignity, sought out the lowest and humblest offices. She loved especially to take care of the sick, the needy, and above all the lepers whom she often cured in a miraculous manner. She honored the divine Sacrifice of the altar with deep piety, making with her own hands the bread which was to be consecrated, and supplying it to several churches. Even in the midst of the pleasures of a court, she had applied herself to mortifying her flesh, and from her childhood she had burned with desire of martyrdom; now that she was leading a monastic life she subdued her body with the utmost rigor. She girt herself with iron chains, she tortured her body with burning coals, courageously fixed red-hot plates of metal upon her flesh that thus it also might, in a way, be inflamed with love of Christ. King Clothaire, bent on taking her back and carrying her off from her monastery, set out for Holy Cross; but she deterred him by means of letters which she wrote to St. Germanus, bishop of Paris; so that prostrate at the holy prelate’s feet, the king begged him to beseech his pious queen to pardon him who was both her sovereign and her husband.
Radegonde enriched her monastery with relics of the Saints brought from different countries. She also sent some clerics to the Emperor Justin and obtained from him a large piece of the wood of our Lord’s Cross. It was received with great solemnity by the people of Poitiers, and all, both clergy and laity, sang exultingly the hymns composed by Venantius Fortunatus in honour of the blessed Cross. This poet was afterwards bishop of Poitiers; he enjoyed the holy friendship of Radegonde and directed her monastery. At length the holy queen, being ripe for heaven, was honored a few days before her death by an apparition of Christ under the form of a moat beautiful youth; and she heard these words from his mouth: “Why art thou consumed by so great a longing to enjoy my presence? Why dost thou pour out so many tears and sighs? Why comest thou as a suppliant so often to my altars? Why dost thou break down thy body with so many labors, when I am always united to thee? My beautiful pearl! Know that thou art one of the most precious stones in my kingly crown.” In the year 587 she breathed forth her pure soul into the bosom of the heavenly Spouse who had been her only love. Gregory of Tours buried her, as she had wished, in the church of St. Mary.
Thine exile is over, eternal possession has taken the place of desire. All Heaven is illumined with the brightness of the precious stone that has come to enrich the diadem of the Spouse. O Radegonde, the Wisdom who is now rewarding you toils led you by admirable ways. Your inheritance, become to you as a lion in the wood spreading death around you, your captivity far from your native land, what was all this but love’s way of drawing you from the dens of the lions, from the mountains of the leopards, where idolatry had led you in childhood? You had to suffer in a foreign land, but the light from above shone into your soul and gave it strength. A powerful king tried in vain to make you share his throne. You were a queen but for Christ, who in His goodness made you a mother to that kingdom of France which belongs to Him more than to any prince. For His sake you loved that land become yours by the right of the Bride who shares the scepter of her Spouse. For His sake, that nation, whose glorious destiny you predicted, received unstintedly all your labors, your unspeakable mortifications, your prayers and your tears. O you who are ever queen of France, as Christ is ever its King, bring back to Him the hearts of its people, for in their blind error they have laid aside their glory, and their sword is no longer wielded for God. Protect above all the city of Poitiers which honors you with a special cultus together with its great Saint Hilary. Bless your daughters of Sainte-Croix, who, ever faithful to your great traditions, prove the power of that fruitful stem which through so many centuries and such devastations has never ceased to produce both flowers and fruit. Teach us to seek our Lord and to find Him in His holy Sacrament, in the relics of His Saints, in His suffering members on Earth. And may all Christians learn from you how to love.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)