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From The Biographical Writings and Letters of Venerable Bede, translated from the Latin, by J. A. Giles; James Bohn, London, 1845; pp. viii, 103-114.
LIFE OF THE HOLY CONFESSOR
of Felix. THE blessed triumph of St. Felix, which, with God’s aid, he achieved in Nola,1 a city of Campania, has been described by Paulinus, bishop of that same city, most beautifully and most amply in hexameter verse; but as this is adapted rather to poetical than to plain readers, it has seemed good to me, for the benefit of many, to explain the same history of the holy confessor in prose, and thus to imitate the industry of that man, who translated the martyrdom of the blessed Cassianus from the metrical work of Prudentius into simple and common language.
Saint Felix was born in Nola, in Campania, of a Syrian father, whose name was Hermias, and who coming from the East settled at Nola, and there begot a son Felix, to whom he left a rich worldly inheritance, to which however he himself preferred the gift of heritage promised us in Heaven. He had a brother named Hermias after his father, to take part in the family patrimony, but he had adopted a line of life repugnant to the character of Felix, and became unworthy of eternal happiness. For he studied only worldly goods, and preferred to become a soldier of Cæsar rather than of Christ; whereon, on the contrary, Felix (the Happy), following up the mystery of his name by his actions, devoted himself to the service of God from his boyhood, and showing forth fresh virtues every day, first undertook the
exorcist. of reader in the church; and afterwards becoming exorcist, began to cast out unclean spirits from those who were possessed. In this capacity his merits shone more and more, and speedily elevated him to the rank of priest. Nor were his mind and actions unworthy of his rank, as the storm of persecution, which followed, made manifest. For at that time the unbelievers raised a violent persecution, and heavily assailed the church. But the gates of death did not prevail against the gates of the daughter of Sion, so as to deter men from declaring their Maker’s praise. And when the authors of this treason had tried their first mad assault upon the leaders of the truth and faith of our Lord, and conspired together to slay the bishops and priests, or to make them recant their faith, to the terror of the rest, it came to pass that some of the leaders of the enemy came to Nola, to deliver over to torment its bishop, Maximus, a man venerable for learning, piety and his gray hairs. But he, perceiving this, and mindful of our Lord’s precept, “When they shall persecute you in one city, flee ye to another,” escaped for a time into a distant place of refuge, leaving the defence of the city to the priest Felix, whom he embraced as a son, and desired to have as his successor in the see. When the persecutors were unable to find the bishop, they proceeded without delay to lay hands on Felix, and determined to cast him down from his far famed constancy of virtue either by persuasion and promises or by threats and punishment. He is seized
by the perse-
cutors. He was therefore seized by his fierce adversaries, and, supported in his soul by divine consolation, thrown into prison, where his hands and neck were enclosed in chains, his feet tied with a thong, and broken shells scattered under him, that in his terror and the chillness of the place he might be prevented by their painful galling from enjoying sleep or rest. Meanwhile the bishop, who had fled for safety to the mountains, was suffering no less martyrdom than if he had been thrown 105 into prison or given to the flames. Solicitude for his flock preyed upon his mind; whilst his body suffered from hunger and the severe cold of winter; for he lay among the brushwood without food or covering, and spent one whole anxious day and night in prayer. Nor was it surprising that such a load of misfortunes should almost sink into the grave an old man exhausted by long fasting. Delivered by
a miracle. But the Divine Love, to show how great was the merit of the blessed confessor Felix, sent down an angel to pluck him from his chains and send him forth to seek the bishop and bring him home. There were others in the prison, but the angel appeared to him alone, shining in a brilliant light which filled the whole house. Felix was alarmed at the light and at the angel’s voice, and at first thought that he was dreaming. When the angel told him to rise and follow him out, he said that he could not, because he was bound in chains and carefully guarded. The angel told him again to rise without any impediment from the chains, and immediately his bonds fell from his hands, neck, and feet. By a wonderful course of events, he led him out, though the door which was open to him was closed to the others, and they passed through the guards without their knowledge, whilst the angel, like the pillar of Moses, guarded Felix and lighted his path, until he was clear of his enemies. When the blessed confessor had come to the desert where the bishop had taken refuge, he found him panting for breath, and his joy at having found him alive was damped by the probability of his immediate death. He clasped the aged father and kissed him, tried to inspire life into him with his breath, and heat into his cold limbs by the application of his own body. But when with all his cries and exertions he could rouse neither his mind nor body to life, and had neither fire to warm nor aliment to sustain his cold and famished frame, he suddenly thought of a salutary plan, and bending his knees in prayer, besought the Father of our Lord Jesus 106 Christ to aid him from heaven, in fulfilling the required duties towards his holy father. He was immediately heard, and saw a bunch of grapes hanging on a thorn close by. He perceived that it was a gift from Him who is the Author of nature and Creator of all things, and who brought water out of the stony rock, and, when He pleased, converted it into wine. Miraculous
Maximus. Rejoiced at this gift of Divine Love, he gathered the bunch of grapes, and pressed it to the mouth of the dying prelate; but his teeth were closed as if in death, all sensation of his heart and breath had ceased, and he was unable to receive that which was offered to him. At length the pious priest by good fortune forced open his parched lips, and poured into his mouth as much of the juice of the grape as he was able. The father, at the taste, recovered both sensation and breath: his eyes opened, and his tongue, which had stuck to his dry palate, attempted to articulate words. After some time he revived, and seeing that it was Felix who had come to seek him, embraced him with paternal love, and asked him why he had come so late, saying, “Where have you lingered so long, my son? for God promised me some time ago that you should come. But you see that, though I yield for the moment, I have faithfully preserved my firmness of mind, as the place of my retreat clearly proves. I might have fled to some village or city, where I should have been safe; if my faith had been of no value to me, or less dear than life. But, you see, I have avoided all the haunts of men, and have fled to the mountains, trusting myself to the grace and protection of God, that, according to his good pleasure, he might preserve me for this life or exalt me to a better. Nor did my trust in God deceive me, as is proved by your coming; which has recalled me, so to speak, from death to life. Wherefore, my son, finish your work of piety, place me on your shoulders, and carry me home. Felix complied with alacrity, and carried home the 107 bishop to his house, which was in charge of only one old woman: so entirely removed from all worldly cares was this venerable prelate! Felix aroused her by knocking at the door, and when she opened the door he committed the bishop to her care. The bishop thanked the holy Felix for his labour of love, and placing his right hand upon his head, gave him his fatherly blessing. The priest, departing, concealed himself in the same way for a few days in his own house, until the storm of persecution had passed over. As soon as this happened he left his concealment and restored himself to the sight of his congratulating citizens. He went about everywhere, consoling and confirming their minds with words of exhortation; for, during the bitterness of the late persecution; they had been terribly cast down. He taught them not only by his word, but by his example, to despise the prosperities and adversities of this world, and to seek only the joys of the heavenly country, to fear alone the anger of the Heavenly Judge. But the persecution was not yet over; Felix was again sought for, the enemy came to his house, and again essayed to seize him and deliver him over to death. He was by chance away from home, standing in the market-place with his friends, and teaching to the surrounding people, as was his wont, the word of God. His adversaries, hearing that he was there, rushed thither with drawn swords; Singular pre-
St. Felix. but when they came to the place, either his countenance or their hearts were changed by a sudden act of Divine Providence, and they no longer knew him, though up to that day they had known him well. They therefore asked the priest himself where Felix was: the prudent man perceived that it was the work of God, and replied, smiling, “I do not know the man you are looking for.” And in this he spoke the truth; for nobody does know himself. Upon this the persecutors turned their attention elsewhere, and asked those whom they met, where Felix was. One of them, by chance, ignorant of 108 their motives, and thinking they were out of their wits, began to reprove them for their folly in not knowing the man they had been talking to, and at the same time pointed out to them where he was gone. Fired to madness they rushed after Felix, who, warned of their coming by the multitude of citizens that preceded, and by the clamours of the people who were confounded at the enemy’s approach, withdrew to a secret place, which had no other defence than a fragment of a half ruined wall. No sooner, however, had the man of God entered that place, than he was protected by a work of the Divine hand; for a mound of rubbish suddenly arose and closed in the place, and a spider, by Divine warning, immediately hung its floating web on the abandoned spot. The miracle
of the spi-
der’s web. The adversaries approached and halted in awe, saying among themselves, “Is is not foolish for us to look for any one in this place? It is quite clear that no one has been here before ourselves; for, if any one had entered, these spider’s webs could not have remained whole, for even the smallest flies will sometimes break through them. The man who told us he was here must have done so deceitfully, to delay us longer from finding him. Let us return, and refrain from searching this place, the very appearance of which shows us that no one has been here before us.” Thus foiled, they retraced their steps in anger, and fixed with rage against him who had by his deceit led them to the place, to witness the wisdom of our pious Creator and Protector. Surely, the highest walls sometimes betray a beleaguered city, as well as defend it: for Christ protected his humble servant from detection and imprisonment at the hands of his armed enemies by a frail spider’s web: as the venerable father Paulinus says truly on this subject, — “Where Christ is with us, a spider’s web our wall shall be; where Christ is not, our wall a spider’s web shall be.” The evening was approaching when his enemies departed; and Felix, when they were gone, withdrew to a safer place of refuge, rejoicing in the Divine protection, and singing 109 within himself, — “Though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil, for Thou art with me.” When day dawned, he withdrew to a more retired place among the buildings of the city, where for six whole months he lived apart from men, relying on the protection of the Divine presence, according to the words of the Psalmist — “His countenance was hidden from the fear of men;” Miraculous
water. and Providence fed him during this long space of time in a manner wonderful and unknown to men. For in a neighbouring house there lived a devout woman, whose services, though she was unconscious of the matter, the Lord, who is the fountain and origin of all knowledge, made use of to accomplish his designs. This woman used to bake bread and cook other provisions, in her own bakehouse, and carry the surplus to the place where Felix was concealed, where she laid them down in such a way that he took them, and she never knew that she had either come or gone away; and believing that the food which she had prepared was at home, she always forgot that she had put it there, but never forgot to bring it. Thus they say the holy father remained for the space of six months in this obscure and narrow residence, apart from the society of men, but not abandoned by Heaven; and thus also he was fed on humble fare, but ministered to him by the Almighty; whilst, moreover, he is said during this time to have enjoyed the privilege of intercourse with the Most High. There was also an old cistern in the same house, which supplied him with water; and though this was dried up by the heat of summer, yet water for his nourishment never failed the holy Felix. For the merciful Author of our salvation, who, when all around was dry, caused the fleece to drop with water, sent down from heaven, through the still and bright sky, a secret rain, to refresh his fainting servant. At the end of six months, he was admonished by Divine Providence to come forth from his retirement, as the fury of the persecution had now ceased. As soon as he appeared in 110 public, he was received by all with congratulations, as if he was come from Paradise; and he began from time to time to confirm their faith, which had been much shaken by the persecution. Meanwhile, God’s chosen servant, Bishop Maximus, died at an extreme old age, and Felix was at once, with the consent of all, elected to the bishopric. This most worthy confessor and teacher of the faith faithfully enacted, in his own conduct the precepts which he had taught. Refuses the
the death of
Maximus. But, to show what exalted humility was in his heart, he excused himself from undertaking this office, saying, that his fellow priest, Quintus, was more worthy of it than himself, because he had been raised to priest’s orders seven days before himself. This suggestion was adopted, and Quintus was made bishop; but he, with great humility, deferred in every thing to Felix, and caused him to deliver the sermon to the people instead of himself; and whilst he ruled, as far as regarded outward authority, Felix was the fountain head of doctrine. To his constancy in behalf of the faith which he professed, and his distinguished humility, he added the merit of voluntary poverty. For he originally possessed, by inheritance from his father, many farms and houses, and much money: but when he was proscribed during the persecution, he lost it all. When peace was restored to the church, and he had it in his power to resume his rights, he would not do so. His friends tried to persuade him that he might reclaim them with much interest, and spend the money or give it to the poor; but he would not be prevailed on, saying, “All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient; far be it from me, that I should set about recovering my earthly possessions, as if those in heaven, which I have preferred to them, are not sufficient. Rather let me be poor, and follow in spirit after Jesus, that I may reap a more abundant reward in his heavenly kingdom. Nor do I doubt that He who saved me from chains, and the dark prison, and so long sustained me away from the face of men, will feed me through the 111 rest of my life, if I cast all my care upon Him.” Such was the humility of the holy father: he would only take back a little garden as his own property, and three acres of land, for which he paid a rent. Moreover, he cultivated these with his own hands, without the assistance even of a single servant, and he took delight in bestowing on the poor a part of their produce. He displayed the same frugality in his dress, and was content with a single garment, which sometimes was hardly enough for him. Like St. Mar-
tin, he divides
needy. Every thing superfluous he gave to the poor; and if by chance he obtained a second garment, he very speedily gave to some poor naked wretch the better of the two.
Such were the piety, reputation, and merits of Felix. He died full of days and good works; and following in the track of the old fathers, was received into everlasting glory, as is evident from man signs displayed in the church wherein he was buried.
There was a certain countryman, poor in worldly goods, but rich in faith, who supported himself in straitened circumstances by the possession of two oxen, which he used in his own work, and also let out for hire to his neighbours. These oxen, which he took great care of, were one morning missing; and their owner, when he discovered the loss, without the slightest idea of searching for and finding them, ran to the church of St. Felix, where he threw himself prostrate on the ground before the doors of the sacred house; and, fixing his eyes on the earth, besought the holy man to restore him his oxen which he had lost, and vowed never to leave the church until he should recover them. He remained there all the day, uttering cries which savoured of a rustic dialect, but nevertheless evinced the faith which was in his heart. When evening came on he was ejected by the multitude, and thrust out of the sacred edifice. He then returned home, where he continued his lamentations all the night. But, because every one who asks receives, and who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened, and, as
the Psalmist says, “The Lord hath heard the desire of the poor,” — at midnight, when every thing was buried in sleep,
his oxen. and the poor man alone was kept awake by poverty and sorrow for his loss, on a sudden, wonderful to be related, the oxen which he was seeking came to the door, as if by Divine interposition; having returned safe from the hands of the robbers, through the wild country and the darkness of night, to their owner’s house. They knocked with their horns against the door of the house, to signify that they were come back; but the poor man, in fear and trembling, thinking that the thieves were returned, durst not open the door, until the oxen, as if understanding the cause of his delay, informed him who they were by lowing. The rustic, having thus recovered his cattle, acted by no means like a rustic on the occasion, but like a wise man and a faithful Christian; for the first thing which he did in the morning was to offer up thanks to his Redeemer. He went to the church of St. Felix, and took his oxen along with him. He joyfully told every one who met him on his way thither, and also those who were at the church, the benefits which he had received from the holy confessor; and, inasmuch as by lamenting so long for his loss he had done no small injury to his eyes, he offered up a petition to St. Felix, and got them cured; so that he returned home benefited in more ways than one, and full of joy.
At this time they desired to erect a more noble building in honour of the saint; and for this purpose wished to remove two small cottages of disagreeable exterior, which stood in the way, and presented a most unsightly appearance in the vicinity of the church. With this end in view, Bishop Paulinus requested their owners to pay respect to the holy Saint Felix, and suffer their private houses to be removed, in order to beautify and improve the church. The owners, however, brutally rejected his request, and said they would part with their lives rather than their property. The bishop despaired of being able
to overcome their obstinacy; but this was speedily brought about by the Divine interposition:
buildings. for one night, when all were asleep, a conflagration suddenly arose from one of those same cells, and began to spread to the neighbouring houses, apparently gaining fresh strength every moment, and likely to consume all the houses far and near. Roused by the noise and the flames, the citizens flocked together to put out the fire, by throwing water upon it; or at all events to save their property from the houses. But they found all human aid was unavailing, and they began to turn their attention to prayer. Led by the bishop, they thronged to the church of St. Felix, and on bended knees supplicated for assistance from on high. They then proceeded to the adjoining church of the Apostles, and put up the same prayer. After this, the bishop returned home, and taking a small splinter of the wood of our Lord’s cross, threw it into the midst of the fire. Immediately the flames subsided, and this small fragment of wood effected what so many men, with abundance of water, had not been able to accomplish. Such, indeed, was its power, that the usual nature of things was changed; and fire, which usually consumes every thing, was itself consumed by the wood of our Lord’s passion. When the conflagration was over, the citizens came in the morning to see what havoc had been committed during the night, and expected to find that they were great losers: but they found that nothing had been burnt, except what deserved to be burnt. Of the two houses before-mentioned, which even themselves wished to destroy, one was utterly consumed by the lames. The owner was put to shame by the thing; for he perceived that he had lost his house all the same, without meriting any obligation from the holy father; and immediately afterwards the owner of the other house which remained began to pull it down with his own hands, that the whole space round the church might be cleared, and be rendered worthy the merits of the saint. When all the rubbish 114 was removed, the Bishop Paulinus persevered in rebuilding the church, and accompanied the task in three years, adding pictures, and every other proper ornament. Death of St.
Jan. 14. In this church are celebrated the blessed life and ever memorable passion of Saint Felix, who, on the 14th of January finished his glorious career, and received the crown of life, which God hath promised to those which love him.
[The end of the Book of the Life and Confession of
St. Felix, which I, Christ’s servant Bede,
translated into prose out of the
metrical work of the Holy
1 Nola is in central Italy, in the commune of Campania. See a description of the area in Classical Geography, by H. F. Tozer, on this site.