As the Lord ever sends his angels when there is most need of help, so in the midst of the desolation and destruction which ensued on that irruption of the barbarians by which the Roman empire was broken in pieces after the death of Attila, the great desolator and exterminator, (A. D.453,) He sent to the aid of the oppressed people of Germany, on the banks of the Danube, in their sore need, a man endowed with an extraordinary energy of love. His whole appearance has in it something enigmatical. As he was not wont to speak of himself, nothing certain could be ascertained as to the land of his birth. Since, however, many of all ranks, from afar and near, who had gathered around him, wished to know his fatherland, and yet would not venture to ask it, a priest from Italy, who had taken refuge with him, at length took courage, and asked him the question. Severinus at first answered him in his characteristic way with friendly raillery, |If you take me for a runaway slave, try to collect the purchase-money, that you may pay for me when I am demanded.| Then he added seriously, What avails it a servant of God to declare his home or his pedigree, when by concealing them he can the better avoid display? May my left hand know nothing of the good work which Christ strengthens my right hand to do, that I may become a citizen of the heavenly country! What need is there that thou shouldst know my earthly country, if thou art assured that I truly long for the heavenly country? But know, that the God who has granted thee to become a priest, has commanded me to live amongst this sorely oppressed people.| After that, no one ever ventured to ask him such a question. Probably he came originally from the West, and had retired into some Eastern desert, in order to consecrate himself to the quiet life of holy contemplation. Here he was reached by the Divine call to sacrifice his rest to the suffering nations of the West, as again afterwards, when he would gladly have once more retired into solitude, a Divine voice frequently constrained him not to withdraw his presence from the oppressed tribes.
The district where he settled, the modern Austria and Bavaria, was then the theatre of the greatest desolation and confusion. No place was secure, one wild tribe followed another; all social order was dissolved. The land was devastated, the inhabitants carried away as slaves. Universal destitution and famine ensued on these perpetual wars. When Severinus had lived a long time among these nations, and accomplished much amongst them, so that his fame was spread far and wide and the episcopal dignity was offered him, he declined it, saying, |it was enough for him, that he had been deprived of his beloved solitude and led by Divine Providence into these regions to live amongst men who left him no rest.|
It must, indeed, have made a great impression on the enervated as well as on the savage nations, when they saw Severinus voluntarily renounce all comforts, and live at so small and mean a cost; when, in mid-winter, when the Danube was so firmly frozen that it could bear carriages, they saw him go about barefoot amidst the ice and snow.
Those nations which corrupt civilization had made effeminate, might learn from him what was so needful for them in their present circumstances, to be independent of outward. things, to elevate themselves by the life of the Spirit above their present distresses, and by spiritual joy to soften and sweeten want and destitution. The men of the barbarous tribes, on the other hand, who saw before them nothing but effeminate men, whom they might crush by the superiority of their bodily power; who acknowledged no dominion but that of physical force, -- must have been struck with admiration and respect when they beheld how a man, with a body worn out by abstinence, could, nevertheless, by spiritual power alone -- by the power of a spirit animated by faith and love -- accomplish the greatest things.
There was a great contrast between him and the worldly-minded clergy, as indeed one of their number once acknowledged when he said: |Depart from our city, thou holy man, that during thine absence we may enjoy a little relaxation from fasting and watching.| The warm-hearted Severinus could not restrain his tears, that a man of his holy calling should desecrate his position by such frivolous words.
Yet it was far from him to look on these renunciations as anything meritorious, and on their account to regard himself as a saint. When men praised him for them, he said, |Believe not that what you see is any merit of mine, but let it rather serve you as a wholesome example. Let human pride be abased. We are chosen to this end that we should accomplish some good thing; as the Apostle says, |that the Lord has chosen us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him.| Pray for me that the gifts of my Saviour may not serve to increase my condemnation, but to the furthering of my justification (sanctification). Hard and strict as he was with himself, he was just as tenderhearted in sympathy with the need and suffering of others. He felt hunger, his disciple says of him, only when he saw others suffer from it; he felt the cold only when he saw others destitute of clothing. He gave up all that he had, in order to help the poor people of these districts. His prayer, his exhortations, the example of his active, self-sacrificing love, were able, in a devastated, impoverished, and famine-stricken land, to bring to pass the apparently impossible. From many places the tenth of the harvest, to the collection of which he exhorted the clergy by his letters, was sent him to furnish clothing for the needy. Once in midwinter, people came to him over ice and snow, through mountainous and pathless regions, laden with clothing, which the inhabitants of Noricum had sent him for the poor. Gladly, however, did he bestow on the poor more than was demanded by the mere necessities of life. Once, when, in consequence of the advice of Severinus, many had taken refuge from the surrounding villages and towns on the Danube, in the then flourishing city of Lauriacum, (now Lorch,) in order to find there a shelter from the wandering barbarous hordes, it happened that he had just received from some merchants a quantity of vegetable oil, a very rare commodity in those parts. It was a delightful opportunity for him to give joy to his beloved poor, of whom he found a great multitude in this place of refuge. He gathered them all together in a church, and distributed to each of them, to their great delight, a due proportion of this oil.
Whilst he thus provided for the earthly wants of men, and imparted to them earthly gifts, he never ceased to unite with these spiritual blessings, by directing the eyes of all to the fountain of all spiritual and bodily good. He opened the assembly with prayer, and was wont, before he proceeded to the distribution of the gifts, to conclude with these words, |The name of the Lord be praised.| He used to remind the poor that they should receive these gifts as from the hand of the Lord, and give him thanks. His love was broad and universal; and, according to the true nature of Christian love, not narrowed by any kind of limitation. He saw in the barbarians as in the Romans, in the Arians as in the sons of the Church, brethren, needing his help. When he fell in with princes or chiefs of the barbarous tribes who professed the Arian doctrine, he did not begin with discussions about dogmas. He did not at once repel them by damnatory judgments on the doctrine which they professed, but first attached them to him by the power of love, and then imparted such exhortations and teaching as circumstances might most naturally suggest. The Arian prince of the people of Rügen, who dreaded the forces of the Goths, asked counsel of Severinus, whom he revered as an oracle. Severinus answered him, |Had we been bound together by a common faith, it would have been better that you should have consulted me about the things of eternal life. But since you question me as to the welfare of that earthly life which we share in common, receive my advice. You need not fear the power of the Goths, if you do not neglect the counsels of humility. Do not delay to seek peace even with the most insignificant, and rely not on your own strength. Cursed, saith the Scripture, is the man who trusteth in men and maketh flesh his arm, and in his heart departeth from the Lord.| (Jer. xvii, 5.)
It is evident, from many examples, what power Severinus exercised over the minds of these men. The son of a prince of Rugen, who had regarded Severinus as his most faithful and trustworthy counsellor, wished to fall on the city of Lorch, in which, by the counsel of Severinus, a multitude of the inhabitants of the surrounding districts had taken refuge from the swords of the barbarians, and to disperse those who had settled there into various parts of his dominions. They all besought Severinus, when this terrible rumour reached them, to go out to meet the prince and endeavour to soften his purpose. Severinus arose at once, and travelled the whole night, so that early in the morning he met the prince five miles from the town. When the prince expressed his regret that Severinus should have so fatigued himself, and asked him the cause of such haste, he replied: |Peace be with you, good king; I come as an ambassador of Christ to entreat mercy for your subjects. Think of the blessings which the Lord has frequently bestowed on your father through me His instrument. During the whole period of his reign, he did nothing without consulting me; and by following my wholesome counsels, he learned from his own experience how wise it is for the conqueror not to be puffed up by his victories.| The prince pretended that he was only guided by solicitude for the welfare of the inhabitants of the city, wishing to save them from the sword or the ravages of the Alemanni or the Thuringians, by providing them with shelter in his cities and fortresses. Severinus replied to this: |Were these people snatched by your arrows or swords from the devastations of the barbarians, or were they not rather rescued by the grace of God, in order that they might serve you the longer? Despise not, O king, my counsel. Confide these your subjects to my suretyship, and deliver them not up to the ill-treatment of so great an army; for I have confidence in my Lord, that He who has caused me to dwell in the midst of these afflicted people, will also grant me power to fulfil my promise in this matter.| And the king suffered himself to be persuaded to retire with his army.
People relied so much on the guardian power of this single man, that the inhabitants of the Roman fortresses besought him to dwell among them; declaring that they should be better guarded by his presence than by their walls. If he were amongst them, so they deemed, no harm could befall them. Thus he had procured himself a little cell in the city of Passau, where he established himself, when the citizens called him thence in order to be defended, by his intercession, from the ravages of the Alemanni, whose king, Gewald, had a great respect and love for him. This king once wished to come to this city, only that he might see Severinus again. Severinus went to meet him, anxious to spare the city a burdensome guest. By his exhortations, he made such an impression on the king, that he was seized with a violent trembling; and afterwards told his people that never, in all the perils of war, had he trembled so before. When he, thus impressed, asked Severinus what request he would make of him, Severinus besought him that, for his own sake, as well as for that of others, he would restrain his army from desolating the Roman empire, and liberate the captives whom his subjects had Carried away. A number of these unfortunates were, in fact, after this set at liberty.
His high-hearted trust in God, communicated even to the weak courage and strength in their calling. Whilst he was sojourning in the city of Faviana, the whole neighbourhood, even up to the walls of the town, was disturbed by barbarous hordes of robbers, and men and cattle carried off. Many of the citizens complained to Severinus of these misfortunes. He asked the Tribune who commanded the garrison, if he had no soldiers to pursue the robbers. The Tribune replied: |With my feeble force I dare not attack the greater force of the enemy. But if you advise it, I will venture; for I shall hope to conquer, if not by the strength of weapons, by the strength of your prayers.| Severinus confirmed him in this reliance on God. |Make haste,| he said; |be of good cheer in the name of God. If God is with you, the number and power of men are nothing. If your soldiers are unarmed, let them take arms from the foe. Since the compassionate God goes before you, the weakest shall become strong. God will fight for you. Therefore, only be quick; but remember this before all things, bring all the barbarians you take captive unhurt to me.| Thus the Tribune went forth. Half a mile from the city he found the enemy assembled: he put them to flight, armed his own men with the weapons which he took from the foe, and brought the captives, according to his promise, unhurt to Severinus. Severinus refreshed them with food and drink, and then liberated them with these words: |Go, and warn your people not again to venture near this city in search of plunder, for they will not escape the vengeance of that God who fights for His own.|
Severinus was regarded as a prophet. It may be that among the gifts with which God glorified himself in this extraordinary man, was included the glance of the seer. It may be, that he, with his spirit so filled with Divine life, did seem to the inferior beings amongst whom he lived, as a prophet: when he exercised such power over the heart; when, in the enthusiasm of his trust in God, he spoke with such confidence of spirit; when he announced to men, whom the horrors of devastation could neither awake to their senses, nor arouse to repentance, the impending judgment; or when he promised to believers, as if he already saw it, the help of God; when, with a glance sharpened by religion, he looked into a future veiled from the perceptions of those around him, and imparted to them, in consequence, warnings and counsels which the event justified.
He was also regarded as a worker of miracles. He himself claimed no such fame. Often did he enjoin silence on those who were witnesses of the things which he accomplished. When at one time, one sick to death was laid on her bed before the cell of Severinus, he said, weeping: |Why do you demand great things of the insignificant? I acknowledge myself totally unworthy: may I but attain forgiveness of my own sins!|
But as they persevered, saying, |We believe, if thou prayest, she will yet survive,| be threw himself, weeping, on his knees. And when his prayer had been granted, he said: |Ascribe nothing whatever of all this to my work. This grace has been obtained by fervent faith, and this occurs in many places, and amongst many nations, that it may be seen, that there is one God, who doeth wonders in heaven and earth -- who awakens the lost to salvation, and recalls the dead to life.| We may perceive, as Severinus also perceived, that such facts might be fitted for the peculiar circumstances of those times, as means of education for these nations.
A monk, named Bonosus, who suffered from a disease in the eyes, sought to be healed by the prayer of Severinus. But Severinus advised him rather to pray to God, that his inward eye might be enlightened; and following the repeated lessons of this revered man, the monk learned at length to seek rather for spiritual than bodily sight, and to forget his sufferings in intercourse with God.
How remarkably Severinus was sustained by Providence in his labours, two examples may suffice to show. The land had been much ravaged by locusts. When the prayers of Severinus were entreated, to avert this calamity, he said: |Have ye not heard what God commanded the sinful nation by his prophets? Turn unto me with your whole hearts; rend your hearts and not your garments; sanctify a fast; call the solemn assembly.' Joel ii. Do all this, that by works of repentance ye may escape the evils of this time. Let none of you go to his field deeming that the locusts can be dispersed by human care.| His words penetrated men's hearts; the feeling of repentance became predominant with every one; all assembled in the church for prayers, confessed their sins with tears of penitence, and gave alms. Only one poor man suffered himself to be absorbed by anxiety about his field -- spending the whole day, whilst the rest were assembled in the church, in anxiously driving off the locusts, and only joining the rest in the church in the evening. But the next morning he found his field ravaged by the locusts, whilst the other fields had been spared. This incident made a great impression, and Severinus made use of it to exhort the people to trust in God, and earnestly to enforce on them, that care for the things of the kingdom of God should be the first of all cares. But at the same time he said to those who had escaped: |It would be well that he who by the punishment he has suffered is a warning to you to be humble, should this year receive nourishment from your liberality.| All, therefore, united to provide for the poor man during the year.
When Gisa, the queen of the people of Rügen, had sentenced some captive Roman subjects to hard labour, Severinus entreated their release. She sent him a very angry answer, importing that he might shut himself up in his cell and pray, and leave her to do what she pleased with her slaves. When Severinus heard this, he said: |I have confidence in my Lord Jesus Christ, that she will be compelled by necessity to do that which with her perverted mind she will not do willingly.| It happened soon after, that the queen met the punishment which was a natural result of her harshness and cruelty. She had thrown some goldsmiths, who were to make certain royal ornaments, into a narrow prison, to compel them to work beyond their strength. The little son of the queen ran one day in his childish play in amongst the prisoners. They seized the boy, and threatened, that if any one dared to approach them without promising them freedom with an oath, they would first murder the child, and then themselves. Then the terrified queen acknowledged the judgment of God, and came to her senses; she released the prisoners, and instantly sent messengers to Severinus to beseech his forgiveness, sending back to him the Roman captives.
When Severinus felt the approach of death, he invited the king of the people of Rügen, with his cruel wife, once more to visit him. He exhorted him, with fearless freedom, so to behave to his subjects, as always to remember the account he would have to render to the Lord. Then, pointing with his hand to the heart of the king, he asked of Gisa, |Which do you love best, -- that soul, or gold and silver?| And when she replied that her husband was worth more to her than all the treasures of the world, he said, |Be careful then not to oppress the innocent, lest you yourself thereby prepare the downfall of your power -- for you have often stood in the way of the king's clemency. I, a lowly man, on the point of departing to God, conjure you to renounce your evil deeds, and adorn your life with good works.|
In his last hours, he gathered his monks around him, and gave them touching exhortations to lead a life devoted to God. Then he embraced each of them, and received cheerfully the Holy Supper, begging them not to weep, but to sing psalms. When they could not articulate for sorrow, he began himself to sing, |Praise the Lord, ye His saints; let everything that hath breath praise the Lord;| and these were his last words. After shedding blessings around him during thirty years, in the midst of desolation, he died on the 1st of January, 482.