SEARCHING FOR SAINTS IN SOUTHERN FRANCE (PART 1)

TREASURES OF HEAVEN IN TOULOUSE

 

Basilica Saint Sernin

 

The bull’s blood-caked hooves thundered down the cobblestone path. He tossed his curved horns and the sun glinted in his fear-maddened eyes.

 

Town folks screamed and scattered as the beast bucked and lunged, dragging and trampling a figure in bishop’s cassocks, tied by his ankles to the animal’s tail.

Just then, the rope snapped and the great beast stopped. A couple of women rushed forward to retrieve the broken body so violently flung aside. In haste, they buried the mangled remains on the spot where I now stand.

 

Under my feet, the stones looked clean. Two thousand years of rain have washed away the blood of Saint Sernin (Saturnin), one of 72 disciples of Jesus, first bishop and martyr of Toulouse.

 

But his memory lives on.

Notre Dame du Taur

The faithful built a Gothic church on the site where he died. “Notre Dame du Taur“  (Our Lady of the Bull), they called it, dedicated to the black virgin. Its altar depicted a tableau of the saint and his horned killer coming to rest.

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The street along the magnificent Capitole, where the animal dragged him, they named “Rue du Taur“ (Street of the Bull).

along Rue du Taur

Today, locals meet at the Place du Capitole’s open-air cafes, fronted with a hotel and ringed by shops. But here, in the third century AD, heretics grabbed Saint Sernin, son of a Greek king and an Egyptian princess who followed the footsteps of Peter the Apostle.

The Capitole of Toulouse

It was Peter, first Bishop of Rome, who consecrated Saint Sernin as bishop of Toulouse and gave him companions – St. Papulus and St. Honestus, all martyred for Christendom.

 

At a time when Romans fed Christians to lions in the Colloseum and Emperor Decius obliged everyone to sacrifice publicly to heathen gods, Saint Sernin preached the word of Jesus all over “Tolosa”, then a most important city in the pagan empire.

 

In my mind’s eye, I can picture him that day, as he walked past the Capitole to reach the church, as pagan priests brought forth a bull and challenged him to sacrifice the beast  for the emperor and the gods.

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He refused, of course, angering the pagans who seized him and tied him to the bull to be dragged to his death.

 

Over a century after he was martyred, Rome was Christianized and the faithful transferred his remains to a larger church.

Now, his bones rest in the altar of Basilique St. Sernin, the biggest surviving Romanesque structure in France and a major stop for pilgrims en route to St. James the Apostle’s tomb in Santiago de Compostella, Spain.

 

The Way of St. James – the Long Road to Heaven – continues to be among the most important Christian pilgrimages, together with Rome and Jerusalem.

 

 

Yet, some of St. James’ remains lie in Basilique St. Sernin, alongside so many interred therein, I realized, as I wandered in its ambulatory – the walkway to the crypt below the altar-tomb, in “the Tour of the Holy Bodies”.

Relics of St James in crypt of Basilica Saint Sernin

Arrayed inside are relics of 128 saints, plus a thorn from Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the Holy Cross on which He was crucified – all donated by eminent citizens, including Emperor Charlemagne.

Medieval Church Law decreed it illegal to consecrate a church without relics. They believe the saints dwelt in their churches through these sacred yet morbid physical evidence which pilgrims venerate to atone for sins, beg for intercession and give thanks for blessings.

 

Most of the reliquaries and gold works comprising the treasure of Saint Sernin have been stolen during the French revolution. But somehow, the relics survived.

relics of bishop saint in crypt Basilica Saint Sernin

The gloves, miter, crozier and pallium of the bishop-saint, along with his missal and reliquary box reside in a glass-fronted niche opposite the copper tomb of St. Honestus, his French nobleman-disciple who evangelized with him in neighboring Spain.

 

St. Honestus converted Firmus, Roman Senator of Pamplona, and his son, Firminus (San Fermin), whom St. Sernin ordained as a priest in Toulouse before he became the first bishop of Pamplona. St. Honestus himself was martyred in Pamplona.

 

Pagans beheaded San Fermin in Amiens, France in his later voyage preaching the gospel. Strangely, St. Sernin’s martyrdom became interchangeable with San Fermin’s. Today, Spain celebrates San Fermin’s feastday in the famous “Enciero” – the running of the bulls.

 

The first two times I’ve been to Pamplona, I’ve missed the festival both times. I returned there a third time in 2014 to run with the bulls through the winding streets, irresistibly drawn to the “San Fermines” – a story I need to tell another time…

 

Now, while I’m in the basilica, I acquainted myself with its most renowned relics.

relics of St Edmund in crypt of Basilica Saint Sernin

In a side chapel, I found the golden casket of St. Edmund, king and martyr, forgotten patron saint of England. How odd that he should rest here in an alien land.

 

The monarch battled the Vikings invading England. Vanquished and captured, he refused to denounce Christianity, so they bound him to a tree, shot him with arrows then lopped off his head.

 

St. Edmund’s incorrupt body was interred in Eastern England until French knights stole it and brought it to Toulouse. Locals believed his intercession saved the city from the plague in the 16th century.

relics in crypt Basilica Saint Sernin

St. Giles rest in the same crypt. The Greek noble gave away his wealth to the poor when his parents died and became a hermit in the forest of Southern France, feeding on wild herbs and the milk of a deer who took refuge in his cave.

 

One day, the king hunted in the forest, shot the deer and wounded the hermit instead. When the king learned of St. Gile’s holy life, he built a monastery for the hermit on the condition he serves as abbot.

 

St. Giles worked countless miracles. When he visited Rome, the Pope gifted him with two cedar doors for his convent. The abbot threw them in the Tiber River saying God will see to it that they arrive in France before him. And they did.

 

The basilica likewise holds the relics of St. Simon, St. Jude, Philip the Apostle and Saint James, Patron Saint of Spain, fiery-tempered cousin of Jesus and first apostle to be martyred.

 

After Herod beheaded St. James in Judea, his disciples spirited his body in a ship to Iberia and buried him at Santiago de Compostela. However, rival tradition placed his relics in Basilique St. Sernin as his physical remains must have been divided between the two churches.

 

A few blocks from the basilica, I hiked to Eglise des Jacobins, an enormous 13th century church which Napoleon Bonaparte once used as barracks and stables for his horses during the French Revolution.

tower of Eglise des Jacobins

The brick Gothic complex was so magnificent, Avignon Pope Urban V decreed the most famous Dominican priest, St. Thomas Aquinas, should be interred there though in life, the Doctor of the Church himself never set foot in Toulouse.

Beneath the soaring nave supported by columns resembling stone palm trees, I knelt before the glass-enclosed golden casket of the greatest theologian and philosopher of the Church.

tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas in Jacobins

After prayers, a priest accosted me. “You’re a Filipino,” he smiled, introducing himself as an Indonesian who served in the Philippines before moving to Rome for his doctorate.

 

But I must be looking so jet-lagged, he gestured to a secret side door. “Visit the cloister. It’s restful there.”

 

I ended up under double columned marble arches enclosing a convent garden with thrushes pecking at my feet and magpies flitting on grotesques and gargoyles overhead.

 

Indeed, I found rest in that place where everything breathed Peace.

 

(This is a reprint of the story I have written in my Manila Bulletin travel column “My World In a Flashpack”.)

 

 

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