Saint of the Day – 16 February -St Gilbert of Sempringham CRSA (c. 1083 – 4 February 1190) – Priest and religious Founder.
St Gilbert was the only Englishman to found a conventual order, mainly because the Abbot of Cîteaux declined his request to assist him in organising a group of women who wanted to live as nuns, living with lay brothers and sisters, in 1148. In the end he founded a double monastery of canons regular and nuns.
Saint Gilbert’s life was quite different than what was expected of him by his parents and society. Born to a Norman knight and a Saxon peasant, he grew up in a time where the memories of the Norman invasion of England were still well preserved. He, like many of mixed heritage at the time, suffered ostracism and disdain from his peers. Compounding his difficulties, Gilbert was apparently born with some form of disability, likely believed to be curvature of the spine. So odd was his appearance as a youth, the servants of the house even refused to eat at the same table as him. However, his mother, a woman of great faith, cared for him without hesitation, having been greeted by a vision prior to his birth, alerting her to the special gifts he would bring to the world.
Given his physical limitations and the fact that he was not a particularly good student, Gilbert was sent to France to study, rather then join the army as was expected of the son of a knight. Surprisingly, he excelled at his studies abroad, returning to the area having earned the title of “Master” and embarking on a mission to educate the children of the area—both male and female, which was relatively unheard of at the time. As the news of his education and piety spread, he was granted the rectories at Sempringham, which would have allowed him to live a comfortable life. However, he instead dedicated his life and his inheritence to serving the poor, while studying and residing with the nearby Bishop of Lincoln.
Despite his holiness and commitment to the Lord, Saint Gilbert did not take his vows and enter the priesthood until his fortieth year, citing his belief that he was unworthy of the position. Similarly, offered the archdeaconship of the largest diocese in Europe at the time, he declined, humbly preferring to stay in Sempringham. It was there that he established a convent for women, attached to the church at Sempringham. He later established monsteries for lay sisters, ministering priests, and lay brothers. Eventually he had a chain of 26 convents, monasteries and missions. The community would come to be known as the Gilbertine Order, approved by Pope Eugenius III, with Saint Gilbert as it’s Master. He travelled from location to location, supervising the Order, as local bishops were not permitted to oversee the community members. He established the Gilbertine Rule—a vow he himself did not take until he was near death, as he professed his belief it would be arrogant to do so, as he had written it. The rule put love of God first and foremost, but also included service to the community and the poor, humility, modesty, and acts of penance and self-denial.
The Gilbertine communities became known for their discipline, fasting and self-denial, and service to the poor. Over the years a special custom was created in the houses of the order called “the plate of the Lord Jesus.” The best portions of dinner were put on a special plate and shared with the poor, reflecting Saint Gilbert’s lifelong concern for less fortunate people. He himself ate little, mainly roots and slept little—taking short rests in a chair. He would instead spend the night in prayer. At one point in his life, he suffered imprisonment on the false accusation of aiding the exiled Saint Thomas a Becket. While he had not sent aid, he refused to make an oath stating as such, as he did not want to appear uncharitable toward the exiled bishop. Rather, he endured prison until his name was cleared. Despite the harshness of his daily penance, Saint Gilbert lived a long life, past age 100. His death was marked with “bright lights, sweet odors and incorrupt clothings.” Numerous miracles and cures have been reported at his tomb.
Gilbert was canonised in 1202 by Pope Innocent III. His liturgical feast day is on 4 February, commemorating his death. According to the order of Hubert Walter, the bishops of England celebrated his feast, and his name was added to the wall of the church of the Four Crowned Martyrs. His Order did not outlast the Reformation, however, and despite being influenced by Continental models, it did not maintain a foothold in Europe.