Attaining prominence in the heart of government, “having the king’s ear”, achieving a position of influence at court – these are things which have caused many to make an idol of power and to succumb to the temptations which accompany power. But St. Eligius of Noyon shines as a brilliant example of one who used his place of importance for the glory of God.
Born around 590 near Limoges, Eligius (or Eloi) was sent at a young age to apprentice with the goldsmith Abbo, who was master of the mint at Limoges. The boy’s obvious talent as a craftsman led him to work with Babo, a goldsmith with commissions for royalty of the Neustrian kingdom. Eligius was given the assignment of making a throne for King Clotaire II from gold and precious stones provided by the king. As honest as he was talented, Eligius recognized that there was more than enough material for the task, so he created two thrones with what he had been given. The king was so impressed, not only with the beauty of Eligius’ work, but also with his refusal to participate in the usual corruption of his day, that he appointed the craftsman master of the mint at Marseilles and brought him to court to serve as an advisor. Eligius’ rise to power was well underway.
At this crucial moment in his life, Eligius realized that he wanted to devote his life to God. Like the Wise Men at Epiphany, he wanted to offer his gold and jewels as a gift to Christ; instead of golden jewelry for the arms of the wealthy nobles, he wanted to adorn churches with the beauty of his creations; more than earthly royal favors, he desired to find favor with the King of kings. So he and another like-minded soul at court began a semi-monastic life, following the Irish rule which had been introduced into Gaul by St. Columbanus. In addition to fasting and prayer, as often as was possible with his other required duties, Eligius made gold chalices and reliquaries for the shrines of the saints.
When King Clotaire died in 629 and was succeeded by his son Dagobert, Eligius was entrusted with even more courtly responsibilities, often as a diplomat negotiating with ambassadors from other kingdoms. He was able to make use of this position to ransom slaves and to provide alms for the poor. He wore the external garments of his trade, carrying gold and jewel-filled purses on his belt, and these he sold to buy bread for the hungry and the freedom of slaves (Romans, Gauls, Bretons, Moors, Saxons) who were daily sold in the slave market at Marseilles. While Eligius was not free to lead a cloistered monastic life, he founded a monastery at Solignac and a convent in Paris for those who were. He also built several churches in honor of St. Martin and St. Denis.
Another turning point occurred in the life of Eligius in 639. King Dagobert died and the Queen Regent, Nasthilde, assumed rule for her young son Clothar. Eligius was now released to leave the court and he entered the priesthood. But quiet solitude eluded him. By popular acclamation, he was chosen Bishop of Noyon and Tournai in 641.
As his diocese was still largely populated by pagans, Bishop Eligius set about the evangelistic task of converting the Flemings, Frisians and Suevi who lived among his people. Through him, many came to believe in Christ and were baptized. Still in existence is a copy of a sermon which the bishop preached, warning these new Christians about the dangers of continuing their earlier pagan superstitious practices, such as fortune-telling and watching for omens. He urged them instead to seek protection and comfort in the sign of the Cross, in prayers, and in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
During the long years he was granted to serve as bishop, St. Eligius continued to build churches and shrines, to encourage reverence for the relics of the saints and to practice charity toward the poor. His concern for the plight of slaves also continued and he found an ally in Queen Bathild, who had herself been an Anglo-Saxon slave, gaining her freedom by marrying King Clovis II in 649. When her husband died in 657, Bathild acted as regent for her 5-year-old son Clotaire. Bishop Eligius and Queen Bathild together were able to have laws enacted against selling slaves outside the kingdom and protecting the right of slaves to rest and worship on Sundays and holy days.
St. Eligius fell asleep in the Lord in 660 on December 1, the day we celebrate as his feast day. His friend, Oeun, with whom he had begun monastic practices – who also became a bishop and a saint – wrote a Life of St. Eligius and it is through him that we know many of the details about this holy man. May we, like St. Eligius, make an offering of our talents and skills to God, and may the prayers of St. Eligius aid us in using the influence we have with others for the glory of God.