How often, in the history of the Christian Church, have great things resulted from unlikely beginnings? Since the Resurrection, when the instrument of death – the Cross – became the symbol of our salvation, there have been many times when a humble beginning or an apparent failure has brought about a major development or advancement in the work of the Church. The Irish monk, St. Gall, provides us with an example of one whose simple, faithful life was the catalyst for a great flourishing of the faith and the conversion of many.
Born around the middle of the 6th century, Gall’s devout Christian parents dedicated him to God at an early age and entrusted his education and spiritual direction to St. Columbanus of the monastery of Bangor.
When Columbanus embarked on a mission to convert the Frankish pagans on the continent, he took twelve disciples with him, among them the monk Gall, who was skilled as a linguist. The missionaries established their first monastic settlement at Luxeuil in Gaul, where they were well received and made progress in spreading the good news of Christ’s love to the local people.
Columbanus continued to travel, accompanied by Gall and other monks, following the path of the Rhine River. Their work of preaching and teaching was often fruitful, but they were sometimes forced to leave an area suddenly. Columbanus condemned King Theodoric’s lustful relationships and, when the king reacted against this criticism, the monks took refuge in Arbon near Lake Constance in what is now Switzerland. Here they built cells for themselves, intending to live as hermits and preach to the pagans whenever possible.
But Columbanus decided to travel on to Italy, expecting Gall to come with him. However, St. Gall, suffering from some temporary illness and desiring to remain in his hermitage, declined to accompany his abbot. This evidently created a rift between the two monks. When St. Columbanus died five years later in his monastery in Italy, his monks sent his abbot’s staff to Gall as a sign of his forgiveness for the ill will that had existed between the two men.
The hermit Gall learned the language of the local Alemanni tribe and gradually won them over. His humility and kindness were admired and his miracles were persuasive. He exorcized a demon which had possessed the daughter of a local ruler and – as is so often true of the saints – even wild animals (including a bear in his case) became tame in his presence.
St. Gall continued to live the quiet life of prayer and service which he felt God had called him to, but others wished for him to serve in more prominent ways. The religious and secular leaders of the area urged him to accept the office of bishop for Constance, but he recommended his deacon, John, and persuaded them to elect him instead. The monks of Luxeuil, the first monastery that he had helped found, urged him to become their abbot, but he declined to return to what had become a large and prominent community.
St. Gall fell asleep in the Lord on October 16 around the year 646, having spent his long life in what would appear to some to be of small significance. But, beloved as he was by those around him, a church was built over the burial place of his relics and the small group of monastics began to grow.
About sixty years later, a Benedictine abbey was formally established there by the monk Othmar. Through the years and under the leadership of successive abbots, the monastery of St. Gall grew and flourished. The monastery became noted for its Scriptorium and the library acquired many important manuscripts. The abbey became a center for Christian learning and special attention was given to the study of Gregorian chant. The connection with St. Gall’s homeland was maintained, as many Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks came here to study.
Several early accounts of the life and work of St. Gall were written by his followers and monks from the St. Gall monastery. The most widely-read Life was written by Wiliford Strabo, a 9th century monk and one by St. Notker Balbulus (who was famous as a chanter despite a speech impediment) was written in verse. Although he had never actually been an abbot of a monastery, he was given that title for the influence that his life had on those who followed in the monastery founded in his honor.
Unfortunately, in later centuries, the Abbey of St. Gall suffered from much turmoil. Threatened by fire and attacks by pagan Magyars and then by Protestants, the monastery also became embroiled in political controversy. It was secularized at the end of the 18th century.
But the great contributions to Christian history for which this abbey was famous have not been lost. In 1983, the Abbey of St. Gall was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its library still contains more than 160,000 books, including 1200 handwritten manuscripts which are currently being digitalized. At least 400 of these are over 1000 years old.
May we, like the humble Irish monk, St. Gall, seek to show others the love of Christ in our lives. May we, like the monks of the Abbey of St. Gall, seek to know more about the faith through study and prayer. We ask for the intercessions of holy Gall, and we pray that our humble offerings may be used by God for the increase of his Church.