Saint Genevieve of Paris
THE REMEMBRANCE of the Nativity of Christ was ever alive among the people of Nanterre who kept their sheep in the surrounding hills and on the slopes of Mount Valerien. If the gentle wooded hills of the Seine in the environs of Paris bore slight resemblance to the stark, rock-strewn slopes and jagged crests of the hills of Judea where those simple shepherds were glorified with the divine vision a mere five hundred years earlier, nevertheless, in the days of St. Genevieve’s youth the same spirit of simple faith prevailed amongst the shepherds of Gaul. Genevieve was of wealthy parents, but, as was the custom of the time, she nevertheless shepherded her father’s flock in the pasture of Valerien. Nourished from the cradle with the Gospel message and with the pious example of her parent’s life, the scenes from the life of the Saviour and the ikonography of the parables so vivid in the life around her, Genevieve grew in stature not only physically, but spiritually as well. God, Who knows all things from eternity to eternity, beheld the heart of this gentle maiden and seeing in it the flame of love for the Creator and an undefeatable faith, bestowed upon her special gifts of Divine Grace.
When Germain, the renowned and holy bishop of Auxerre, was on his way to Britain to preach the Saviour’s Gospel against the Pelagian heresy1 which threatened the salvation of many, he, together with his companion St. Lupus of Troyes, chanced to stop over at Nanterre. As the holy Bishop drew near the town, the people, as sheep at the approach of their good shepherd, flocked out to meet him. Among those who went were Severus and Gerontia with their daughter Genevieve. Like an enactment of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem (for the bishop is an ikon of Christ), the people accompanied their shepherd to the village church. Having paused and turned to bless the faithful, the eyes of the aged Saint fell upon the child Genevieve. “He called to himself the little child, and set her in their midst.”2 He then asked her name. “Genevieve,” replied someone standing next to the lass. The venerable old bishop kissed her. The parents drew near, and St. Germain, perceiving who they were, turned to them and inquired, “Is this your child?” “Yes,” they replied. “Blest are ye in having so blessed a child. She will be great before God; and because of her many will turn from evil and follow after good and will obtain salvation from Christ the Lord.”
Turning to the maiden he said, “Genevieve, my daughter. Tell me, do you desire to dedicate yourself pure and undefiled to Christ as His Bride?” With a radiant smile the Blessed One replied, “Holy master, you have spoken exactly the desire of my heart. I pray that God will grant it to me.”
“Be assured my daughter that He will. Be courageous, and what you believe in your heart and confess with your lips, so also live in your life and perform in your works. And God will add to your comeliness both virtue and fortitude.” Then, in image of the presentation of the All-Holy Theotokos in the Temple, the holy archpastor took Genevieve by the hand and led her into the church for the service of Vespers and the ninth hour. Throughout the service the bishop held his hand on the child’s head. At the close of the evening, after the night’s hymns had been chanted, the bishop gave the child over to her father, instructing him to bring her into his presence very early in the morning. At the break of dawn Severus hastened to obey the holy bishop, and appeared before him with his daughter.
“Hail, my daughter Genevieve!” the bishop greeted her. Do you recall your vow of yesterday, to keep your body pure and undefiled?” “I remember, holy master, that I promised to you and to God to preserve the chastity of my mind and my body until the end of my life.” Then St. Germain picked up from the ground a little brass medallion with a cross engraved on it and giving it to her said, “Bore a hole in this and wear it round your neck in remembrance of your promise made before me. And do not let any other ornaments, neither gold, nor silver nor stone, adorn your neck or fingers.”
Then taking leave of the people of Nanterre and bestowing upon them his Episcopal blessing, the holy Bishop set out again on his journey.
At the age of fifteen St. Genevieve was taken to Paris to be consecrated to the monastic life. With her were two other virgins, and though she was the youngest of the three, the bishop, inspired by the Holy Spirit, placed her first saying that heaven had already consecrated her.
Not long after Genevieve entered the monastic life her parents reposed and she began to live in a community in Paris. Her sanctity soon became known throughout the city. By means of a strict life and constant struggles, the Blessed One began more and more to acquire the Holy Spirit. She received from God the gifts of clairvoyance and wonder-working.
Nevertheless, by the time St. Germain passed through Paris returning to Auxerre from Britain, the maliciousness of the Evil One had stirred envious persons to slander the morals of the Blessed Genevieve and to try to poison the mind of the holy Bishop against her. St. Germain responded to these slanders by receiving St. Genevieve publicly with great warmth and visible reverence.
Gradually the people of Paris and the entire region began to venerate the consecrated virgin as a chosen vessel of God. Her prayers were sought by the sick and afflicted and those with troubles, her advice was sought in various matters and her prophetic words were heeded without question by the sincere faithful. That her influence was tremendous in Paris is obvious from the fact that she was able to persuade the Parisians not to flee from their city when the hordes of Attila the Hun approached it. Genevieve assembled her sisterhood and together they fasted and prayed fervently to God to deliver the city from the barbarians.
The Evil One, however, not wishing to see the mercy and power of God manifested in His Saint, stirred up a mob of citizens weak in faith and various leaders of this mob began shouting that Genevieve was a false-prophetess, that she was leading the people to a horrible death by dissuading them from escaping with their possessions to a safer place. The mob, headstrong and cruel, searched out the Saint to stone her in the Seine.
At this very time, her ancient benefactor and spiritual father, St. Germain lay dying in Auxerre. Suddenly he raised himself up on his bed, called his archdeacon to him and said: “Take a basket of antidoron and go quickly to Paris. Find my daughter Genevieve and give her the holy bread as a token of my love and esteem. But see that you go quickly.”
The archdeacon arrived at the most critical moment for the besieged nun. He knew the prophecies concerning the Blessed One and began to push through the crowd with the antidoron sent by the holy bishop, reminding them of the great esteem and veneration the Saint held for Genevieve. On the force of this sudden show of support from Bishop Germain, who was already revered as a saint of God, the crowd repented and dispersed.
Thus was the saying of the Apostle fulfilled: “Not all men have faith, yet the Lord is faithful, Who shall establish you and guard you from the evil one.” (2 Thess. 3:3) And, moreover, the Lord heeded the prayers of His servant Genevieve, and spared Paris. Suddenly and for no apparent reason the Huns turned away from the city and went in an opposite direction.
St. Genevieve nourished herself on a small piece of barley bread and a few beans stewed in oil. But when she was fifty the bishop commanded her to eat fish and drink some milk also.
In the later years of her life, the Grace of God was especially manifested in the Saint. Feeling a great reverence for St. Denys (Dionysios), the Blessed One had an ardour to build a church in his honour, and she commissioned several priests to undertake the work. They replied that they felt unable to fulfill this task because, among other reasons, there was no means of firing the lime. To this St. Genevieve calmly replied: “Go and cross over the city bridge; then return and tell me what you heard there.” The priests went immediately, and having crossed over the bridge, they heard two swineherds conversing. “I was chasing one of my pigs the other day,” said the first, “and he led me into the forest to a large limekiln.” “What a coincidence,” replied the second, “I found a tree in the forest uprooted by the wind, and under its roots there was an old kiln.”
On hearing this the priests returned with fear, praising God, and told the Saint what they had heard. “Blessed be the Lord Who sends His help in time for every need,” the Holy One said, lifting her hand towards heaven. Rejoicing, she set a certain Father Jean over the project and encouraged the citizens to assist. The Saint encouraged the workmen until the church of St. Denys was built and finished off.
The Gallic king of Paris at that time, Chilperic, though a pagan, had such great respect and awe for St. Genevieve, it is aid, that he was unable to refuse her any request which she made in behalf of others. And Genevieve was especially compassionate toward prisoners. She would constantly intercede to save them from death. On one occasion Chilperic was about to execute a large number of war prisoners some distance outside the city. In order to be left in peace to carry out this sorry deed, the King ordered that the city gate be closed, barred and sealed, lest St. Genevieve should follow him and obtain pardon for the condemned ones. But when the Saint heard that the blood of so many men was to be shed, she fell into a fit of compassion and love and rushed along the street to the gate, followed by a crowd of curious citizens. Seeing the gate locked and sealed, the Holy One raised her hands up to God, signed the gate with the sign of the all-honourable Cross and laid her hand upon it. And what fear and wonder passed through the crowd, for the gate began to swing open as if moved by the hands of invisible angels.3 The Saint wasted not a second, but pursued the King with tears. Overtaking him, she threw herself on the ground before him and would not be comforted until she obtained mercy for the hapless prisoners. ; And the victorious warrior-king, helpless as a child before the sacred entreaties of God’s Saint, pardoned and released the entire company of captives. All Paris marveled and wondered: if her intercessions before this sanguinary, pagan king are so powerful, how much more so must they be before the King of Mercy, Who is every ready to bestow His compassion upon mankind.
On another occasion, after Paris had been blockaded by the Franks, the district suffered greatly from famine, since the crops had been destroyed and the countryside laid waste. Saint Genevieve, seeing the suffering of the people, led a group of boats to Arcis and somehow managed to return with sufficient grain to feed Paris.
St. Genevieve always considered the Saturday All-night Vigil service to be especially important. “It is a likeness of how our whole lives should be,” she would say. “We must keep vigil in prayer and fasting so that the Lord will find us thus when He comes. And the Lord comes to us especially in the Holy Eucharist in the Liturgy.” It happened that one stormy night, as the Sabbath drew near to Sunday morning and the Saint set out with her sisterhood to the Church of St. Denys, that the lantern which was carried before her was extinguished by a sudden, strong gust of wind. The sisters became frightened at the pitch darkness, the howling storm and the rain. The road was so winding and muddy that without a light they could not pick their way. Then St. Genevieve took the lantern, and signed it with the Cross; immediately the candle in the lantern burst into a bright flame. Holding it before herself, she entered the church.
The Holy One undertook several pilgrimages to the cave of St. Martin at Tours, in the company of her sisterhood. St. Genevieve reposed at the age of eighty-nine in 512 A.D. Her relics reposed first at the Church of St. Denys and then were transferred to the Church of St. Etienne (St. Stephen) du Mont at Paris.
(1) Pelagianism: A heretical teaching, originating with the monk Pelagius (5th cent.), who denied original sin and held that man took the fundamental steps towards salvation by his own efforts without the assistance of Divine Grace.
(2) Mat. 18:2.
(3) cf. Acts 12:10.
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 22, No. 6, November-December 1972, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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