The Desert in Central Italy: The Thebaide of Umbria
“After the year 400 there were many violent theological debates in the East which displaced many monks and hermits. Many of whom went West. Some settled in an area near Norcia, earning the region the knick-name: “The Thebaide of Umbria.” (The Thebaide was a region in Egypt where the first Monks and Hermits lived, it is basically the birthplace of monastic life (St. Antony of the Desert was there)). St. Spes, St. Eutizio, and St. Fiorenzo were all from Syria, fleeing the persecutions mentioned above.
The monastery of Sant’Eutizio, (which is in the area where the three saints lived, although at that time there was no monastery but just a “laura” of hermits living in caves in the area), is near the town of Preci in Umbria, Italy, just a 20 minute drive from Norcia. To this day, the region has hermits. There is one currently living near the monastery of Sant’Eutizio whom I met (Br. Matthias, I believe).
The first source of St. Eutizio, St. Spes and St. Fiorenzo is Pope St. Gregory the Great in the first Book of his Dialogues (written in the 590’s) (the second book is the most famous because it tells the life of Saint Benedict) These books were written to make known Italian Saints, and to be used for inspiration for the faithful. They are similar to the Martyrology we know today.
“Saint Spes and Saint Eutizio with Christ”
St. Spes (died in A.D. 417?, he definitely lived in the 5th century) (St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were born in 480). He was Abbot of the “laura” (community of hermits), and possibly its founder (in later liturgies he is named as the founder). He was an example of patience and joy in the Holy Spirit. He was blind for over forty years. Apparently God revealed to him that he would receive his sight back right before his death. And this is what happened.
Succeeded St. Spes as Abbot of the “laura.” St. Eutizio and St. Fiorenzo were close companions…
Close companion of St. Eutizio. When St. Eutizio succeeded St. Spes as Abbot, St. Fiorenzo prayed to God for another companion. God answered his prayers when St. Fiorenzo befriended a gentle bear. The bear was most useful and was even able to watch over St. Fiorenzo’s flock. It would lead the flock out during the day, allowing St. Fiorenzo to pray, and then lead them back in at night. When the news and popularity spread, some of the other monks became jealous and killed the bear. So when the bear did not return one evening, St. Fiorenzo went out and found the dead bear. He realized what had happened. He became angry and wished a curse upon the instigators. Soon afterwards they died. St. Fiorenzo realized the evil he had done and repented. He was so remorseful that he spent the rest of his life living in great austerity and penance making atonement for his curse.
The signs tells us (one in Italian and one in English) “Here rests the bodies of Sant Eutizio and San Spes, Abbots, whose acts were written about by Pope Saint Gregory [the Great].”
These saints would have been influential in the lives of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, giving them not only examples of sanctity, but also examples of how to live a religious life.
Hence, the first thing that St. Benedict did when he fled the debauchery of Rome was become a hermit at Subiaco. And St. Benedict is considered the Father of Western Monasticism. So these Saints could be considered the “Grandfathers” of Western Monasticism.
Madonna in Glory (early 17th century) with SS Eutychius, Florentius, Sanctulus and Spes attributed to Cristoforo Roncalli, Santa Maria Argentea
“The Dialogues”, Book III, by Pope Saint Gregory the Great: Chapter Fifteen: of the servants of God Euthicius (Eutizio) and Florentius (Fiorenzo).
GREGORY. Neither will I pass over that with silence, which I heard from the mouth of that reverent Priest, Sanctulus, one of the same country: and of whose report I am sure you make no doubt, for you know very well his life and fidelity.
At the same time, in the province of Nursia there dwelt two men, observing the life and habit of holy conversation: the one was called Euthicius and the other Florentius; of which Euthicius bestowed his time in spiritual zeal and fervour of virtue, and laboured much by his exhortations, to gain souls to God; but Florentius led his life in simplicity and devotion. Not far from the place where they remained, there was an Abbey, the governor whereof was dead, and therefore the monks made choice of Euthicius, to take the charge thereof: who, condescending to their petition, governed the Abbey many years. And not to have his former oratory utterly destitute, he left the reverent man Florentius to keep the same; who dwelt there all alone, and upon a day, being at his prayers, he besought almighty God to vouchsafe him of some comfort in that place; and having ended his devotions, he went forth, where he found a bear standing before the door, which by the bowing down of his head to the ground, and shewing in the gesture of his body no sign or cruelty, gave the man of God to understand that He was come thither to do him service, and himself likewise did forthwith perceive it. And because he had in the house four or five sheep which had no keeper, he commanded the bear to take charge of them, saying: “Go and lead these sheep to the field, and at twelve of the clock come back again “: which charge he took upon him, and did daily come home at that hour: and so he performed the office of a good shepherd, and those sheep, which before time he used to devour, now fasting himself, he took care to have them safely kept. And when God’s servant determined to fast until three of the clock, then he commanded the bear to return with his sheep at the same hour; but when he would not fast so long, to come at twelve.
And whatsoever he commanded his bear, that he did, so that bidden to return at three of the clock, he would not come at twelve; and commanded to return at twelve, he would not tarry till three. And when this had continued a good while, he began to be famous far and near for his virtue and holy life. But the old enemy of mankind by that means which he seeth the good to come unto glory, by the same doth he draw the wicked through hatred to procure their own misery; for four of Euthicius’ monks, swelling with envy that their master wrought not any miracles, and that he who was left alone by him was famous for so notable a one, upon very spite went and killed his bear. And therefore, when the poor beast came not at his appointed hour, Florentius began to suspect the matter: but expecting yet until the evening, very much grieved he was that the bear, whom in great simplicity he called his brother, came not home. The next day, he went to the field, to seek for his sheep and his shepherd, whom he found there slain; and making diligent inquisition, he learned quickly who they were that had committed that uncharitable fact. Then was he very sorry, bewailing yet more the malice of the monks than the death of his bear; whom the reverent man Euthicius sent for, and did comfort him what he might; but the holy man Florentius, wonderfully grieved in mind, did in his presence curse them, saying: “I trust in almighty God, that they shall in this life, and in the sight of the world, receive the reward of their malice, that have thus killed my bear which did them no harm”; whose words God’s vengeance did straight follow, for the four monks that killed the poor beast were straight so stricken with a leprosy, that their limbs did rot away, and so they died miserably: whereat the man of God, Florentius, was greatly afraid, and much grieved, that he had so cursed the monks; and all his life after he wept, for that his prayer was heard, crying out that himself was cruel, and that he had murdered those men. Which thing I suppose almighty God did, to the end that he should not, being a man of great simplicity, upon any grief whatsoever, afterward presume to curse any.”
For the “Book of Dialogues”, Book II, of Saint Gregory see: http://www.osb.org/gen/greg/ and
Terrence G. Kardong, OSB “The Life of St. Benedict By Gregory The Great. Translation and Commentary” [Liturgical Press, 2009]