There were seven churches at the Alyscans, the ancient necropolis where pilgrims congregated before setting out on the Toulouse Road to Compostela. In the Pilgrim’s Guide it was written that “the remains of numerous holy martyrs and confessors are resting there”.
These relics were powerful enough to assure salvation at the final Resurrection. One of the seven was the imposing pilgrimage church of Saint Honoratus, a founder of western monasticism, whose mortal remains were held in the crypt.
According to his biographer Hilarius of Arles, Honoratus was so revered in his lifetime that the whole city of Arles came out to be near his body. “Who, from within the walls of our city, did not come to this church, as though stricken by a personal grief? The people considered it a privilege to have touched his bier or to have carried it on their shoulders”, it was declared.
Hilarius was a close disciple of Honoratus and was his immediate successor as bishop of Arles. His account of the life of Honoratus was delivered in the form of funerary sermon on the first anniversary of his death. He describes how the townspeople of Arles snatched pieces of the shroud as the body was being conducted to the tomb, considering the cloth to be sanctified by its contact with the body.
Already by the time of his death, it appears, that like Saint Martin, Honoratus was considered a saint. As Hilarius wrote: “it is a rare confidence which is given to us by the Grace which surrounds his tomb, as we are certain that he whose relics we have conserved here, protects us in heaven.
By the twelfth century a new Romanesque building dedicated to Honoratus had replaced the original church. Pilgrims at Arles were enjoined to venerate his relics: “In the cemetery of the said city, the assistance of the Blessed Honoratus, bishop, should be invoked”.
Honoratus followed quickly in the wake of Saint Martin and Saint Augustine in founding one of the first monastic communities in western Europe.
A date of 410 has been given for his arrival at the island of Lerins on the coast of Provence. He was accompanied by a small group of followers to this small deserted island, reputedly infested with serpents. It was said that “He went forward without fear and dissipated by his assurance the fears of his companions”.
Miraculously, the serpents fled and the previously dry island now flowed with sweet water.
This miracle story was intended to associate Honoratus with the Seventy Disciples of the Gospel of Luke: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you”.
Initially the monks lived separately in small cells dotted around Lerins but already by 427, Saint John Cassian, who visited the island then, recorded that the initial group had swollen its ranks to form an “immense community”.
Word of Honoratus’ monastery spread throughout Gaul very quickly and it was soon accepting newcomers from as far as northern France. It’s reputation was of a brilliant monastic school and many who were later to hold high ecclesiastical office were formed in its vigorous intellectual atmosphere, including two bishops of Arles, Hilarius and Caesarius.
Honoratus, himself was called to hold that office at the end of his life. The church at Arles was undergoing a period of strife at the time, the preceding bishop having been assassinated. Honoratus was to die only two years later.
Caesarius writing a hundred years later declared that “we firmly believe that he received martyrdom without enduring the passion”. In other words, Honoratus was a confessor saint, one who had achieved sanctity through his life rather than death.
Biblio: M. Labrousse, Saint Honiorat Fondateur de Lerins et Evêque d’Arles. Vie Monastique No. 31, Abbaye de Bellefontaine. W. Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela. J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane