Monday, February 16, 2015

St. Gilbert of Sempringham: Man of Charity, Humility, and Piety

The saint of the day for February 16 is St. Gilbert (1083-1189), founder of the Gilbertine order, which consisted of a double monastery of canons regular and nuns.

Gilbert was born at Sempringham, near Bourne in Lincolnshire, the son of a wealthy Norman knight and land-owner. Unable to become a knight due to a physical deformity, Gilbert was sent to the University of Paris to study theology. When he returned home, he served as a clerk in the household of Bishop Robert Bloet of Lincoln and started a school for the children of the poor in Sempringham. He was ordained as a priest at the age of 40.  When he was offered the archdeaconship of the largest diocese in Europe at the time, he declined, humbly choosing to serve the poor in Sempringham.

When his father died in 1131, Gilbert returned to the manor and became lord of the manor and lands. He began to spend his inheritance by founding Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries, and by providing for the poor. That same year, he drew up rules for an order of nuns later known as the Gilbertines, the only order founded on a rule designed by an Englishman, which eventually grew to 26 houses before being destroyed in the persecutions of King Henry VIII.

The Gilbertine communities became known for their discipline, fasting and self-denial, and service to the poor. A custom developed in the houses of the order called "the plate of the Lord Jesus", whereby the best portions of the dinner were put on a special plate and shared with the poor. As master general of the order, Saint Gilbert set an admirable example of self-disciplined and devoted living and concern for the poor. He ate small portions (mainly roots) and slept little—taking only brief naps in a chair – spending most of his nights in prayer.

In 1165, he was falsely charged with having assisted Thomas Becket when Thomas had fled from King Henry II after the council of Northampton and spent some time in prison for the crime, but he was eventually found innocent. Then, when he was 90, some of his lay brothers revolted, but he received the backing of Pope Alexander III.  Gilbert resigned his office late in life because of blindness and died at Sempringham in about 1190, at the age of 106.

Gilbert was canonized in 1202 by Pope Innocent III. Saint Gilbert of Sempringham is a model of the Christian virtues of charity humility, and piety, prayerfully serving the poor, placing their needs before his own and neither requesting nor accepting earthly endorsement for his good works.

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