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Hugh was a canon of Villarbenoit in Dauphine where he had entered as a youth. The potential qualities of saint and scholar were recognized in the boy and fostered by his tutor. With all his longing for holy orders Hugh shrank from promotion. The desire to be a priest was tempered by the sense of utter unworthiness.
At first sight Hugh was in love with the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse in its high solitude of the Dauphine Alps. It was here he would dwell, swiftly his mind was made up. The prior of Villarbenoit on the day he paid a visit to La Grande Chartreuse, taking Hugh with him for company, brought sorrow upon himself. For Hugh seeing the place was filled with rapture and an immediate resolve. Amazing and wonderful was this great monastery in the very heart of the mountains; amazing and wonderful this place, no other than the house of God and gate of heaven. It was the spirit of the place that thrilled him and held him captive.
On that first visit Hugh, young as he was, recognized the powerful charm of the Carthusian life. The solitude that is the essence of the Carthusian rule is tempered by the fact that the life is communal.
Youthful enthusiasm an excellent thing in itself is no evidence of religious vocation. Besides, it is written in the Carthusian constitutions that the severity of the Carthusian life must be set out plainly to all who seek admission. And then he was so young, this canon from the priory of Villarbenoit, and he looked delicate.
During that visit Hugh confided his hopes of becoming a Carthusian to others than the prior, and these so far from shaking their head at the presumption highly approved. They did more, they promised to back him up, urged him to stick to his purpose, did all they could to welcome him to the charterhouse.
Here was a horrible dilemma. That God had called him to the Carthusian life Hugh was convinced ; at the same time how could he resist the prayer of the dear old man who had been to him not only a foster-father but his superior, to whom he had promised obedience? His soul was torn and perplexed. His feelings counseled surrender. Hugh took the vow. While the prior lived he would not leave him.
And then having taken this oath to stay with the canons Hugh realized that it was a mistake, an oath that ought not to have been taken. He had acted in good faith; for the moment it had seemed that it was God's will he should stay at the priory. But it was clear he must not stay.
Once convinced that this oath taken under stress need not be kept, an oath which God did not desire to be kept, Hugh put his affairs at the priory in order and then without saying a word went quietly off to La Grande Chartreuse. He was welcomed joyfully and with the greatest kindness.
For sixteen years did Saint Hugh live at La Grande Chartreuse; the first ten in the uninterrupted solitude his soul desired. Prayer is the chief business: common prayer in the church, private prayer in the quiet of the hermit's cell. What finer life could Hugh, a man of prayer and of study, desire than this steady progress through the years?
With prayer went the training in obedience, poverty and chastity. La Grande Chartreuse trained men to be of strong character, of resolute will. The practice of obedience developed the talent to rule and command the obedience of others. In Hugh the daily exercise in humility produced a courage so robust and fearless that no room was left for subservience to the princes of this world.
The devil has his own methods for projecting evil, and unabashed by failure, aims to reduce the solitary to the mortifying humiliation of confessing partial surrender. In the case of Hugh the Carthusian the devil had no success at all. The torture of an imagination that day and night prompted the flesh to revolt, inviting a rush of wild rebellious feelings, threatening destruction to the health of the soul, had to be endured. Hugh did endure it; but held out stubbornly against any consent of the will to the pictures presented in the mind; refused flatly any recognition of the suggestions that surged so furiously within. They were not his, these vile intrusions of the devil; they did not belong to him, these loathsome pictures of the obscene. He would never receive them or own them. Hugh unflinching held to his course, answering temptation with prayer.
For Hugh came the end of the life of contemplation, of detachment from the world, the life of prayer and study he had set his heart upon. The business of the monastery was in his hands; the employment of servants on the monastery lands; the reception of visitors the procurator was guest master and would himself take guests to their appointed quarters.
Obedience does not come readily or easily to men like the twelfth-century lay brothers; but they rallied to Hugh, the new procurator. They said of him that he brought peace to their souls. Rare characters these lay brothers. Of iron will and gentleness of heart they walked with God and were without fear of man.
Hugh, later, by the order of the bishop of Grenoble became the prior of Witham. Hugh was now forty and prior of Witham, where as yet no priory stood, where everything remained to be done. He at once faced the situation and set about the work. The years of ordered discipline, the fine training in obedience left no room for fretful indulgence in regret or feeling of disappointment ; pride could not whisper a protest against the personal discomfiture, nor self-pity allow a sense of irritation at the depressing environment; for pride in Hugh, the Carthusian, there was none, and of self-pity he was ignorant. Banished from La Grande Chartreuse to this desolate spot in Somerset, the prior of Witham neither hesitated nor looked back.
Far too wise to seek the burden of responsibility shrinking in distress of mind every time it was forced upon him Hugh, once the burden was upon him, would never surrender the responsibility until authority sanctioned release. Good work prospered at Witham, the monastery walls rose steadily. The Carthusian life of prayer deepened with the years. In the few short hours given to sleep by the prior it was said by those who had business to come near him that they often heard him murmur Amen, amen while he slept, as though he were still at prayer.
Five years did Hugh rule Witham charterhouse as prior. The monastery was not completed when he was called to be bishop of Lincoln, but the greater part was built, and of stone that it might endure. He warned the monks against wooden structures that were liable to catch fire. And now, Anno Domini 1186, king Henry knew the man he must have for bishop of Lincoln his friend Dom Hugh, the Carthusian prior of Witham. Every year since the coming of Hugh to England the regard and affection of the king for his Carthusian friend had increased. On a rough crossing from Normandy to England when it seemed that the king and all his ships might be lost Henry had called on the mercy of God to heed the prayers of 'my Carthusian Hugh' in his cell at Witham or chanting the divine office with his brethren, and had come safely to land.
A hermit to rule! Dreadful thought! How could a monk trained to solitude manage the vast diocese of Lincoln? The canons were neither irreligious nor worldly beyond their fellows, but their hearts were dismayed and they trembled in mind at the prospect of this recluse, an austere Carthusian, a stranger to all their ways, coming into their midst. In the end a unanimous vote was given by the canons for the prior of Witham and messengers from the canons were sent to the priory with letters from the king and the archbishop announcing the result of the election, and calling on Hugh to present himself at court in order that a date might be fixed for consecration to the see of Lincoln.
On Saint Matthew's Day, September 21, 1186, was Saint Hugh consecrated, in the chapel of Saint Catherine in Westminster Abbey. All the vestments and ornaments that it was necessary for the bishop to put on, from the miter on his head to the sandals that covered his feet, were at Hugh's request of the simplest and plainest material.
Saint Hugh could command both respect and affection. His clergy loved him and revered him. His displeasure frightened people. Rarely was the bishop moved to anger, but when he saw one of his lay servants ill-treating a child the wrath of Saint Hugh exploded and he soundly cuffed that offending servant. Over and over again he had made it known to his attendants that he would not have children harshly treated or roughly handled, and since neither rebuke nor reprimand were effective, Saint Hugh came down heavily on the man who dared misuse one of God's little ones. In the diocese of Lincoln and in his own cathedral the bishop faced the fury of the anti-Jewish mob; in God's name he demanded an end to the wickedness, and would not be denied. Saint Hugh was most careful that the business of his court should be in every way worthily conducted; since that business was the administration of justice, the justice of God. Heavily the responsibilities of office bore upon him; and the cares and anxieties of his bishopric were at times so oppressive that more than once Saint Hugh begged the pope to let him return to the peace of the Carthusian cloister, to resign his See as other Carthusian bishops had been allowed to do. The Carthusian training and discipline prevailed. Modified the rule must be; the spirit of the sons of Saint Bruno was unquenched in the years when Hugh was bishop of Lincoln. There was no internal relaxation in the crowded hours. In his spare diet which required total abstinence from flesh-meat the only concession was an additional ration of fish. To others the bishop's hospitality supplied a generous table at all times. The hair shirt was retained, the white habit of the order was worn save when occasion demanded the official and ceremonial vestments. The bishop clung with devotion to the daily singing of the divine office.
Becoming ill, Saint Hugh, with fast unbroken, went to church at Dover and there said Mass. It was the last time he was to celebrate the holy mysteries, to offer the holy sacrifice. For two months more the flame of life flickered.
Saint Matthew's Day, September 21, was the anniversary of his consecration as a bishop and Saint Hugh decided that he must now receive the viaticum and be anointed with the oil of the sick. So after making a general confession of all his sins from boyhood the holy Eucharist was brought to him. St Hugh rose up from bed and knelt down to adore his Lord. The sacred Host was placed upon his lips. A short time after he was anointed. Strengthened by the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, Saint Hugh said cheerfully to his attendants: 'Physicians and diseases may now do their worst with me, for I care little for either of them. God Himself has come to me; I trusted to Him and I have received Him. I will hold Him and cleave to Him for ever.'
The clergy were saying Compline when the change in the bishop's countenance told them that the end was near. Saint Hugh made a sign and very tenderly his chaplains lifted the worn-out body and placed it on the ashes above the bare ground. Peacefully and quietly the bishop gave up his soul to God. It was just when they had reached Nunc Dimittis servum tuum Domine that he died, Thursday, November 16, A.D. 1200.