Drawn deep into the forest of Saint Sever by a picture of a stone arch we were privileged to meet a charming lady who had not left this pretty place for over 30 years.
As part of a small but determined community she and her sisters devote their life to God through prayer, meditation, silence and vigils. A remarkable choice. What is truly extraordinary is that their home stands where, 1000 years ago, a soon-to-be saint built a simple hut from branches and bracken leaves.
Saint Sever, like all saints was born without a halo – that was earned.
Born a serf
From a pitifully poor family, serfs of the local lord Corbécénus, when barely out of childhood he was set to work. Fortunately for Sever he worked in the forest he loved caring for the gentle, silly horses that Corbécénus and his friends would ride when they went hunting.
It was the fifth century and Corbécénus was a passionate supporter of the usual pagan gods. Every winter he would visit his Normandy forests for weeks on end to hunt, sacrifice goats and worship nature.
At first Corbécénus was fond of the Christian young man and admired how young Sever always shared what little he had with those less well off. Until, left with nothing, young Sever gave a poor women on one of Corbécénus’s many mares. Corbécénus was furious, he felt his trust had been betrayed. If it were true the only outcome would be to have Sever killed.
Corbécénus took the mare back from the poor woman, locked it away and ordered his soldiers count the herd to see if Sever had given more of his property away.
They counted. The herd was exactly the same size, plus one extra locked in the barn.
Sever was mighty relieved at this miracle. Corbécénus was confounded.
The amazing oak
This was not the first time Sever had proved his faith had more power than that of his pagan master. One summer day, after some particularly exhausting praying, Sever was snoozing in the sun by the animals he cared for. An unimpressed guard came across him and prodded young Sever with a branch picked up from the forest floor.
Sever snatched the oak branch from the guard and threw it on the ground where it instantly took root. The branch quickly grew into a beautiful tree that no-one ever had the nerve to cut down.
There is another version – it has been 1000 years – that says on that sweltering day an oak twig next to sleeping Sever grew suddenly tall and leafy to protect him from the hot sun. Whichever is true, both are miracles.
Being Christian can be chilly
Another time during a bitter winter Sever had given away nearly all his clothes to cover the frozen limbs of the poor but arrived back late to the castle where the steward, tired of Sever’s embarrassing Christian ways, refused to let him in.
He would be forced to sleep outside and a snowstorm was just starting. Then out of the dark walked his herd. They circled Sever and warmed him with their breath. In the morning when Corbécénus discovered Sever had been left out in the freezing night, he sent his men to find the body. They found the young man on his knees, warmed and surrounded by his mares, praying thanks to his Christian god.
A couple of wise decisions
It was all very unsettling for the pagan castle dwellers, so Corbécénus made the decision to gift the slightly spooky Sever some forest land for a hermitage and an extra box of clothes since he seemed incapable of keeping hold of them. Lord Corbécénus also had has family blessed as it never hurt to cover all the bases.
Sever was delighted by Corbécénus’s conversion and for the gift of time to devote to his true lord.
A happy hermit
Sever’s patch of forest was above a valley and faced the sun. Here he built a small hut of folded branches, covered with broom and clumps of earth.
It was all he needed to live his a perfect life; devoting himself tirelessly to prayer, fasting, living with nature and occasionally suffering the harshest ‘mortifications’ (it’s a hermit thing).
Sever’s life inspired many to visit him in the forest and hear his thoughts about the world and life and God. Some stayed and become pious disciples, living alongside this remarkable, holy man. Sever’s Christian message soon spread far beyond his leafy commune.
When the old bishop of Avranches, St Senir died in 565, Sever’s reputation for holiness was well known and the people of Avranches determined he would be their new Bishop. And so he was.
It was not an easy duty for Sever. He worked hard, but missed living in the heart of the forest. He no longer fell asleep to the sound of an untired wind tickling the leaves of tall trees or woke to the cheerful cacophony of birdsong. He worried about his hermits, so trusting and almost childlike in their devotion. He did not enjoy the politics of high office.
It also soon became clear to him that he was unwell.
Little time left for Sever
By 570 a life of generosity had exhausted Sever. His body could take no more and knowing he had little time left, Sever returned to his personal Eden, his beloved forest.
Here this remarkable man, friend of the poor, the weak, the afflicted, died in a cathedral of oak trees as the hermits chanted words of love and birds sang on regardless.
A special place, a beautiful forest
Hermits lived in the forest for many centuries, until Vikings invading in the 9th century found their forest home, stole what they could and burnt the rest.
But there is something about this little patch of woodland. By 1214 the hermits were back. Tales of Saint Sever were still told and they were able to locate the site of his original hermitage. They built a small monastery and lived here under the rule of Camaldolese until Revolution disturbed their peace. Of course the hermitage was rebuilt again and religious communities continue to live here.
In 1984 a Carmelite community looking for a bit more space and a lot more peace were delighted to move into the old hermitage. When they do talk, the good ladies of the hermitage say “We appreciate the silence and beauty of this place so favourable to our Carmelite life.”
Somewhere, maybe sometimes in the forest, the modest Saint Sever quietly agrees.
- Find out more about the Carmelite ladies of Saint-Sever Calvados.
- Have a look at a map of the forest, there are lots of excellent walks. Keep an eye out for deer, foxes, badgers, boar. If you know your birds head for the south. This is a bird sanctuary whose population includes herons, reed bunting, tufted duck, snipe, teal and the occasional black stork.