It will be forty years ago this fall since I spent a semester in France, studying somewhat (I was majoring in French) and enjoying myself a great deal. I lived with the family of L'Intendant Général Jean F Urvoy, who was in charge of l'École Militaire d'Administration in Montpellier. I was blessed to travel about with the family and thus came one day to St-Guilhem-le-Desert, site of an abbey founded by one Guilhem. Over the door in my bedroom is a perfectly tacky and very inexpensive crucifix I purchased in a gift shop that day. To me it is sacred because it links me to this fascinating man.
Guilhem [I am using the Occitan spelling of his name] was the grandson of Charles Martel (yes, that one) and thus related to Charlemagne. He was Count of Toulouse and one of the noble warriors who held things together for Louis I, the Pious, a weak monarch who needed all the help he could get. Guilhem was defeated by the Saracens at the Orbieux River but it was a Pyrrhic victory and they lost their taste for conquest in France and withdrew to Spain. He later pursued and defeated them in Barcelona.
Guilhem donated land and had an abbey built in the valley of Gellone and later renounced his titles, divided his realm among his heirs, and became a monk. His exact relationship to St. Benedict of Aniane is complicated by later prestige wars between Aniane and Gellone. He was certainly acquainted with and probably inspired by Benedict, whether he was under obedience to him or not.
Thus the basics on the historical Guilhèm.
His image as a greater-than-life warrior flowered in a cycle of chansons de geste (namely, La Geste de Garin de Monglane) and he is known in this context as Guillaume d'Orange, though he had no historical link with that French city.
Over the past four decades I have often invoked St. Guilhèm, asking his prayers. When it seemed time to write a new icon I wondered which saint it should be. Guilhèm popped into my head since I had no image of him. So, in late May, I began, turning to the internet to refresh my memory.
There I found information on Guilhèm and photographs of Gellone and the later abbey that still stands there and serves as a parish church. Since he was Frankish, I gave him blond hair and blue eyes, but who knows? The Cross of Languedoc in the upper corners is the same as the arms of the counts of Toulouse and has strong emotional content for me since I loved the fierce pride of the southern French. The decoration on the border is adapted from decorative motifs in the Sacramentary of Gellone, a liturgical manuscript of historical interest. The abbey is in the background and the hills are modeled on those surrounding the valley (though from a very different angle than the view of the abbey).
What I was not prepared for was rummaging through dozens of boxes in my garage for one thing (which I did not locate) and coming across two term papers I wrote on Guilhèm during my graduate studies at UCLA. One was for a course in hagiography and another was literary analysis for a class in medieval French literature. This was just two days after beginning the icon. The papers reminded me that his feast is May 28, which was the following Monday.
I rather think Guilhèm wanted his image written and I had not chosen the theme of my icon at all. Fr. Christopher McLaren blessed it at St. Michael's church picnic last Sunday, his daughter graciously wielding the rosemary sprig to sprinkle it with holy water.
Here are the prayers I composed for the occasion (along with the common for a monastic):
A mighty prince relinquishes lands and titles;
A warrior of renown lays down his arms;
The defender of an earthly empire
Turns to a heavenly Kingdom.
Guilhèm forsakes all worldly fame
And follows the Savior into the desert,
Armed only with the Holy and Life-Giving Cross.
There he serves the Ruler of creation with all humility,
Conquers demons, and establishes a garden of virtues.
Bells on earth sing his ascent to Paradise;
“Tant fist en terre qu’es ciels est coronez.”*
* He did so much on earth that in heaven he was crowned.
O God, Defender of your people and hope of the faithful,
You gave your servant Guilhèm of Toulouse
To serve an earthly monarch and defend your Church.
Despising earthly honors, he reached out to Christ
That he might serve the Eternal King
And submitted to the yoke of monastic rule
That he might win a crown eternal in heaven.
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Guilhèm, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Holy Guilhèm, continue to pray for me, a sinner, and for us all.