St. Kentigern and Lailoken
a story of Merlin from an early Latin manuscript.
During the period that St Kentigern used to go into the wilderness it happened that one day, while he was praying in a lonely wood, a naked madman, hairy and completely destitute, came rushing wildly by him. He was known as Lailoken, and some say he was Merlin, who was an extraordinary prophet of the British; but this is not certain.
It is said that when St. Kentigern saw him he accosted him in this fashion: I adjure you by the father, the son and the holy spirit, whatever kind of being you are, to speak to me if you are in any degree of God and believe in God, and tell me who you are and why you wander alone in this lonely place and keep company with the beasts of the wood.’
The madman at once checked his course and answered, ‘I am a Christian, though unworthy of so great a name. I suffer much in this lonely place, and for my sins it has been ordained that my destiny is to be among wild things, since I am unworthy to meet the punishment for my sins among men. For I was the cause of the slaughter of all the dead who fell in the battle — so well known to all citizens of this land — which took place in the plain lying between Lidel and Carwannok. In that fight the sky began to split above me, and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me, “Lailoken, Lailoken, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood.” But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure. I saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of my own self and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.
With these words he darted off into an isolated area of the forest known but to the wild beasts and birds. St Kentigern was much moved by his distress and prostrated himself on the ground, saying, ‘Lord Jesus, this is the unhappiest of unhappy men, with the life he leads in this foul wilderness, like a beast among beasts, a naked fugitive feeding only on plants. Beasts of the wild have bristles and hair as their natural covering and fields of grass and roots and leaves as their proper food. Our brother here is as one with us in naked form and flesh and blood and frailty, but lacks all that human nature needs, save only the common air. How then does he live among the beasts of the wood in the face of hunger, cold and constant fasting?’
So the pious protector Kentigern wept with tears of compassion pouring down his cheeks, as he gave himself to his accustomed solitary discipline more strictly, for the love of God. He also supplicated the Lord with urgent prayers on behalf of that man of the woods, that filthy, unhappy and possessed man, so that the disasters and tribulations which he was here suffering in the flesh should count in mitigation for his soul in the future.
But it is said that after this madman had come in a number of times from the wilderness, he took to sitting on a certain steep rock which stands up above the stream of the Molendinar practically within sight of Glasgow, on the north side of the church of that same place; and he many times disturbed St Kentigern and his clerics at their task of divine contemplation. For he predicted much of the future there, as if he were a prophet. But because he used never to repeat what he had foretold (though it was extremely obscure and virtually unintelligible), nobody cared to believe him. But they remembered some apparently idle remarks and committed them to writing. But on the day on which the madman was due to leave the miseries of this world, he came as usual to the rock mentioned, while St Kentigern was celebrating an early mass. He was wailing and shouting and in a loud voice asserting his demand to be entitled to be fortified by him with the body of Christ before he took his passage from this world.
When St. Kentigern could no longer tolerate his disrespectful shouting, he sent a cleric to tell him to be silent. The poor but blessed’ man answered him with mild piety, saying, ‘Pray, sir, go to St Kentigern and beg him for the grace of his charity to deign to fortify me with the Lord’s viaticum, since through him I shall, vile as I am, today pass to blessedness.’
But when the bishop heard this from the mouth of his cleric, he smiled gravely on those around who were urgently beseeching him on behalf of the possessed and shouting man, and said, ‘Has not this poor man often misled all of you, and some of the others, with his words, and passed many years of his life as one possessed among the wild creatures of the woods, and not known Christian communion? Consequently I do not feel it really desirable to grant him the office. But go’ (he said to one of his clerics) ‘and ask him what death he will die and if he will die today.’
So the cleric went and spoke to the madman as he had been bidden by the bishop. The madman answered him, ‘Because today I shall be stoned and die by clubs.’
The cleric then went back to the bishop and told him what he had heard from the madman. The bishop told the cleric to go back, saying that it was ‘because I do not believe this story that he will die thus. But let him say more truly when and by what form of death he will die.’ The bishop said this to see whether the poor man might be found to be truthful and consistent in what he said, at least on the last day of his life. For he never said the same things twice but made indirect and conflicting predictions.
So, when asked again by the cleric, the madman said, ‘Today my body will be pierced by a sharp stake, and thus will my spirit fail.’ The cleric went back once more to the bishop and said what he had heard from the madman.
The bishop called his clerics together and said, ‘You yourselves have just heard why it is I hesitate to grant his request—it is because he preserves no logic in any of his sayings.’ His clerics then said, ‘Revered father, lord, do not be angry with us if we beg once more on his behalf for your indulgence. Let him be tried yet a third time in case he is capable of proving himself rational over some one of his sayings.’
So the bishop, sending a cleric for the third time, asked the poor blessed man what form of end his life would have. The madman answered thus: ‘Today I shall be sunk in water and so end my life on earth.’ The cleric was highly indignant at this answer and said, ‘Brother, you are a lying fraud, and you are acting stupidly and foolishly in asking a holy and honest man to fortify you with that food of the spirit which may be given only to the just and faithful.’
The poor man, mad but already blessed, recovered his senses through the Lord and at once began weeping afresh, saying, ‘Oh wretched that I am, Lord Jesus, how long shall I suffer this awful fate? How long shall I be racked with all these tortures? And why am I rejected only by your believers when I have been directed here by you? See, they do not believe my words, though I have told them nothing but what you have inspired in me.’ Turning to the cleric, he said, ‘I most earnestly beg the bishop himself to come to me, for I am this day above all others consigned by the Lord to his protection, and let him bring with him the sacred viaticum which I ask, and lie will hear the matter which God has deigned to convey to him through me.’
The bishop came, yielding to the weight of entreaties from his clerics; and he brought with him the bread and the sacramental wine. As he approached, the poor blessed man climbed down from the rock and fell on his face at the bishop’s feet, breaking forth into a speech in this vein: ‘Hail, reverend father, knight elect of the highest king! I am that poor harmless man who once met you in the wilderness when my fate was to be a lonely straying wanderer, still given over to the angels of Satan. But when I was adjured by you through the living and true God in the name of the trinity, I described the reason for my misfortunes. You were, if you recall, touched with pity for my trials and tribulations, and poured out tearful prayers to the Lord that for me he would turn into eternal joy all the unhappy distress which I was then suffering in the flesh, truly recalling the words of the apostle who said that the sufferings of this time here are not the equal of the future glory which will be revealed among the elect of God. Because the Lord listened to your prayers and had mercy on me, he has today sent me (now restored to my own self and to God the father almighty, as befits a Christian believing in the catholic faith) to you in particular before the other elect, strengthened by these signs so that you will believe what I say, for the purpose that you will send me to him today after I have received of his sacred body and blood.’
When St Kentigern the protector heard that this was he who once appeared to him in the wilderness—and much more that is not written this short book—lie was fairly convinced, and overcome with pity; tears coursed down his cheeks. The poor man was weeping and urgently begging for the grace of God, and Kentigern replied in a kindly way, saying, ‘Behold, here is the body and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the true and eternal salvation of the living who believe in him and the everlasting glory of those who keep themselves worthy of him. So whoever is worthy to receive this sacrament will live forever and will not die, but whoever receives it unworthily will die wholly and will not live. If, then, you feel yourself worthy of such a gift, here is that of Christ set upon the table. But approach in the fear of God, to accept him in all humbleness. May Christ himself yet receive you, for I am afraid either to give to you or to withhold.’
The poor blessed man immediately washed in water, faithfully confessed the one God in the trinity, humbly approached the altar and with a clear faith and true devotion received the protection of the boundless sacrament. As he saw it, he lifted his hands to heaven and said, ‘I give you thanks, Lord Jesus. For now I have attained the most holy sacrament which I desired.’ Then, turning, he said to St Kentigern, ‘Lord, if my earthly life ends today (for which you have accepted my word), then the most outstanding king of Britain, and the most holy of bishops, and the most noble of lords shall follow me within this year.’
The bishop replied, ‘Brother, do you remain still in your foolishness? Have you not thrown off irreverence? Go, then in peace, and the Lord be with you.’
As soon as he had received the pontifical blessing, Lailoken rushed away like a wild goat breaking out of the hunter’s noose and happily seeking the undergrowth of the wilderness.
But since things ordained by the Lord cannot be passed over as though they need not happen, it came to pass that on the same day he was stoned and beaten to death by some shepherds of King Meldred, and in the moment of death had a fall, over a steep bank of the Tweed near the fort of Dunmeller, on to a very sharp stake which was stuck in a fish pool. He was pierced through the middle of his body with his head bent over into the shallows, and so yielded his spirit to the Lord as he had prophesied.
When St. Kentigern and his clerics realised that all this had apparently fallen out as that possessed man had predicted for himself, they believed and were afraid that what he had foretold about the rest would certainly happen. They all began to tremble and the tears ran profusely down their cheeks. They all began to praise the name of the Lord in all things, he who is marvellous and blessed to his saints for ever and ever. Amen
See also: Melred and Lailoken