Today the Augustinian Order celebrates the memory of two laymen who chose to live a life of contemplation and penance apart from society, but whose example, nonetheless, attracted many followers. Eventually some of these disciples banded together into communities and became part of the newly emerging Order of Saint Augustine in the 13th Century. Again we see how the decisions, commitment and example of two people can have implications on the lives of many others - this time for the good. None of us, even in the desert, lives for himself alone.
Both of these hermits belong to the period of the Order’s pre-history.
William, who was never personally associated with the Augustinians, and who died, in fact, 100 years before the Grand Union, was born in France. He became a penitent pilgrim to many shrines of Christianity, and eventually became a hermit in the region of Tuscany, in a place called Malavalle (Grosseto), where he spent the remainder of his life in prayer, silence, fasting and penance until his death in 1157. He did not found a religious community, nor did he write a Rule. But in the last months of his life a disciple who cared for him, wrote “The Rule of Saint William,” after the saint’s death. William’s burial site was soon being visited by many pilgrims, some of whom remained in Malavalle to imitate William’s heremitical and penitential life and considered William their holy patron. Innocent III confirmed his cult in 1202. With his canonization, devotion to William continued to spread as did the number of disciples who founded new houses in various places throughout central and northern Italy, as well as in what are now Belgium, Germany, Bohemia and Hungary. In 1244 they became the Order of Saint William. In 1256 this Order was called by the Holy See to become part of the expanding Order of Saint Augustine, though many Williamites withdrew from the Union shortly after.
John was born in Mantua, Italy, about 1168, and at the age of 40, after years of frivolity and a serious illness, vowed to devote his life to God as a hermit in the region of Budrioli. He attracted disciples who gathered together and built a monastery, while John continued to live a very penitential life apart as a hermit, focusing on prayer, fasting and bodily mortification. Those who lived with him – some for 30 years – speak of him as humble, kind and charitable, with a reputation as a miracle worker who attracted many visitors. He was illiterate all his life, the last 10 years of which he spent in even greater contemplation, once he had handed direction of his community over to others. At the beginning of October 1249 he set off with some of his disciples for his native town of Mantua where he died on October 16th. The process for his canonization began shortly after his death, but various obstacles delayed its progress. Pope Sixtus IV authorized his cult in 1483. His remains are now in the cathedral of Mantua. Lanfranco of Settala, who became Prior General at the time of the Grand Union in 1256, was a member of John’s community.
William and John are reminders to us of the strong foundation of the lay heremitical movement out of which the Order grew in the 13th Century. The desire for contemplation, penance and a certain detachment from society for the sake of the Gospel, provided, and still provides, the context out of which Augustinians are called to be of service to the Church and the world. They are necessary elements fostering a focus on the interior life which Augustine recommends not only to religious but to all Christians.