This is a story of innocence, violence, portents, pirates, courage, and valient acceptance. And it may actually have happened. If it did, it happened twelve and a half centuries ago, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Off the coast of Provence, just opposite Cannes in the south of France, is the island known as Saint-Honorat. Since the early fifth century, an abbey has stood on that island. A large installation, it was for centuries known simply as the Great Abbey of Lérins.
About the year 732, the stories say, an angel came to Lérins to sound a dire warning: The abbey was going to be attacked from the sea, very soon, by fierce pirates.
By this time, the abbey had been established for more than two centuries, and some five hundred persons were living there monks, novices, potential monks, and other students. The angel appeared to the abbot, a saintly man named Porcarius. The stories do not say whether the visitation occurred as a dream, vision, revelation, or premonition; but Porcarius believed its message without question, and at once he began to make preparations.
What could he do? He had more than five hundred souls to take care of. There was no question of trying to fight the marauders, who in any case were experienced pirates Saracens, probably, from Spain or North Africa. Porcarius's immediate challenge was to protect as many of his charges as possible.
He did that. He had one boat at his disposal, and he directed all the younger men and boys to board it. He thus managed to remove all the students and thirty-six of the younger monks from the island and to safety. Then it was time for his next, and very nearly his last, task. He gathered everyone who was still on the island, and together they prepared for the event that they were convinced was drawing near.
They made their confessions, prayed for courage, determined to seek the gift of forgiveness of their enemies, and generally settled themselves to suffer with grace.
The invasion happened quite quickly. The barbarians landed on the island, just as the angel had foretold. They broke into the abbey, and viciously slaughtered all but four of those who had remained. Then it was over.
Those four who were not murdered were carried off into slavery, but the stories do not say whether Abbot Porcarius was one of them, or how he died.
The names of St. Porcarius and his companions have come down through the ages as martyrs. The abbey still stands.