The Catholic Defender: Saint Gilbert of Sempringham "The Good Heart"
Gilbert was born at Sempringham, near Bourne in Lincolnshire, the son of Jocelin, an Anglo-Norman lord of the manor, and an unnamed Anglo-Saxon mother. He had a brother, Roger, and a sister, Agnes.
After studies in Paris, he was ordained priest in 1123 and became parson of Sempringham. There, in 1131, he founded a home for girls, whom he spiritually guided and to whom he assigned a rule of life fashioned after that of St. Benedict of Nursia.
The Gilbertine Order of Canons Regular was founded around 1130 by Saint Gilbert in Sempringham, Lincolnshire, where Gilbert was the parish priest. It was the only completely English religious order and came to an end in the 16th century at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Gilbert was a lover of truth and justice, chastity and sobriety, and a diligent cultivator of the other virtues: wherefore he was revered and praised by all and obtained their favour and regard. Even Jocelin now rejoiced in the goodness of his son, he began to cherish him with fatherly affection, and ministered to his needs out of his own riches. Gilbert would be in his late twenties when his father presented him to the vacant churches of Sempringham and West Torrington, which he had built on his own demesne 'in the custom of his country
(c. 1085 – 4 February 1189) the founder of the Gilbertine Order, was the only Medieval Englishman to found a conventual order, mainly because the Abbot of Cîteaux declined his request to assist him in organising a group of women who wanted to live as nuns, living with lay brothers and sisters, in 1148.
When Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was exiled, Gilbert was accused of sending him aid. This was not true, but Gilbert did not deny the charge because he did not want to be classed as an enemy of the archbishop. He faced a sentence of exile but was saved by the intervention of King Henry II. When he was nearly ninety Gilbert had another cross to bear; he was slandered by some of the lay brothers of his order. He died at the age of 106 and was canonized twelve years later.
Gilbert was born in Sempringham, England, into a wealthy family, but he followed a path quite different from that expected of him as the son of a Norman knight. Sent to France for his higher education, he decided to pursue seminary studies.
He returned to England not yet ordained a priest, and inherited several estates from his father. But Gilbert avoided the easy life he could have led under the circumstances. Instead he lived a simple life at a parish, sharing as much as possible with the poor. Following his ordination to the priesthood he served as parish priest at Sempringham.
Among the congregation were seven young women who had expressed to him their desire to live in religious life. In response, Gilbert had a house built for them adjacent to the Church. There they lived an austere life, but one which attracted ever more numbers; eventually lay sisters and lay brothers were added to work the land.
The religious order formed eventually became known as the Gilbertines, though Gilbert had hoped the Cistercians or some other existing order would take on the responsibility of establishing a rule of life for the new order. The Gilbertines, the only religious order of English origin founded during the Middle Ages, continued to thrive. But the order came to an end when King Henry VIII suppressed all Catholic monasteries.
Over the years a special custom grew up in the houses of the order called “the plate of the Lord Jesus.” The best portions of the dinner were put on a special plate and shared with the poor, reflecting Gilbert’s lifelong concern for less fortunate people.
He established the Gilbertine Rule—a vow he himself did not take until he was near death, as he professed his belief it would be arrogant to do so, as he had written it. The rule put love of God first and foremost, but also included service to the community and the poor, humility, modesty, and acts of penance and self-denial.
Throughout his life, Gilbert lived simply, consumed little food, and spent a good portion of many nights in prayer. Despite the rigors of such a life he died at well over age 100.
Many miracles are recorded after his death, with the majority of pilgrims to his shrine at Sempringham coming from the immediate local area.