The Gospels tell the story of a rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to be saved. When told he must love God and follow the Commandments, the man asked what else he needed to do. After Jesus told him to give everything to the poor and follow him, the man walked sadly away. That man was not St. John de Montmirail.
John was born into a family of French nobles — Andrew, Lord of Montmirail and Ferté-Gaucher, and Hildiarde d’Oisy — in a small town in the Champagne region of northeast France. His mother was in charge of his religious training and he learned secular subjects in school.
He became a soldier and developed a life-long friendship with Philip Augustus, later the king of France. He even saved Philip’s life during a battle against Richard the Lionheart.
John got caught up in the wild life of the court, neglecting the religious training he had received from his mother. He married within the nobility, to Helvide de Dampierre, and they had six children. However, that didn’t mean that John led a better life.
So far, he hardly seems like Scripture’s rich young man seeking to do one more thing. Everything changed when John turned 30. He met Jobert, the prior of St- Étienne de Montmirail Abbey, which William the Conqueror founded in 1067 as penance for marrying his cousin.
Jobert became John’s spiritual advisor, leading him to a complete conversion, marked by fidelity to God and generosity toward others. John started a hospital and cared for the poor, especially lepers. He left court and returned to his estate. Gradually, he ceased being an advisor to the king and spent his time with the priests at the abbey. He also began caring for his wife and their children, who received a good education, treating his tenants justly and correcting the wrongs done by his officials.
John decided his true calling was as a Cistercian monk. He left his property to his wife, gave away the rest of his wealth, and entered Longpont Abbey in Soissons, an ancient town on the Aisne River about 60 miles northeast of Paris.
His actions led to John’s family disowning him. Others treated him like a madman. He was rejected at court and mocked by the tenant farmers. His steadfastness never wavered and he willingly embraced the most repulsive tasks. He wore a hairshirt and often prayed all night.
Numerous miracles were reported at his tomb, a popular pilgrimage site until its destruction after the French Revolution.
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; nominis.cef.fr; sacred-destinations.com; saintrafe.blogspot.com; saints.sqpn.com; and wikipedia.org.