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Title: History of the Reformation - Calvin at Poitiers, at the Basses-trelles, and in St. Benedict’s Caves.
Author: John Calvin
Language: English

 9 00005-0008 Calvin at Poitiers, at the Basses-Trelles, and in St. Benedict's Caves 
(Spring 1534.)

CALVIN meditated leaving the South. He had found a retreat in the hour of danger; but as the storm seemed to blow over, he could go at last from the place where he had been hidden, and resume a career that had been so roughly interrupted. He was not at ease in Angouleme. On the one hand the conversion of Du Tillet and some of his friends gave rise to rumors among the clergy and people; and on the other certain traditional elements that Margaret and some of his hearers at Gerac desired to retain, were displeasing to the reformer. Altars, images, holidays dedicated to Mary and the saints, confessors and confession — none of these things appeared to him scriptural, and he sighed for the time when he could make the evangelical principle prevail in all its integrity. He was in the habit of saying: ‘Above all things we must confess our Lord fully, without shrinking from anything soever.’ Where should he go? His thoughts led him first to Poitiers, whence he proposed to visit Orleans, Paris, and then Germany and Switzerland, to study and gain knowledge by intercourse with the reformers. In their conversations at Gerac the Sieur de Torras had often spoken of Pierre de la Place, who was then studying at Poitiers. Calvin would also meet there with Charles le Sage, regent of the university, like himself a native of Noyon. One consideration restrained him: Could he leave Du Tillet? ‘Where you go, I will go,’ said the young canon; ‘my heart is filled with the faith that animates you.’ The idea of enjoying Calvin’s society at every moment, and of seeing in Switzerland and Germany the noblehearted men who were reforming the Church, filled him with joy. The two friends departed: Calvin under the name of Charles d’Espeville, and Du Tiller under that of Hautmont, which seems to have been borne by some members of his family. They arrived (probably about the end of March 1534) in those plains and heaths of Poitou where so many great battles had been fought, and where a humble combatant was approaching to engage in nobler contests. Few provinces in France were so well prepared. Abelard, who had lived in these western districts, had left behind him some traces of the doubts set forth in his celebrated treatise, Sic et Non (Yes and No), on the doctrines of the Church. Here too a writer, unconnected with the Reform, had attacked the papomania, and the clergy, who formed (it was said) a third part of the population, exasperated the two others by their avarice and irregularities.

Calvin stayed at Poitiers with Messire Fouquet, prior of Trois-Moutiers, a learned ecclesiastic, and a friend of the Du Tillets, who had a house there.

The university was flourishing, it possessed learned professors, and had a famous library. The desire of understanding — a feeling springing up everywhere in France — was particularly felt here. The prior of Trois- Moutiers conversed with his two guests on the public disputations that were going on in the university. This excited Calvin’s attention: he went to the hall, sat down on one of the benches, and listened attentively. No one, as he looked at this stranger, would have supposed that under those pale, unattractive features was hidden one of the heroes who change the face of the world in the name of truth alone. Beneath much quibbling and idle trash the young doctor could see flashes of light here and there. After the disputation, he called upon those combatants from whom he had heard the language of christianity; he stated his own ideas, and ere long the beauty of his genius and the frankness of his language won them over. Calvin and these generous men became friends and visited each other; at length, says an historian, ‘they began to take walks together without the city,’ and as they walked along the banks of the little river Clain, or rambled over the fields, the young doctor spoke to them openly of Christ and of eternity.

They did not trouble themselves, indeed, with scholastic theology and metaphysical formulas: Calvin aimed at the conquest of their souls. He required in every one the formation of a new man, and cared about nothing else. In the midst of the disheartening weaknesses and immense necessities of fallen humanity, a great spiritual restoration must be carried out; the hour had come, and to accomplish the work it needed special men invested with power from on high. Calvin was one of these strong men, whom God has sent to the aid of human decay. At the moment of the awakening, after the slumber of the Middle Ages, the heavenly Father bestowed near creative forces on mankind. The Gospel, then restored to the world, possessed a beauty which attracted men’s souls, and an authority which wrought in them an absolute obedience: these are the two regenerating elements. All over Europe prophets arose among the people, but they did not prophesy at their own impulse. Above them was the sovereign, free, living, supernatural God who worked in them with supreme power.

Calvin was about to begin at Poitiers a work of regeneration. Indeed no long time elapsed before numerous hearers crowded round him. Some were offended by his words; and there were some who, looking only for disputations and sophistry, tormented the young doctor with their accustomed insolence; while others opposed the heretic ‘with dilemmas and cunning catches.’ Others, again, who thought themselves masters of the world, turned their backs on him, ‘as if he were an ordinary mountebank.’ Calvin, surprised at such resistance, ‘instead of entangling himself in useless disputes,’ seriously thrust aside these frivolous subtleties, and ‘put forward what is true.’ But if the doctrine he announced met with enemies, it also met with friends. The word of God perpetually separates light from darkness in the spiritual world, as it did at the time of the creation of heaven and earth.

Generous men gathered eagerly round the young and powerful doctor.

These were Albert Babinot, jurist, poet, and law-reader; Anthony Veron, procureur to the lower court; Anthony de la Dugie, doctor-regent; Jean Boisseau de la Borderie, advocate; Jean Vernou of Poitiers, the Sieur de St. Vertumien, and Charles le Sage, doctor-regent, a man of great esteem, who possessed the entire confidence of Madame, the king’s mother. One of these distinguished men especially won Calvin’s heart: it was Pierre de la Place, a native of Angouleme, a friend of Du Tillet, afterwards president of the Court of Aids, and one of the St. Bartholomew martyrs. But Le Sage, another of these eminent men, kept himself rather aloof; he was from Noyon, and was not very anxious to put himself in the train of the son of the old episcopal secretary; moreover, he believed sincerely in the miracle of transubstantiation.

This group of distinguished men, which now gathered round Calvin at Poitiers, as formerly at Angouleme, fixed the attention of those who had any intercourse with him. Calvin’s attractive power, which is somewhat doubted in the present day, struck even his enemies. ‘Knowledge as well as virtue,’ says one of them on this occasion, ‘soon wins love, and eminent minds, whether for good or evil, require little time to become known.

Calvin, having retired to Poitiers, soon met with good store of friends.’ He met them at the university, went to see them at their houses, courted their society, and spoke freely of the knowledge of God. On many points they thought from the very first like him. When he complained ‘that they worshiped stocks and stones, prayed to the dead, trusted in vain things, and desired to serve God by idle ceremonies,’ everybody agreed with him, even Le Sage. But the young doctor went still farther.

Doubtless he condemned ‘a rugged austerity; he recommended people to be loving (aimables) and kind to their neighbors.’ But at the same time, he was true, even at the risk of displeasing. Being present one day when some sincere catholics were defending the doctrine of transubstantiation, Calvin unhesitatingly declared, that we must receive Christ, even his body and blood, by faith, by the spirit which gives life, and not by a sensual eating with the mouth. Le Sage exclaimed, quite shocked, that this was the opinion of the heretic Wickliffe, and even La Place ‘stopped short in alarm, at seeing so great a falling off from the religion in which he had been strictly bred.’ Calvin was cut to the heart.

But if he lost some friends, he gained others. The chief magistrate of Poitiers, Lieutenant-general Pierre Regnier de la Planche, desired to see him, and invited him to dine with De la Dugie, Babinot, Veron, Vernou, and other acquaintances. Calvin accepted the invitation, which caused some astonishment. ‘This innovator,’ said the catholics, ‘desires to court the magistrates, in order that they may give him importance by their condescension.’ Calvin never made any such calculations, but he was ‘burning with great zeal to extend the glory of the Lord on every side.’ He was received with respect, and took his seat at the table; during dinner the conversation turned, it would seem, on mere common-places. As soon as the meal was over, the company rose and went into the garden. It was in this place, known as the Basses Treilles, that the Sieur de la Planche often received his friends. That magistrate, Calvin, Babinot, and the other guests conversed as they Walked, and the master of the house, turning the conversation on Luther and Zwingle, blamed the reformers, and especially their opinions on the mass. ‘This was a frequent topic of conversation,’ says a writer of the sixteenth century, ‘not only among the learned, but among the common people, and was even talked of at table.’ Calvin, who was well informed and prepared, entered upon the subject and explained the chief points. ‘Luther saw the truth,’ he said, ‘but he is like those who are walking through a long and winding road; they perceive afar the dim glimmer of a lamp, by means of which they can grope their way along the path they must follow. Zwingle approached the light, but like those who rush too hastily to good, he went beyond it.’ Then wishing them to understand what there was in the Lord’s Supper, he stated more in detail the idea of the presence of Christ, a real one no doubt, but to be received by faith and not by the mouth: thus taking a middle position between Zwingle and Luther. These discourses, being as clear as they were forcible, convinced the lieutenant-general and the friends he had assembled. Calvin was requested to commit them to writing, which he did, adds the historian, with an eloquence that brought him new disciples. Regnier de la Planche was gained to protestantism, and his son Louis subsequently took part in the struggles against the Guises. It was he whom Catherine de Medici perfidiously interrogated one day ill her closet, whilst the Cardinal of Lorraine was hidden behind the tapestry.

Henceforth the garden of the Basses-Treilles became a favorite resort with Calvin: he was accustomed to go there freely and openly. There, like Socrates in the garden of Academe, the young Christian Plato and his friends sought for truth. The truth which the Reformation was then restoring to the world, was of quite a different order, and of far greater power than that of the Greek philosophers. Wherever its voice was heard, the idea of a clerical priesthood disappeared, the prerogatives of monastic life vanished, and a personal, individual, living Christianity took their place. The divine revelations were given to laymen in their mother-tongue, and the sacraments, stripped Of their pretended magical virtues, exercised a spiritual influence over the heart. Such were the principles professed by Calvin in the garden of the lieutenant-general. As he walked up and down beneath the pleasant shade, he spoke to his friend of the heavenly Father, of his only Son, of grace, and of eternal life. His disciples, as they listened, imagined that all things were about to become new, and said to one another that now at last a barren formalism in the church would give way to a living power — a breath from heaven. The catholics of Poitiers were distressed. ‘As our first parents,’ they said, ‘were enchanted in a garden, so it was in the lieutenant-general’s garden of the Basses-Treilles that this handful of men were cajoled and duped by Calvin, who easily made a breach in the souls of those who listened to him.’ This is a remarkable confession.

One day a meeting was held there at which Calvin and his friends consulted about what France needed most. The answer was easy: the Gospel. But France, alas! rejected it. They did not confine themselves to this topic, and Calvin was anxious to substitute in the church the spirit for the form, life and reality for ritual observances. He acquitted himself worthily of his task, and taking up the principal point explained specially his spiritual doctrine on the Savior’s presence. ‘This,’ says the catholic historian, ‘was the first Calvinist council held in France.’ The word ‘council’ is too ambitious, but it was a meeting that bore fruit. The living faith which inspired the young doctor gained over a few rebellious spirits.

De la Place, who raised numerous objections at first, but who was a man of common sense and ‘good conscience,’ thought that he might possibly be mistaken. ‘The seed fallen into his heart began to grow, and it put forth fruit in the season God had ordained.’ The agitation which Calvin excited in Poitiers, the admiration of some, the uneasiness of others, grew stronger every day. The friends of the Gospel began to run some risk by meeting together. If certain fanatics should make themselves masters of the populace, the garden of the Basses-Treilles might be attacked, and the police, under color of restoring order, might even go so far as to arrest the stranger. There were often false alarms.

Calvin’s friends determined to look for some solitary place where they might assemble in peace. One of them having pointed out a wilderness in the adjacent country — a number of deep and isolated caverns which would shelter them from all investigations, — they determined to go thither in little bands, and by different roads.

The next day the project was put in execution. Calvin set out with two or three others; they traversed the pretty suburb of St. Benedict, took a picturesque footpath, and after about an hours walking, arrived at a wildlooking spot in front of the ruins Of a Roman aqueduct. Beneath them flowed the tranquil waters of the Clain: thickly wooded rocks, containing caverns of various depths, raised their imposing masses above the stream.

Calvin was charmed with the solitude. Gradually others arrived, and the assembly was soon complete. Calvin and his friends entered one of the largest of these caves. They were usually known as the caves of St. Benedict or the Croutelles, but this one was called, and has ever since borne the name of Calvin’s grotto. The reformer took his stand on the highest ground; his disciples gathered round him, some of them leaning against the rock; and in the midst of a solemn silence be began to teach them, expounding what was grandest of all — preaching Christ to them. This was a topic to which he was constantly reverting. ‘Better be deprived of everything and possess Christ,’ he said one day. ‘If the ship is in danger, the sailors throw everything overboard, that they may reach the port in safety. Do likewise.

Riches, honors, rank, outward respect — all should be sacrificed to possess Christ. He is our only blessedness.’ Calvin spoke with much authority; he carried away his readers, and was himself carried away.

On a sudden feeling his spiritual weakness, and the need they all had of the Holy Ghost, he fell on his knees beneath those solitary vaults; all the assembly knelt with him, and he raised to the throne of God a prayer so touching and so earliest, that all who heard him fancied themselves transported to heaven. These pilgrimages to St. Benedict’s caves were soon observed; ill-disposed persons might follow the little groups on their way to the meeting, and surprise the assembly. Calvin’s friends resolved to change their place of meeting frequently, sometimes going to a village, at others to an isolated countryhouse. The inhabitants of the neighborhood would join the little flock, and the preacher would bring forward that christian truth which enlightens the world and man. When they separated, he gave books to every one, ‘and even prayers written with his own hand.’

Calvin’s opposition to the mass gave greater offense every day; the catholics charged him with the crime of daring to deny that the priest offered Christ himself in sacrifice, as an expiatory victim for the sins of the people. He was moved by these observations, but not shaken. One day when he and his friends were assembled ill the cavern, he extolled the sacrifice of the cross offered once, according to Scripture, and then spoke so forcibly against the mass, that it was not possible, said earnest catholics, to hear him without shuddering. It is true that Calvin did not spare this Romish ceremony. He sometimes called it a ‘mere monkey-trick and burlesque.’ ‘I call it a monkey-trick,’ he said, ‘because they mock the supper of the Lord, just as a monkey imitates clumsily whatever he sees others do. I call it a burlesque, because the nonsense and gestures they introduce are better adapted to a stage-play than to so holy a mystery.’ There were in the cave some who believed sincerely in transubstantiation, and who habitually attended mass with pious sentiments. Calvin’s words — although they may not have been literally those we have copied — wounded and vexed them, and Le Sage, abruptly interrupting him, exclaimed: tour Lord, very God and very man, is really and substantially under the appearance of the bread and the wine… In all ages, wherever men have known Christ, the sacrifice of the mass has been offered up.’ Surprised at this bold outbreak, Calvin asked himself if he had committed a crime in setting the Word of God above the traditions of Rome. He kept silence for a few moments, and then lifting his hand and putting it on the Bible that lay open before him, he exclaimed earnestly: ‘This is my mass!’ Then uncovering his head and placing his fur cap on the table, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and said with emotion: ‘O Lord, if in the day of judgment Thou desirest to punish me because I have deserted the mass, I will say to Thee: O God, Thou hast not commanded me to celebrate it. Behold Thy Law… Behold Thy Holy Scripture. … Thou didst give it us to be our guide, and I can find no other sacrifice in it than that which was accomplished on the altar of the cross.’ The hearers separated in great excitement, touched with the reformer’s faith at once so simple and so strong, and it was with new convictions that some of them retraced the solitary paths that conducted them to Poitiers.

From that time many persons manifested a desire to receive the Supper according to the Lord’s institution. The various ceremonies, the incense, the choral chants satisfied them no longer; they wished to have a simple and real communion with the Savior. A day was therefore appointed, and they assembled in one of the caves of St. Benedict. The minister read the Word of God, and called upon the Lord to pour out His Spirit on the little flock. He broke the bread and handed round the cup; and then invited the worshippers to communicate mutually such reflections and experiences as might be useful to the faith. These simple exhortations after the Supper were continued for some time in the reformed Church.