Hervé of Brittany, Abbot (AC)
(also known as Harvey, Herveus, Huva)
6th century. Saint Hervé is venerated throughout Brittany but we have few reliable particulars on him--his life was not written until the late medieval period. All we really know is that he was a hermit in Brittany, where he is still highly venerated and where Hervé is one of the most popular names for boys.
The story goes that a young British bard named Hyvarnion, a pupil of Saint Cadoc, lived at the court of Childebert, king of the Franks. After four years, desiring to return to his native land, he set off through Brittany, where one day, riding through a wood, he heard a young girl singing. The sweetness of her voice made him curious and, dismounting from his horse, he made his way through the trees to where in a sunny glade he found a maiden gathering herbs. He asked her what they were for. "This herb," she replied, "drives away sadness, that one banishes blindness, and I look for the herb of life that drives away death." Hyvarnion, forgetting his homeward journey, in that hour loved her, and later he married her.
After three years they had a son who was born blind, and in their sorrow they called him Hervé, which means bitterness. When he was two years old, his father died, and the mother, Rivanon, and child were left poor and friendless. In her grief she sang to him and he grew up to love poetry and music. When Hervé was seven, Rivanon gave him into the care of a holy man named Arthian and she became a hermit. The child wandered about the countryside singing and begging, led by a white dog which he held on a string. To this day the Bretons sing a ballad of the blind child, led by his dog, singing as he shivered in the wind and the rain, with no shoes on his bare feet, his teeth chattering with the cold.
At age 14, with his mother's approval, he sought out an uncle who was a hermit and kept a monastic school in the forest at Plouvien. His uncle welcomed him, and soon Hervé excelled in knowledge beyond all his other pupils. On his uncle's death, he became abbot. Every morning the children gathered to be taught by their blind master, and every evening they left "like a swarm of bees issuing from a hollow oak." He instructed them in music and poetry, and, above all, in the Christian way of life.
"When you wake up in bed," he said, "offer your hearts to the good God, make the sign of the Cross and say with faith and hope and love, 'I give You my heart, my body and my soul. Make me a good man.' When you see a crow fly, think of the devil, black and evil. When you see a dove fly, think of your angel, gentle and white. Think of God, as the sun makes the wild roses bloom on the mountains. In the evening, before going to bed, say your prayers that a white angel may come from heaven and watch you till the dawn. This is the true way to live as Christians. Practice my song, and you will lead holy lives."
In addition to teaching, Hervé worked the fields near the school. He was venerated for his holiness and his miracles. The most extravagant of which relates that one day a wolf ate the donkey with which he was plowing the fields. The young child who was Hervé's guide cried out in fear, but at Hervé's prayers, the wolf put himself into the donkey's harness and finished the work to be done.
Later he decided to move the community to León. There the bishop wanted to ordain him priest, but Hervé humbly declined. Thus, although he was never a priest, Hervé is said to have participated in the solemn anathematizing of the tyrannical ruler Conomor, c. 550. From León the holy group travelled west. Beside the road to Lesneven is the fountain of Saint Hervé, which he is said to have caused to flow to satisfy the thirst of his companions. Finally, they settled and Hervé built a monastery at Lanhouarneau in Finistère, which earned a great reputation.
From his monastery, where he lived for the rest of his life, Hervé would travel forth periodically to preach or act as exorcist. He was no longer led by a white dog, but by his little niece, Kristine, who lived near him in a cottage of thatch and wattle built for her by the monks, and who, gay as a fairy, sang to him as she gathered flowers for the altar. When he came to die, he said to her: "Tina, my dear, make my bed ready, but make it not as is wont. Make it on the heard earth, before the altar, at the feet of Jesus. Place a stone for my bolster, and strew my bed with ashes." Weeping, she carried out his wish, and said: "May I follow in due course, as the boat follows the ship."
As his monks watched at his deathbed, they were said to have heard the music of the heavenly choirs welcoming him to heaven. So died the blind Breton saint, who had taught in the school in the forest, and who all his life, despite his blindness, had given glory to God. Until the French Revolution, a chapel (now destroyed) near Cleder in Finistère possessed a most unusual relics: the cradle in which Saint Hervé had been rocked (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Gill, White).
In art, Saint Herveus is a blind abbot telling frogs to be quiet or being led by a wolf (Roeder) or his child guide. He is invoked against eye problems (Delaney). Breton mothers threatened their mischievous children with his wolf (White).