If a writer of fiction set out to compose a devout life of a noble medieval couple, he could scarcely equal the true story of St. Elzear of Sabran (1286-1325) and his wife Blessed Delphina of Signe (1283?-1360?).
Elzear, Count of Ariano, was born at Ansouis in southern France, and educated by his uncle, William of Sabran, who was abbot of the monastery of St. Victor at Marseilles. The abbot’s nephew was already most conscientious of disposition, and so given to acts of mortification that the uncle, though admiring the lad’s genuine devotion, had to tell him to go easy.
It was customary among the nobility in those days for parents to pick partners for their children when they were still young, and seal the choice with a contract of espousal. Thus Elzear was early espoused to Delphina, daughter and sole child of the lord of Puy-Michel. Her father having already died, Delphina had been raised by her aunt, an abbess. Thus, like her fiance, she had been given a deeply religious upbringing. When they were married in their midteens, Delphina, it is said, asked Elzear if they could not agree to a virginal union. The husband took a while to think that over, but eventually he consented. Thus their married life was to be a remarkable partnership of prayers and good works.
When Elzear was 23, he inherited his father’s countship and went to Ariano (near Benevento, Italy) to assume his duties. His subjects gave him scant welcome, and were only too ready to take advantage of his gentle ways. Eventually, a more impatient cousin told the Count to let him make them more obedient. “With the wicked,” he said, “you must play the lion.” “You say your prayers,” he advised Elzear. “I will hang up half a thousand, and make the rest as pliant as a glove.”
Elzear smiled. “Would you have me begin my government with massacres and blood? I will overcome these men by good. Now, by God’s assistance, you will shortly see this miracle.” And his promise came true.
Elzear was so forbearing, in fact, that even Delphina once questioned his restraint. One day the Count found among his late father’s papers a letter calumniating Elzear himself. Delphina, on reading the letter, told her husband that she hoped he would put the man who wrote it in his place. Elzear pointed out that Christ told us to forgive our enemies. So he destroyed the letter. Never alluding to it in his later dealings with the writer, he went out of his way to treat him cordially, and thus won his friendship.
Both the Count and his Countess achieved their various duties prayerfully and with care and balance.
Around 1317 Elzear and Delphina were called to Naples to the court of King Robert. Elzear, seeing that Robert’s young son Charles, whose tutor he had been named, was developing bad traits, patiently brought him back to a better attitude. Delphina, appointed lady-in-waiting to Queen Sanchia, became the Queen’s closest friend and confidante. Robert later sent St. Elzear to Paris to arrange a marriage between his son and Princess Mary of Valois. Delphina was a bit afraid that the French court might corrupt her husband. Elzear laughed, “If God has preserved my virtue in Naples, He can surely preserve it in Paris.”
Actually, Count Elzear took ill while in Paris and died a most edifying death. Delphina survived him 37 years. When King Robert died, Queen Sanchia entered a Poor Clare convent in Naples, and Delphina coached her in the ways of prayer. When the Queen died, the widowed Countess returned to France and spent her last years as a hermitess, engaged in aiding the poor. She was buried at Apt, France, with her husband.
Elzear was canonized in 1369 by Pope Urban V. Actually, that pope, William of Grimoard, was the saint’s godson. A sickly child at birth, he had been restored to health through the prayers of his saintly uncle. It was also Pope Urban who permitted the veneration of Countess Delphina, and her cult as “Blessed” was confirmed by Pope Innocent XII in 1694.
Clearly, Elzear amd Delphina were “in the world, but not of the world.” There are such people!
–Father Robert F. McNamara