The General and the Saint

General Placidus had been hunting the great-antlered, magnificent stag, the finest he’d ever seen, for three days now. He and several of his servants had followed it through a wooded valley to the side of a mountain late in the day, just a great storm blew in. The proud general gained the distinct impression that he was being taunted by this haughty stag, which seemed to be leading them onward, waiting, and then bounding out of range of their javelins as soon as he or his men would close in. Now the rain began pouring down, and day seemed to turn to night. Lightning began to flash all around, and the thunder was deafening. Still, the general could catch glimpses of the stag further up, higher up, waiting, but then always moving toward the top of this rocky mountain. He looked for his men, but couldn’t see them, shouted, but they could not have heard him through the downpour and the thunder. For all he knew, they may have been felled by the lightning already or fallen down the steep slopes. In the prime of his life after many conquests in the far-flung empire of his lord the Emperor, Placidus continued uphill, pulling himself up the rocky face hand over hand, feet finding slight purchase on the slick rock, the rain running off his cloak. With a flash of lightning just above, he sees the mighty stag standing on a jutting rock just above him, very close, looking down at him. A little more climbing, and he finds himself exactly where the stag was, on a roughly level area, next to a craggy peak. More flashes of lightning illuminate the scene, and he sees the stag looking back at him and bounding up the peak itself. Placidus roars and bounds forward himself, javelin at the ready, knowing the stag will have little chance of escape. Lightning strikes dangerously close all around the general, and yet he scrambles onward and upward. He can no longer see the stag. There, near the peak, he sees what seems to be a cleft in the rock, and a glow coming from within it. He supposes his men to have found a cave and set up a fire within, the lazy slaves. Still, a warm fire in a dry cave without lightning flashing all about would be welcome. Yet he wondered where the stag went, if not into this very cleft. He heads toward the cleft in the rock, and then notices the strange quality of the light, how it is steady and bright, like sunlight, not flickering like a fire. He proceeds out of the rain, entering the cave cautiously, but then stops in his tracks, dropping his javelin. There, inside, stands the stag, magnificent, mighty, bigger than any stag should be, with the finest antlers imaginable. Placidus, the fearless general, commander of Rome’s legions, is suddenly frightened, for between the mighty antlers of the great stag shines the image of a man on a cross. The great stag stands, noble, impassive, staring directly down at Placidus, who falls face-down in worship, striking his fists on the floor of the cave, weeping. He knows the Crucified One. He hears a mighty voice, loud as the thunder, and is paralyzed, nearly fainting in fear. It says, “You have hunted Me long enough, Placidus. Now you have found Me.”

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After his visionary conversion experience, the general Placidus and his family were soon all baptized as Christians, with him taking the baptismal name Eustachios, either late in the reign of Trajan or early in the reign of Hadrian. He gave most of his wealth away to help the poor. He and his family died as martyrs for the faith, after refusing to worship the gods of Rome. The feast of St Eustachios, also known as St Eustathios and St Eustace, and his family, is 20 September. The place of his conversion, where he saw the vision of the stag, is called Mentorella, and is a place of pilgrimage.