Becoming a monk would automatically lead to Avitus’ release from slavery, a process known as “manumission”, allowing him the freedom to travel. A monk would also be expected to retire from the world.
There is evidence that Avitus had a strong personality; story has it that he was expelled from one monastery when he offended his fellow monks by his rigorous religious observance. This would also suggest that he was searching for a place to settle. The legend says God told him when he arrived at St Avit-Sénieur that this is where he should settle.
He became a hermit monk close to St Avit and legend has it that he lived in a cave. A hermit monk implies that he lived alone, but this is unlikely because the tradition of monasticism established in Aquitaine by St Martin of Tours (another soldier turned monk). We have a contemporary account of his monastery by his friend Sulpicius Severus.
‘Many also of the brethren had, in the same manner, fashioned retreats for themselves, but most of them had formed these out of the rock of the overhanging mountains, hollowed into caves. There were altogether 80 disciples, who were being disciplined after the example of the saintly master. No one there had anything which was called his own: all things were possessed in common. It was not allowed either to buy or to sell anything, as is the custom among most monks.
No art was practiced there, except that of transcribers, and even this was assigned to the brethren of younger years, while the elders spent their time in prayer.
Barely did any one of them go beyond their cell, unless when they assembled at the place of prayer. They all took their food together, after the hour of fasting was past. No one used wine, except when illness compelled them to do so. Most of them were clothed in garments of camel hair. Any dress approaching to softness was there deemed criminal, and this must be thought the more remarkable, because many amongst them were such as are deemed of noble rank.’
The community that existed around St Avit was probably similar, if not smaller. This would explain a number of events; why the location of his remains were known so that they could be moved to the Abbey more than 500 years after his death; the chapel Avitus had built; and the continuity between the saint’s monastic life and the establishment of the Abbey of St Avit-Sénieur some three centuries later.
When the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostelle was opened in the 9/10th century, the cult of saints had become established following the idea of a useful god. Saints had more access to god and were useful for intercession; therefore it was good to have them on your side. To do that, it was better to visit them and have close communication with them at their shrine, where they had lived or came to rest. As an existing community with the relics of a saint, St Avit-Sénieur would become a pilgrim centre. It also would have become part of the pilgrimage to Compostelle. The Abbey and monastery were built on the headland and, given its height, the Abbey would be visible from a distance in what would be relative wilderness.
Why Avitus chose his hermitage in St Avit can be explained by one final conjecture. Although in the wilderness, he would be close enough to his family estate to be supplied by it. I think he came home.