Lives of the saints

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Article Saints, Feasts, and Seasons
These are the holy people who didn’t quite make the cut—until they did.

Alphonsus Rodriguez must have thought he had it made. Yes, there had been a few bumps in the road. His education had been cut short when his father died and Alphonsus had to return home to Segovia, Spain, destined to take over the family wool business, though it had been much reduced. But once home he settled in and started a family in 1557.

So it’s unlikely he had any idea of the four hammer blows that were about to shatter his life: The deaths of his entire family—first his son, then two more of his children, and finally his wife. On top of that, his business failed.

Off their pedestals

Everyone has experienced personal failures, not to mention conflict with others or alienation from family, friends, and community. How about uncertainty over the course of your life? Rejection? Running into your personal limitations? Severe illness? Then there are deaths and other losses. Do you have things in your past you’re not proud of? Maybe you haven’t been always been good with money.

So have saints, or at least many of them. Rarely, though, do people think of them as struggling, in part due to the sometimes oversimplified and sanitized versions of their biographies most people see.

That’s too bad. People do venerate saints as those who are dwelling eternally with God and “on whose constant intercession we rely for help,” as the Mass prayer says. But we can also look to saints because we recognize human beings who worked through life’s complexities and still managed to live close to God and thereby inspire others to do the same.

Down but not out

After suffering his terrible losses, Alphonsus Rodriguez turned to the community he had known and respected as a young man: the Jesuits. At age 35 he decided he wanted to become a priest. Poor health, however, and his abbreviated education made him a less-than-ideal candidate. Rejected for the priesthood, he became a religious brother.

So in 1579 Rodriguez became the doorkeeper at a Jesuit school, greeting visitors, fetching teachers and students, running errands, and giving to the poor who came to the door. In all this he became someone people sought for his advice—including the future saint Peter Claver, who followed his suggestion to become a missionary among the slaves of South America.

His image of himself remained humble. “In the difficulties which are placed before me,” he wrote, “why should I not act like a donkey? . . . When he is mistreated, he says nothing. . . . The true servant of God must do likewise and say with David: Before you I have become like a beast of burden.”

While we may not feel the need to model our lives after a pack animal, it’s possible to see in the life of Alphonsus Rodriguez that catastrophes don’t mean life can’t go on. Losses and failures, though painful, can also teach acceptance, lead to greater compassion for others whose suffering we may not have noticed before, and also give us insight into how we can become a source of wisdom and inspiration for others.

From soldiers to saints

Some saints, such as Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614), got off to false starts and struggled to find direction but were able to shed their pasts and find new paths.

When he was 17, Camillus fulfilled his longing to join his father on his military adventures. He also imitated his father in acquiring a gambling addiction. The two were so wild and disruptive, even by mercenary standards, that they were kicked out of camp. Wandering the roads, surviving by their card games, the health of Camillus’ father broke down and he died shortly afterward. By this point Camillus had another problem: a chronically infected leg wound.

Eventually Camillus went to the hospital of San Giacomo in Rome, where he had gone previously to exchange treatment of his leg for work as a servant. This time he placed himself under the spiritual care of future saint Philip Neri and entered into his tasks with a new spirit.

Though the patients were treated fairly well at San Giacomo, it occurred to Camillus that good care for the sick was not only a job but a vocation of love. With that he chose five like-minded others from the nursing staff to work as a separate group in the hospital. In time his new community became a full-fledged religious order, known today as the Camillians.

Then there’s St. John of God. He ran away from home at age 8 and ended up wandering the roads, begging from village to village for several years. In time he joined the Spanish army. When not fighting he wiled away his time drinking and gambling.

One day he fell from a stolen horse he was riding. Terrified he would be captured or killed by the enemy, he had a change of heart. But when he returned to his army, some comrades took advantage of his newfound good nature to trick him into going AWOL. As punishment he was stripped, beaten, and drummed out of the army.

After more begging, shepherding, and working as a laborer in Africa to support a family who had been exiled, his love of reading gave him the idea to become a traveling religious book and holy-card salesman. He later settled in Granada, Spain, where he established a small bookshop.

One day he heard a sermon on repentance from another future saint, John of Ávila, which proved a little too effective: After listening to it, John of God went back to his store, tore up all the nonreligious books, and gave away the rest of his stock and all his money. Weeping for his sins, he walked the streets in torn clothes and was the target of both derision and mud pellets thrown at him by the good people of Granada, who thought he had gone a little mad.

Friends took him to a hospital where he received treatment no better than the army had just given him: being tied down and whipped. After a few weeks he got a visit from John of Ávila, who advised him to snap out of it and direct his remorse in more positive directions.

Like Camillus de Lellis, John didn’t look far to serve. He turned to the patients around him. To support this work he was willing to try just about anything, like selling wood. He rented rooms on credit to serve as an early hospital and opened a homeless shelter in an old monastery.

It may take time for life decisions to work themselves out. If we or a family member or friend have made some bad choices, it helps to remember Camillus and John who turned out right after making some wrong turns. Their lives also communicate how even in strained circumstances opportunities abound to do good and help others around us if we look for them, though pursuing them at times may require some sacrifice and effort.

On the edge

Many had thought John of God to be mentally ill. Benedict Labre may have actually been so.

As a young student in 18th-century France, he did well in some subjects but had a certain independence of mind and spirit and found himself drawn away to visit with poor people on the roads. Very religious from an early age, he thought the relative solitude of being a monk might be the life for him.

He applied to three contemplative communities—the Trappists, Carthusians, and Cistercians—who rejected him in turn for various reasons. One cited his lack of education. Another had experienced a run of bad candidates and turned Labre away because of his precarious health. Some suspected he was mentally ill. Yet another gave him a trial period only for Labre to find that, in the end, monastic life depressed him.

If he couldn’t be a contemplative in a monastery, he could take his desire for solitude, poverty, silence, and prayer on the road. From this point his life became a continual pilgrimage. He walked all over Europe visiting shrines in Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland.

Stories about his travels abound. He rarely had more than a pittance of money and frequently gave what he had to beggars. He slept wherever he could—in barns, under bushes. When he resided in Rome in the last years of his life, he lived in the ruins of the Coliseum. He treasured silence and was said to go for months without saying anything. Only partially clothed and wrapped in a ragged coat, his hair was uncombed and he didn’t always smell very good.

His lifestyle—austerities, poor food, lack of shelter, and general self-neglect—contributed to his decline. On Wednesday of Holy Week he was leaving church after the morning liturgy and fell down the steps. Carried to a nearby home, he died not long after.

Though Labre strenuously avoided recognition during his lifetime, he could do nothing about it after his death in Rome in 1783. Within a very a short time after his death all of Rome seemed to know about it. Two churches vied to be his burial site. On the day of the funeral, soldiers were needed to accompany his body through a throng that filled the church all of Holy Week as his body lay in state. Even after his burial on Easter Sunday afternoon, crowds continued to come to the church. Somehow the reputation of this reclusive poor man had gotten around.

Small rewards

Trying to do good in difficult circumstances and needing time—and therefore patience—to find one’s vocation were also part of the story of Rose Philippine Duchesne. She was also not a stranger to failure, hardship, and illness.

Born in France, the young Duchesne was devout but also a bit headstrong. At 18 she joined the Visitation Sisters, but the French Revolution dispersed the community and Rose had to go home. Eventually she entered Madeleine Sophie Barat’s recently formed Religious of the Sacred Heart. She carried with her a desire to be a missionary to Native Americans but had to wait until she was 49 to get to the United States, in particular Missouri, where she and her fellow sisters established a free school for the poor, an orphanage, and new convents.

The bishop who assigned her wrote the sisters: “You have come, you say, seeking the cross. Well, you have taken exactly the right road to find it. A thousand unforeseen difficulties may arise.” He was right.

Though the first Jesuits in Missouri credited Duchesne’s sharing of her own meager resources with saving their mission, she was having problems of her own. Money and firewood were hard to find. The children and their parents were apathetic. The sisters were frequently ill; Duchesne herself contracted yellow fever. She had trouble learning new languages. And in all of it she blamed herself.

“There is no one in the community who is not suffering,” she wrote in a letter back home to France. “It is heartbreaking, after such ardent desires, to see our success hindered or slowed up and to realize I am the obstacle.”

After years of this kind of work, Duchesne, now in her 70s, was finally given permission to realize her dream of teaching Native American children. She resigned her leadership position and went to the Jesuit mission at Sugar Creek, Kansas. Though fatigue and difficulty with the Native American languages limited her time there to a year, she earned a native name that meant “The Woman Who Prays Always.” She continued that life of prayer, spending much of her remaining 10 years in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

All for love

Saints who struggled found their way through their many difficulties. They amply demonstrate that life is a journey—even if the path sometimes involves a bit of wandering. They saw how they could change direction and did not have to be bound to their pasts. Prayer also had feet: They took it—and the closeness to God it brought—with them on their journeys.

Their stories also can lead us to realize how catastrophes are not the end of our story. Rejection can teach persistence and acceptance that things do not turn out the way they wanted.

One can be wise without a ton of educational achievement. Chronic problems such as illness need not prevent us from being productive and generous people. Money isn’t everything.

Can’t do big things in life? Then be content with the small things; they have infinite value. Chances to help others with both their physical and spiritual needs and chances to accept help from others are all around us, even—and especially—in difficult times.

Above all, these holy people came to know that what sustained them was love. With love for God and others they found holiness through their struggles. And so can we.

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 3, page 30-33).