In the rich history of Catholic saints, there are some that seem so easy to love, so sweet or merry or innocent that devotion to them is easy. St. Philip Neri was dubbed “the merriest man alive”. St. John Bosco, whose care for children is reflected in a childlike love of God. St. Nicholas, with his pop culture allure as willing to brawl in defense of his faith (and the Santa associations don’t hurt either). But, proof that God created each of us as uniquely unrepeatable beings, and that He earnestly desires to be with us in Heaven, there are as many saints as there are personalities, and some of them seem unrecognizably foreign to modern sensibilities.
St. Rose of Lima, the first saint born in the Americas, is one such saint. Born in 1586 in Lima, Peru, she was named Isabel Flores de Olivia, but when a servant had a vision of the infant’s face transformed into a rose, the nickname stuck. Isabel herself must have approved of the name, as she took it on at her Confirmation.
Although God is outside space and time, unchangeable and perfect, His saints — during their earthly pilgrimages anyway — are not. And though it’s not often profitable to view saints of the past through modern lenses, there are some aspects of St. Rose of Lima’s life that may seem very familiar to today’s Catholic. Firstly, the devout woman was known to be a daily Communicant, something practically unheard of at the time. She also spent much time in Eucharistic Adoration, a practice that had its roots in the earliest days of the Church, yes, but didn’t take on the current form until the late 1500s with the Forty Hours Devotion promoted by Pope Clement the VIII. In some ways, St. Rose’s piety would have seemed strange to her contemporaries, but familiar to us, over 400 years in the future.
Also recognizable to modern eyes may be the resistance St. Rose’s parents felt toward some of the ways their daughter expressed her religious devotion. Like all parents, they had hopes and dreams for their child, and those dreams included marriage and children. Rose, however, felt no desire to conform to the duties of marriage and motherhood, and resisted parental pressure for over a decade before being given permission to join the Third Order of St. Dominic. To a spectator here in the 21st century, a woman’s right to control her own destiny, of resisting cultural expectations, is a familiar and comfortable storyline. In a post-Christian, secular society, the courage needed to stand up for the Faith is equally heroic and familiar.
But then there are aspects to St. Rose of Lima’s life that seem so out of step with modern life that dwelling on them brings us face to face with the deep Otherness of God.
Rose was known to take on extreme and painful penances. Beginning with adolescence, she began to rub peppers and ashes into her face in response to the attention she was drawing from local men. She began fasting three days a week, and upon sensing the stirrings of vanity in her heart, cut off all her hair. The modern mind attempts to frame these acts as body image issues plaguing a young girl, but for Rose, she directed everything toward an increased devotion to Our Lord.
As she grew older, Rose became reclusive, living in a small room her father had set aside for her in their family home, and leaving only for Mass and to go to the local market to sell the lace she was skilled at making, the better to supplement her family’s meager income. She would routinely stay away for 20+ hours at a time, filling every possible moment with prayer. When she finally submitted to sleep, it was in a bed of her own terrible making, filled with shards of glass, broken pottery, and thorns. She admitted that the thought of lying down in such a place made her tremble with dread.
Rose had a circlet of silver fashioned for her head, that she would hide under a crown of flowers. The circlet was studded on the inside with sharp spikes, and the constant trauma to her skull was offered up in repairation to offenses suffered by Christ. At one point, the spikes grew into her scalp, and removing the circlet became yet another mortification Rose willingly took on. Another time, the woman deliberately burned her hands in atonement for the sins of the world. She wore a heavy iron chain around her waist, and the weight of it must have been terrible for a frail woman whose fasting grew so extreme she was known to ingest nothing but tonics of the bitterest of herbs.
It’s easy for the modern mind to recoil from such extreme penances. Perhaps we respond with calls for prudence and moderation. But for Rose, none of it was too much. In equal amount to her mortifications, she was flooded with graces. Our Lord was said to reveal Himself to her frequently, flooding her with such grace and peace that all the discomforts of the flesh were as nothing. For His sake, she willingly offered up her sufferings for the conversion of sinners and the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Rose may have been eccentric, even to her contemporaries, but no one doubted her devotion to Christ.
In her last days, Rose began to take the sick and dying from the streets of Lima into her own tiny cell. There, she cared for them as tenderly as she would Christ Himself. From this example, Peru saw the beginnings of its social services. When her death finally came, at the young age of 31, the entire city flooded into the streets to carry her coffin. Rich and poor, powerful and humble came out to pay their respects to the strange woman whose love of God shone brighter than her oddities.
We live in a period of history unparalleled with comfort. For many today, being “uncomfortable”, whether in body or mind, is the greatest injustice imaginable. Coming face to face with a saint like Rose of Lima, who regarded her comfort as nothing more or less than one additional thing to offer Our Lord can be deeply unsettling to us. What comforts, we’re left to wonder, would we be willing to sacrifice? How far are we willing to go to grow closer to Christ?