As thorns spring forth with roses, so grief and pain seem to have been born with the blessed Rose; for her life was a tissue of sufferings, sickness, pains, and crosses, which exercised her patience from her cradle to her tomb, by a long and tedious martyrdom.
— Fr . Jean Baptist Feuillet, O .P .,
The Life of Saint Rose of Lima
A Saint You Can Always Bank On
With St. Rose of Lima we find another astounding saint and loving hound of the Lord, and yet, at a superficial level, her life and her lessons may seem very odd, extreme, and strange to us today. Although known for her surpassing beauty and her childlike heart, she is perhaps known best for self-inflicted penitential suffering and self-mortification hardly surpassed in the life of any saint, and an earthly death at merely thirty-one years of age.
Are there lessons those of us, perhaps so much older, and so many centuries later, can learn from the gruesome crosses that she chose to bear? Does the life of Saint Rose of Lima have relevance today?
I say yes, you can bank on it.
Let’s look at a sketch of her life as we consider the most holy ways this beloved daughter of Saint Dominic lived the contemplative, apostolic, and charitable life as a thinker, doer, and lover for Christ.
Thinker: The Mystic Rose of Lima
Rose was not an academic and had little in the way of formal education, although she did learn to read. Among her favorite books were biographies of Saint Catherine of Siena and the spiritual guidebooks of another notable Dominican, Venerable Louis of Granada. In fact, his Book of Prayer and Meditation became Saint Rose’s favorite book, as prayer and meditation themselves were to become her favorite activities, forming the core and shaping the periphery of every aspect of her short life.
Rose’s life of prayer and contemplation started very early from the time of her early childhood when she would find herself drawn to stare at a picture of Christ crowned in thorns. She also had a special devotion to the Child Jesus and to his Blessed Mother. Saints drawn to prayer and contemplation seek to follow Christ’s instruction to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt . 6:6). They seek communion with the Father and not the eyes and the praise of others. When circumstances allow it, some go out into the desert, up into the mountains, or within some densely wooded glen. Others, like Saints Catherine and Rose, must seek their sanctuary of prayer, exactly as Christ explained it, from within the confines of their room.
Enclosed in her private hermitage, Rose read books on meditative prayer, especially, as mentioned, those of Venerable Louis of Granada. She devoutly prayed the Rosary and used many other vocal and mental forms of prayer. She would meditate for hours simply on the multitude of graces she had received through God’s mercy.
Christ said of those who pray to the Father in secret that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt . 6:6), and Saint Rose was rewarded with many ecstatic visions, including, like Saint Catherine, a divine espousal with Christ.
Doer: The Rose Takes Up Her Cross
Rose was not a doer in the grand sense of a Saint Dominic, who founded an order, or Saint Catherine, who influenced popes, although she was admired by her saintly archbishop. Most of what Rose did was done on a smaller, although most arduous scale. She knew well that Christ has said that those who would follow Him will need to deny themselves daily and take up their cross (Matt . 16:24; Luke 9:23). These are hard words of holy advice that she heeded like few before her or since.
Saint Thomas wrote that the cardinal virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence pertain to the active life, but they also prepare us to rein in our passions and focus our intellect and will so that we might rise undisturbed to the heights of contemplation. Saint Rose displayed those cardinal virtues in the most heroic degree, and she is probably best known for her unusual degree of both temperance and fortitude as displayed in the many extreme and most difficult ways she contrived to take up Christ’s cross through her own daily (and nightly) acts of self-denial and self-mortification.
Temperance reins in our sensual desires for bodily pleasures, and few pulled in their reins tighter than young Rose. As for the senses of the palate, she gave up meat as a child, as well as the succulent fruits of Peru. She would often deprive herself of cold water, and of any water at all, and would live on things such as bread crusts and simple bitter herbs. As for the sensual pleasures of the body, although Rose would at times be tormented by visions of temptations toward vanity and toward bodily pleasures, through God’s grace she never consented to such sins and persevered in her vows of chastity and purity.
Fortitude calls forth our “irascible” powers, whereby we hate evil things and fire up our courage to overcome evil obstacles to obtain difficult goods, even if those obstacles should threaten our life and limb. This, of all virtues, but for the love of charity, was perhaps the strongest of all within the sturdy soul of this ostensibly delicate Rose. She hated the thought of any demon, any sensation, any wicked thought or intention that might stir her will against the will of God, and in her personal war against any possible vice or sin, she devised self-mortifications that may well boggle the modern mind, and prompted some of her own confessors to command her to tone some of them down.
To provide but a few examples of Saint Rose’s self-imposed penances and mortifications, she so fought against sleep that would deprive her of time for prayer that she devised a bed for herself that was a little wooden box with a mattress stuffed with hard, gnarled pieces of wood and broken pottery chards that allowed for but a few hours of sleep when she was very tired. At times in her garden, she would literally take up a heavy wooden cross, in imitation of Christ’s Passion.
Saint Rose’s mortifications may seem very strange to us today, but they still may hold valuable lessons. In Saint Dominic’s “third way of prayer,” he employed the discipline of striking himself with an iron chain while repeating (translated) from the Latin Vulgate Bible “Your discipline has set me straight towards my goal” (Psalm 17:36).
Some today might wonder if Rose’s self-mortifications were a sign of scrupulosity or mental instability, and this was also considered in her time. Due to the unusual manner of her penitential life, Rose was once questioned by several theologians and a medical doctor of the Inquisition, but these learned men concluded that hers was a life unusually graced by God.
Although we may not be called to such extreme acts of conquering our wills, can we not still learn something from them? Can they inspire us to pamper our own bodies a little less, to mortify our sensual desires a little more, so that our thoughts can rise to higher things? Even the noble pagan philosophers saw the need for self-discipline in order to acquire virtue. The Stoic Epictetus, for example, encouraged those who would love wisdom to discipline their bodies, not by “hugging statues,” an action some Cynics would perform while bare-chested in the winter’s cold — public statues, of course, so that others might see them. In advice prescient in some ways of one of Saint Rose’s little disciplines some fourteen hundred years later, Epictetus suggested instead to fill one’s mouth with water when thirsty, but then to spit it out — when no one is looking. (The Father, of course, knows what we do in secret.)
Justice means rendering to each person his due, and this Rose always rendered, and then some. In the last years of her life, Rose persuaded her mother to allow her to care for the poor, the homeless, the elderly, and the sick in empty rooms of their house, and her actions are considered, along with those of Saint Martin de Porres, among the foundations of social work in Peru.
Prudence is that practical wisdom that finds the right means to get things done, and in this virtue Rose also shined . We see her prudence in the way she was always able to incorporate deeds of the active life while immersed in a life of solitude, prayer, and contemplation, as she prayed while she cleaned, embroidered, gardened, and made and sold flower arrangements. We saw it toward the end of her life when, failing in health and deep in contemplation, she made those practical arrangements to tend to the bodily and spiritual needs of those who needed them the most.
Lover: Christ’s Yoke of Charity Is Light
Rose never failed to carry her cross, but she never forgot that He who called us to carry it and follow Him also declared that if we come to him, He will give us rest to our souls, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt. 11:30). At the bidding of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Cistercian friar Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (1110–1167) wrote a book called The Mirror of Charity, in which he made clear in such eloquent words that “this yoke does not oppress but unites; this burden has wings, not weight. This yoke is charity. This burden is brotherly love.”
Although our sixteenth-century Peruvian Dominican was unlikely to have read the works of this twelfth-century English Cistercian, she clearly reflected those lessons of charity in the mirror of her heart.
Rose’s penances and manifold virtues were merely the means that sought out the ends of charity, to love of God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself.
This great love for God was seen most clearly in Rose’s devotion to the Eucharist. She sought to receive Communion daily, and upon reception of our Lord, she would remain in a state of prayerful ecstasy for hours.
Saint Rose of Lima knew that God gave us each other as instruments through which to display and grow in our love for Him. Rose provided for the physical needs of poor, the sick, orphans, and the elderly, but like her spiritual father, Saint Dominic, this hound of the Lord was also quite hungry for souls to bring back to the Father . Her many corporal works of mercy were always accompanied by a host of spiritual works of mercy too.
So great was her zeal for God and her desire to bring souls to Him that she frequently prayed for the conversion of the native Indian people who lived in the mountains, and she did what she could to encourage those who would go and preach to them. In fact, one time she emboldened a reticent missionary by promising him half of all the spiritual merits she had earned if he would go out to evangelize them. Rose’s love knew no bounds of class, ethnicity, or nationality. She cared for rich and poor, for the Spanish, the Indians, and the Africans, and she talked about dreams of a mission to Japan, welcoming the chance to be martyred there for Christ.
Rose’s Last Days on Earth and First Years in Heaven
At a mere thirty-one years of age, on the night of July 31, Rose’s last days of terminal illness began as she was assailed by fevers and a variety of ailments, including pneumonia, asthma, rheumatism, and gout. She suffered and ached in virtually every muscle, bone, and organ, and yet she remained serene and uncomplaining. On August 23, the eve of the feast of the apostle Saint Bartholomew, she requested blessings from her family and friends who surrounded her. Near midnight she said that she heard a mysterious noise that announced her Divine Spouse was coming to meet her. She asked her brother to remove the mattress underneath her and the pillow from behind her head, so that she, like Christ, might die upon pieces of wood. Twice she exclaimed, “Jesus, be with me!” and then her soul was with Him. Rose died on earth and rose in heaven on August 24, 1617.
The fragrant love that rose from Rose’s suffering was recognized in all of Lima and throughout Peru. Her funeral was vast and well attended by the people and by all of the city’s public officials. Very soon the process toward her canonization was underway, complete with more than 180 depositions regarding her sanctity, and the miraculous healing effects of her clothing, her pictures, and even the earth in which she had been buried. Fifty years after her death, in 1667 she would be beatified by Pope Clement IX, and four years later, in 1671, she would be canonized by his successor, Pope Clement X. She would be declared a patroness of Latin America and of the Philippines as well.
To end with a note on the personal scale, it seems that Rose’s mother, Maria, never really understood her daughter. Maria loved her Rose but often presented obstacles to her, for the path she had in mind for Rose was not the path that Christ had paved. Rose loved her mother none the less for the hardships she put on her, for she considered all trials gifts from God to test her love for Him and to foster her growth in virtue. Rose had prophesied while alive that a Dominican Convent of Saint Catherine of Siena would be completed in Lima and that her mother would join it. The convent was completed, and after her husband’s death, Maria did take those vows, growing to appreciate Rose’s special calling and becoming, like her daughter, a daughter of Christ and a hound of the Lord in the Order of Saint Dominic.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Vost’s Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know, which is available from Sophia Institute Press. The photograph is of St Rose of Lima depicted on stained glass by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr.