Holiness and Wholeness

Stained glass window by Harry Clarke, depicting St. Rose burning her hands in an act of penance, in St. Michael’s Church, Ballinasloe, Ireland.

St. Rose of Lima, celebrated today, is a uniquely fascinating saint. She obviously was not what most of us would call “normal,” and has been given all sorts of “diagnoses” and labels (psychotic, neurotic, anorexic, masochistic, obsessive-compulsive, etc.), most of which, in less politically correct times, we would probably simply describe as crazy. Yet her reputation for for being authentically a person who lived in God’s grace spread rapidly after her death, especially remarkable given that she lived her whole life half a world away from European civilization, and was born less then a hundred years after Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” to rediscover an unknown land that we now know had been discovered before, perhaps many times, by Vikings, and possibly Irish and Arabs. Born in 1586 and dying thirty-one years later in 1617, she was canonized in 1671, making her the first saint of the New World.

She was a child of her times. Spanish spirituality, which also permeated the Spanish colonies, often upheld doing extreme physical and mental violence to oneself as a virtue. Even a superficial reading of her life reveals that Rose seemed predisposed to embrace such a spirituality. She was greatly influenced by the stories of St. Catherine of Siena, and adopted extreme forms of asceticism that we today would call self-inflicted torture. I won’t elaborate further.

In the midst of this craziness, however, it appears that she had an effect on people that could be seen as the result of holiness, and at the time of her early death was well-known and popular. Rather than focus on herself, she concentrated on helping the poor, especially abandoned children and the destitute sick elderly. She apparently influenced many to join in this work, and has even been credited with being the beginning of social service in Peru.

John Cumming, writing in the 1998 revision of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, concludes his article on her life with this observation: “As records present her to us, she is certainly no model for young women in the way she was presented as such in the past, but it the psychotic elements and the probably exaggerations of them are ignored, she remains a determined witness to commitment to God in a confusing and violent society.”

Happy feast day to all Roses. You have a unique patron who truly exemplifies the surprising compassion and power of God.

P.S. 16th-century Lima, Peru, also has the distinction of having five – count them, five! – canonized saints who were contemporaries of each other, living in the same  city at the same time (almost):

P.P.S. St. Rose died on August 24, and it is customary to celebrate saints’ feasts on the day of their heavenly birthday, that is, the day they died.  Not always, though. And it would appear that Rose got bumped to the day before by St. Bartholomew, Apostle, who predated her by about 1500 years.

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