On the Virtues of Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez

by David Gray, October 30, 2010

Today’s Gospel Reading at Mass comes from Luke 14:1, 7-11:

On a sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully.

He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Today we honor Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez (July 25, 1532 – October 31, 1617). Born in Spain in 1533, at the age of twenty-three Alphonsus inherited the family textile business from his deceased father, married his wife Suarez three years later, had three children with her, but by the time he reached the young age of thirty-one he was found to be widower with only one surviving child.

One reason that I love reading about the lives of the Catholic Saints is because it is not through the suffering that they endured through their life that we revere them or that defines them. On the contrary, it is their response to their suffering; to their response to the cross that God gave them to carry why we look to them for examples to emulate.
In the instant case, after losing so much, Alphonsus stepped back and reassessed his life. He sold the family business and, with his young son, moved into his sisters’ home and began devoting himself to a life of discipline, prayer, mortification, and meditation. Years later, after the death of his last surviving child, Alphonsus, almost 40 by then, sought to join the Jesuits, and after twice applying was admitted. For forty-five years he served as doorkeeper at the Jesuits’ college in Majorca. It is said that whenever the future saint not at his post, he could almost always be found at prayer, where he suffered through many difficulties and temptations.
It was the holiness and prayerfulness of Alphonsus that attracted many to him, including another future saint, Peter Claver, who was then only a Jesuit seminarian. It also caught the attention of poet and fellow-Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, who made him the subject of one of his poems:

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

While being a doorkeeper may have seem to be boring and monotonous to some, it seems that Hopkins found the most beautiful thing in his Jesuit brother’s service. Indeed, it was through that humble station of watching the door that God was molding and shaping Alphonsus into a saint. A doorkeeper saint was he that few could see, because the many looked for greatness only in the exploits that came from war’s victory. Jesus said in the parable above that those who seek the lowest position will “enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table,” and that is precisely the story of Saint Alphonsus’ life.
How does Jesus’ words translate into our life now? It is true that many today who seek to serve the Lord, especially new Christians, try to look for big things to do. They want to start ministries, lay hands on every sick they encounter, write books, start a new community, and travel to some poor country to help the less fortunate. But the life of Alphonsus teaches us that sometimes we don’t need to go past our own front door to serve in a way that is very pleasing God. If we just watch who is coming in and out of our house that may be good enough. If we just greet everyone that comes to our home with a smile and assist them in their calling that may be all that God has called us to do for right now or forever.
It we just focus on the next {immediate) thing that we can do to make the life of our neighbor better; whether it be prayer, a glass of water, an attentive hear to their concerns, help standing up or sitting down, or whatever – if focus on that next immediate thing what will happen is that we will have simultaneously opened the door to do something more helpful for them the next time. That is to say, that by giving them a glass of cold water we may have opened the door for them to ask us for prayer, and from pray may open to door to another need, and from that need to another and so on. Service to neighbor is a mustard plant that starts off small and grows into a very large thing.
Or say if I saw a man starving on the street and I offered to give him a copy of my latest book. Inasmuch as God has called me to write, that is not what that man needs right now. Taking the lowest position is about meeting people exactly where they are at. St. Alphonsus could have been the doorkeeper at any door in Spain, but he knew that it was at the door of the Jesuits in the city of Majorca where God could use him the most and it is precisely where God can use us all the most that He also makes us holy.
The divine beauty of meeting our neighbor exactly where they are at and helping them in their immediate need, is that that is precisely there where both of you will encounter God. That is, the one giving the help sees the face of Christ in the one who he is helping and the one being helped sees the face of Christ in the one who is helping him.

Prayer Attributed to Alphonsus Rodriguez
Lord, let me know you, let me know myself.
Lord, you do your will and not mine.
I’m just coming, Lord. Amen.

Scripture texts in this blog are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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