St Alfonso Rodriguez

Unknown-3No, it isn’t St Alfonso’s day today. Presumably his memorial is celebrated on 31 October, which is the day he died. Today it’s the memorial of St Peter Claver, a saint remarkable for his service to the enslaved people brought to South America in the early 17th century. (Really, he’s remarkable–if you don’t know about him, check out the universalis entry for today or click the link above to his wikipedia page.)

Unknown-2St Alfonso Rodriguez, who was canonized the same day as St Peter Claver, was only a porter at the university in Mallorca. But he is remembered with St Peter because it was he who recognized St Peter’s vocation to evangelize the new world. (I am indebted to the universalis page for this detail, which I followed up at the New Advent website.) St Alfonso earnestly desired to enter the Jesuits himself, but lacked the requisite education. Eventually he was received as a lay brother, and served as the porter for forty-six years. Doubtless many other young men were encouraged by Br Alfonso, although they may remain nameless.

Once again, the small prevails: we remember St Peter Claver for his noble and heroic, and very public, service to the oppressed. And throughout the church year, we honor many others like him. Let us not forget to thank God for all those whose lives contributed to the upbuilding of the saints, and to ask them to pray for us. For all those holy men and women–Deo gratias.

Solemnity of the Anunciation

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
. . .
It is the solemnity of the Anunciation. So I went to Mass, and the readings for today have come to me not through my own reading and reflection, but in the context of the liturgy, and a homily. Part of me thinks it’s cheating to begin from someone else’s comments on the readings, and yet it is impossible not to do so.
‘What if Mary had said no?’ The priest reported the question; he didn’t pose it. In fact, he suggested that the speculation about what might have been rested on a mistake about who God is and how God acts. “God doesn’t need a plan B.” True enough. And after Mass, my husband had an exchange with the priest that was about Mary’s will and whether or not it was possible to for her to say no. Turns out the answer to that one depends on how you define words like ‘possible’ and ‘necessary’, though in the end I think they agreed.
The thing is, though, that “no one is ever told what might have been.” This is neither St Thomas Aquinas nor St Augustine, the two thinkers involved in the discussion about Mary’s will. It’s CS Lewis, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy has just asked Aslan a ‘what if’ question. His answer has stayed with me for years, as I have stumbled along trying, and often not trying hard enough, to be a Christian. However often and however badly I fail in my endeavor, ‘what if’ questions after the fact are never fruitful.

God doesn’t need a plan B. In eternity, there is no ‘might have been’ but an everlasting ‘is’, in which everything is in the present tense. From that point of view, wisdom can be seen as arranging all things delightfully, as it says in Wisdom 8: 1. From that point of view, all the crash-and-burn experiences of my life find their way into the tapestry of ‘all things’– arranged delightfully, worked together for the good (Romans 8: 28), having been wrought, however incomprehensibly, in God (John 3: 21).

So the invitatory psalm (Ps 94 [95]) invites us each day anew to ‘listen to his voice’ and to ‘harden not [our] hearts’. It is today that matters, today that affords me the opportunity to do God’s will. That is, more or less, what Aslan says next: anyone can find out what will happen. Let my ears and my heart be open, and my will freely to conform itself to his: and let it be done to me according to His word.

the saintly ordinary

stmartindetours I enjoyed reading the article about St Martin of Tours in the Catholic encyclopaedia online. Not only is his life story interesting and full of the vignettes that make hagiography what it is; he is also the patron saint of soldiers, appropriate for today. If I were cleverer, I might say something about that. 

What struck me, however, is a phrase near the end of the article: ‘recover your ordinary firmness’, says the angel to a brooding St Martin. He regretted bitterly a mistake he had made, and the angel warned him not to dwell on it. So you got that wrong, and you are rightly sorry for it. Move on. ‘Recover your ordinary firmness.’

I’m afraid I can be a bit like the brooding St Martin, in need of an angel to remind me not to dwell on those things for which I am rightly sorry. Unlike St Martin, though, I have no history of ‘ordinary firmness’ to recover. My life story is not one of courageous stands, self-sacrifice, and miracles. Just a girl-grown-up, having meandered from childhood and somehow ended up here. A theologian. A Roman Catholic. A mother and wife. A teacher, a writer, a friend. Not, I am sad to say, a saint.

I can learn something, though, from St Martin’s mistake and the angel’s counsel. The heart and soul of St Martin’s story is his quest for Christ-likeness. His ordinary firmness is not as a worker of miracles or a doer of extravagantly self-sacrificial deeds. His ordinary firmness comes from his being in Christ, and the stuff that makes his story so interesting is just details. The details attest to the saintliness, but they are not its substance. Recover your faith in the One who saves you, who covers over all your blunders, however stupid you feel about them.

It is the firmness, I think, of knowing a ‘blameless way’, not because one has never missed a step, but because the way has been made blameless:

…who is a rock, except our God?                                                                                           the God who girds me with strength,                                                                                     and makes my way blameless.                                                                                           He makes my feet like hinds’ feet,                                                                                       and sets me upon my high places.                                                                                      Psalm 18: 31-33 (NASB)

Earlier in the psalm, the psalmist seems to boast of his blamelessness. ‘I was also blameless with him’ (23), he says: with clean hands; without iniquity. Like God, whose ‘way is blameless'(30). And just when I feared I would never be able to pray this psalm, along comes verse 33: the blameless way, the firm ground, is made so by God (the One who has prepared those good works for us to walk in!).

The secret to imitating the saints in their imitato Christi is an imitation of the heart. It is not a backward-looking, self-reproaching endeavour, but a forgiveness-receiving and moving-forward adventure. All right, a journey, anyway! The path of discipleship is the ‘blameless way’, the way of ‘ordinary firmness’ made so by Christ’s own footsteps. The history on which I can look back and recover that strength of soul is Christ’s history, not my own.

Deo gratias.


St Vincent de Paul

O send out your light and your truth,
    let them lead me;
Let them bring me to your holy hill,
And to your dwelling places.
                                              Psalm 42 [43]: 3

This is one of a set of two psalms, which, with their refrain (“Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God” [NASB]) ,were the core of my spiritual life for a large part of my twenties. Despair often settled on me, and I found myself asking “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why so disquieted within me?” along with the psalmist. “Disquieted” seemed like the perfect adjective to describe my soul a lot of the time. I was grateful for the psalmist’s response to his own soul, and repeated it to mine: “Hope in God…” Honestly, this psalm and a handful of others kept me going when things seemed bleak.

During those years, I was too unsettled to see the direction of the psalm, beyond my soul’s hope, to the hope of the whole world. The psalmist cries out, “O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me,” and so he has. His Light and his Truth came to dwell among us in Jesus. And that holy hill, where God dwells, is also the mount of crucifixion. God is there, too, even as God was there–closer to me than my own soul–during the darkest and most difficult times. It was not for nothing that I encouraged my soul to “hope in God.”

Twenty years ago, I was helped by the psalms; now I am also helped by the saints, those who have followed God’s Light and Truth before me. Today we remember St Vincent de Paul, who devoted his life to helping the poor, and reminds us that “the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the poor with salvation,”and that God’s Light and Truth became poor for our sake, that again we might praise him.

Deo gratias.