Today is the feast of Saint Rose of Lima (Isabel Flores de Oliva, 1586-1617). Let’s give her a fresh look:
Rose of Lima is kind of a drag.
She had those wild ascetic practices — smearing her hands with lye, rubbing her face with pepper. Suspicious.
She was the daughter of a Spanish overlord in a time of mad exploitation of the native peoples. Appalling.
She died young, and her skull was detached from her body so it could be shuttled like a football around Peru. Creepy.
Rose wasn’t any cooler in her own century than she is now. She annoyed her parents with her piety, finally leaving the house to live in a hut in the garden like the family pet. And yet she patiently cultivated flowers for market and hawked her embroidery to improve the family’s lot after her father’s mines went bust.
Her visions and the voices she heard alarmed the Inquisition; they called her in. But the doctors of theology and medicine who questioned and prodded her were stumped — even edified.
And in the later years of her life, her ill health notwithstanding, she made a room in the house into a one-woman relief agency, with widows and orphans and homeless Indians dropping in to be cared for by the privileged señorita whose own mother had Inca blood.
Most saints confound us. They unsettle us, like an earthquake or the resurrection of the dead. Saints are prophetic — Jeremiahs and Daniels sprinkled throughout the earth and woven into every century. We find them in odd places, and they speak to us. We need to listen.
The Gospel for today is from Matthew, chapter 23.
“As for you, do not be called ‘teacher.’
You have but one teacher….
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father….
Do not be called ‘master’;
you have but one master….
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
You’re comfortable. You know the rules of the game. You have title and position, or at least know who does. And you like it.
The Lord of Creation has another plan. He is a teacher beyond superb. He is a Master related only by the palest analogy to the harbormaster or the ringmaster or the Master of Arts. He is a Father unlike any of the fathers you have known. He is beyond. And yet he can be found and heard and known. Even in Palestine, in a stable. Even in Peru, in a doghouse.
Our God surprises us, like it or not. We shut Him up in church, but He’s here all the same. Rose’s body lies in the Basilica of Saint Dominic in Lima, but her wasted head, crowned with artificial roses, might pop up in your town on one of its tours.
Look right into those vacant eye-sockets — those irritating, unsettling signs of contradiction — and listen: God beyond any creature, present in His creatures. Love beyond the senses, made real in the mundane. Look at the skull of a woman of God and listen to what Rose has to say.
Come near, come near, come near — Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know….
From “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” by W.B. Yeats, 1893.