I began this post yesterday, on her feast. Didn’t finish it. Going to attempt now.
I spent some time today reading about and trying to sort out St. Rose of Lima. I knew the basics that most of us know, and not much more: mystic, extreme ascetic. When I was a girl, I remember reading about how she drove her metal-spiked crown of thorns into her scalp. That was, not surprisingly, my main takeaway.
So today, I decided to dig deeper. I read through most of this 19th century biography – a translation into English from French. I read what chapters I could (the first two) of this reassessment and psychological unpacking, and finally settled in a more comfortable place than either of those with a chapter from Four in Heaven (1962) by British author Sheila Kaye-Smith.
What to make of her, the first saint of the Americas, this young woman who engaged in such extreme mortifications that even some of her contemporary confessors and other observers, including her mother, thought she was going too far?
It might be tempting for us moderns to dismiss figures such as Rose. She was, we might gently suggest, mentally ill. She was a victim and product of a guilt-ridden Catholic culture who could not simply accept the grace of God, but thought she had to abnegate herself in order to merit it.
But we shouldn’t do that. It is not helpful or right, in a Catholic context, to be so dismissive. Nor is it necessary to uncritically embrace all the hagiography. We must also always remember that in the Catholic view of saints, we bring two perspectives: to imitate and to admire. We are not called to imitation of every action of every saint, because we live in different cultures, with various personalities. So not feeling the pull to jam a crown of metal thorns into our scalps should not cause anxiety. It’s okay.
In thinking this over, this struck me: it seems to me that even the saints who pursued extreme ways of personal asceticism did not indicate that everyone do the same.
St. Catherine, in her many letters, does not advise her correspondents that the solution to their spiritual problems was to live as she did, on a single grain of rice a day and sleeping on a board (when she slept). There might be a call to change, to repent, and perhaps to embrace some small mortification, but mostly what we read in her writings, at least, is an urgent invitation to realize how deeply Christ loves us and to live in that light, not the darkness the world offers.
They seem quite aware of the uniqueness of their own path, and do not suggest that theirs is the standard by which all others should be judged. In fact, the saints seem to take the opposite tack: as stubborn as they are about their own mortifications, they tend to keep them secret as much as they are able and are uncomfortable with “followers” who are following them rather than following Christ.
In trying to understand St. Rose, these thoughts come to mind.
She sensed a call to belong to Christ alone. In her culture and her family circumstance, she had to go to extremes to make sure that was clear to everyone and she would not be forced into marriage. Perhaps you can see this as manipulation, or you can see it as a strong rejection of the world in a most personal way.
It is interesting and important to note that hardly anyone knew of these mortifications during her life. The people of Lima who flocked to her funeral by the thousands certainly did not – they came because this young woman radiated the love of Christ.
St. Rose would say that her mortifications were in fidelity to her call to conform herself completely to Christ. Christ sacrificed himself. Christ’s supreme act of love was his Passion and death. Many of us think of this call differently today: to accept what sufferings happen to come our way in a sacrificial spirit, in imitation of Christ, rather than to create them ourselves. Perhaps the experience of St. Rose can expand our own approach by helping us understand that living as a disciple does, indeed mean conforming ourselves to the Crucified Christ, accepting that the Cross will be a part of whatever path we follow, but that if we do find ourselves conforming to the world instead, it is time to take action and be more intentional – to make sacrifices in addition to accepting them as they come.
I also wondered, based on the minimal reading I did on this, if perhaps Rose knew herself and we should trust her. Perhaps she knew that she had a tendency to vanity. Perhaps she knew that even if she gave up marriage and lived as sort of anchorite, intensely focused on Christ, that she would still draw attention and that attention, even if it is directed at spiritual rather than physical beauty, would be a temptation to her. Perhaps her extreme mortifications were directed at keeping herself conformed to the humble Christ in the most radical way, a way that she knew, for herself, would be at risk as people were drawn to her. Perhaps she wanted to keep herself radically open to Christ in her physical weakness so that she would always remember it was Jesus, not her, that the people of Lima desired and sought.
I don’t know. I’m just guessing.
It comes down to this. Different culture, but same Jesus, same faith. We are tempted to dismiss it, but that’s not Catholic. Instead, we dig deeper, realize our own cultural limitations, and listen. Because, you know, she’s not wrong.
It’s a mystery, but suffering can be beneficial and bear tremendous fruit. She’s not wrong.
Christian discipleship is about conforming ourselves to Christ. She’s not wrong.
The world is beautiful (Rose grew flowers!) but can stand between us and God if we don’t know how to love properly. She’s not wrong.
“Success” in the spiritual life can lead to an inflated sense of self and hubris.
She’s not wrong.