For the past five weeks the Sunday Gospel has been from the sixth chapter of John, a section which is often referred to as the Bread of Life discourse. In it, Jesus is preaching to His disciples, describing how He is the Bread of Life of which we need to eat. I think this Sunday’s final installment of the discourse is in some ways the most challenging because it taps into the frustration which we can experience when life gets overwhelming. In this passage many of the disciples were murmuring with discontent, mystified over what Jesus had said about being the bread of life. They said, “This saying is hard: who can accept it?” (John 6:60) When Jesus responded, many of them left and “returned to their former way of life.” It was not that they simply left the locale where Jesus was speaking; they left His gospel way of life completely. They could not tolerate having to accept something that was beyond their understanding. So rather than try to stretch, allowing the words to take root within them, they took the ‘easier’ route, abandoning Jesus altogether.
I think this ‘entering fully into our lives’ which Jesus did is what compelled St. Rose of Lima, (whose feast day is August 23), to a life of serving the suffering. If we only take a brief glance at her life, we might be tempted to dismiss her because of her choices. As a young woman of the late 16th century, she worked hard to support her poor parents, who, because Rose was very beautiful, wanted her to marry, possibly to have greater financial security. However, Rose wanted to follow in the footsteps of St. Catherine of Siena, and in so doing chose to become a Dominican tertiary, (a laywoman who takes vows to live in the lifestyle and spirituality of the Dominicans.) Therefore, in order to ward off suitors, she disfigured herself by rubbing her hands and face with pepper, and if that is not strange enough, she practiced all sorts of bodily mortifications which we would think of as insane. To put it bluntly, she made herself suffer constantly. She died at 31, quite possibly from all of the strange practices she took on. Why on earth would anyone want to do that? Furthermore, why would we think someone like this is a saint?
Through her prayer and desire to express her love for Jesus, St. Rose was dedicated to offering her life in a very dramatic way. She opted to live the hard sayings of Jesus instead of taking the easier road or simply worrying about herself. Rather than trying to understand the way Jesus chose for Himself or to explain it intellectually, she chose to wrestle with the incomprehensibility of suffering by suffering herself. It was her way of reaching out to those who were desperate for help, those who simply needed someone to enter into their suffering with them so that they were less alone. This is truly what mercy and compassion are about. The compassionate, like Jesus, suffer with the suffering and share joy with those rejoicing.
We will never know what drove St. Rose of Lima to go to the lengths she did. Maybe she felt her mortifications were necessary to keep her focused on the suffering of others, so that the frustration of witnessing their suffering did not overwhelm her. Maybe it was a way of letting them know that she understood what they were undergoing. But what is clear is that she knew that the only way to do this was to turn to the Lord, who is the Bread of Life, and cling tightly. Our mortification is not to make ourselves suffer, but to accept the difficult challenges which have been put before us. Simply living a Christian lifestyle in today’s world is difficult enough. To accept that our small efforts count for something, to live morally, to stand up against injustice, to forgive the one who has hurt us, to go on when life beats us down, to love those who are unlike us or who say they are our enemies, to offer a hand to a stranger; these are all difficult mortifications when it would be easier to ‘look the other way.’ Let us be like St. Rose, and also like the apostles who when Jesus asked if they too wanted to leave, said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
©Michele L. Catanese
For more information on the life of St. Rose of Lima there are many sources available. Some suggestions are:
The first painting is the work of Giotto, (1300-05) and it is called Last Supper and is in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.
The next is a photo which I took while hiking on Copper Mountain in Colorado. There really is no easy road. We still had quite a hike.
Next is a beautiful icon painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Santa Rosa Patroness of The Americas. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/santa-rosa-patroness-of-the-americas-166-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The following photos are also mine. The first is of a rose, taken in Portland, Oregon. The second is a waterfall, taken in the Black Hills of South Dakota.