St. Rose of Lima and the call to service

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

We know we all have a purpose in life. We are here to know, love and serve God. If we come to know Him, we will love Him. And if we love Him, we will want to serve Him. St. Rose of Lima learned these truths at a young age and took them to heart. I, on the other hand, was nearing retirement age when I discovered them and began putting them into practice.

St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617) was born into a well-to-do family in Peru’s capital city during Spanish America’s Colonial era. Early on, she showed an inclination to the austere life, fasting often and praying constantly. As a young lady she was considered to be very beautiful. But she was so fearful of the pitfall of vanity that, before going out into the street, she would soak her hands in lime and intentionally disfigure her face by rubbing pepper on her cheeks to mar her complexion. At one point she began wearing a self-fashioned crown of thorns because of a deep desire to imitate Christ.

Why perform these excessive mortifications? Perhaps it was an attempt to take the words of our Lord a little too literally when He proclaimed, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” and “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” (Matthew 5:29-30) In any case, the object was to enhance her spiritual rather than physical beauty. These extreme forms of penance seem strange to us, like the actions of someone who is out of touch with reality. But we can also view them as a protest against the materialism and evils of those times, an era plagued by violent acts of cruelty and the savage lust for gold.

When the family fell on hard times, Rose began working in their home vegetable garden by day and doing needlework, including making exquisite lace and embroidered silks, at night. Many friends encouraged her to marry in order to escape poverty, and her great beauty would have easily made this possible. But instead, at age 20, she joined the Third Order of St. Dominic after seeing a black and white butterfly come to rest on her shoulder, taking that as a sign God wanted her to wear the black and white habit. As a member of the Third Order, Rose was allowed to wear the habit and continue living and working at home.

She greatly admired and hoped to imitate St. Catherine of Siena and chose the great Italian saint as her patron. Like St. Catherine, Rose received visions from God and experienced mystical ecstasy. This aroused the suspicions of church authorities, including the Inquisition. But after theologians conducted an examination, they concluded that her holiness was genuine.

Hoping to live a life of solitude, Rose managed to construct a hut as a little hermitage on the grounds of the family home. There she lived as a recluse, spending much time in prayer.

St. Rose reportedly protected the city of Lima from disaster three times. When Dutch pirates invaded the city in 1615, the fearless young woman stood guarding the tabernacle in the Church of Santo Domingo as the raiding party entered the church. When they saw her there, they returned to the ships and canceled their plans to plunder the city. In two other instances her prayers saved Lima, once from attack during an indigenous uprising and, on another occasion, from damage by an earthquake.

In reading about this saint, I found out that she’s considered the founder of social services and social work in Peru. The term “social services” refers to promoting the welfare of others by providing assistance such as medical care and housing for the benefit of those in need in the community, and that’s exactly what Rose did. During the latter portion of her life, in true Dominican fashion, she added an active component to the contemplative life by roaming the city in search of homeless children, the sick, the elderly and the dying and taking them to some rooms reserved in her parents’ house, where she fed and bathed them and saw to their needs. In fact, that’s the sort of thing we should all be doing in some form or other – serving the less fortunate – either directly or indirectly through prayer and financial support.
At age 31 Rose fell sick and died. She was so highly regarded by the citizens of Lima that during the funeral procession the city’s leaders took turns carrying her coffin. St. Rose of Lima is the patron saint of Latin America (feast day, Aug. 23). Canonized in 1671, she was the first person born in the New World to be raised to the altars.

One lesson we can learn from this saintly life is that faith must be put into action. As mentioned earlier, I came to this realization rather late. As a young man, I spent most of my time selfishly caring for my own needs, with relatively little concern for the common good. Later, after I had a family of my own, I just didn’t seem to have enough free time to pull away from obligations at home to become involved in community service. Only in mid life did I come to understand that I needed to make time for volunteer work. There are opportunities for involvement in every community. In retirement I’ve found mine. These activities are good for the soul. They have changed the direction of my life, and clearly for the better.

In the final analysis, we’re here to serve others, not ourselves. As Pope Francis says, “It is not enough to say we are Christians. We must live the faith, not only with our words, but with our actions.” St. Rose of Lima would wholeheartedly agree.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus at University of Mississippi and member of St. John Oxford.)