St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617)

The first canonized saint of the New World lived in a time quite different from our own. As a matter of fact, her whole life sounds very strange to us of other days and other customs. But, if we will take the trouble to study her life, we will discover that the little saint of Lima, who died three hundred years ago, could teach us a great deal. It is well to remember that the penances Rose inflicted upon herself which are the only things most people know about her afflicted only herself. They were no burden to those around her. Rose lived all her life with her own family, not in a desert, far from people. It is probably her greatest genius that she worked out a program of penance almost unparalleled in history and, all the while, not prove to be a nuisance to those whom she saw every day.

Rose was born in Lima in 1585, the eleventh child of Spanish Indian parents. Because she was very delicate, she was baptized at birth and given the name Isabel. When she was taken to the church for the solemn ceremonies of baptism, the archbishop, St. Turribius, inadvertently called her Rose. The name remained. From her earliest days, the baby seemed marked with the favors of God. When she was barely able to walk, she would be found lost in contemplation before the big crucifix in her mother’s room. That she understood suffering became clear when, in a childish accident at the age of three, she endured the pain of surgery without a whimper and commented that Jesus had suffered much more. At another time she was ill with a bad earache. Asked if it hurt very much, she said: “Yes, a little; but our Lord’s crown of thorns must have hurt much more.”

Rose’s mother, an affectionate woman with little imagination, hardly knew what to do with this child, for Rose seemed to belong more to heaven than to earth. By turns, she spoiled and scolded her. When the child was four and a half, she tried to teach her to read and gave up in disgust. A few days later Rose came to her and read for her several pages from a prayer book, and she scolded the child for her presumption. Proud of the little girl’s beauty, she tried to keep her dressed in the prettiest of clothes, unable to understand why Rose was indifferent to them. She tried Rose’s patience in every way, but could not disturb the child’s sense of obedience. Always in the background of the life of Rose, with its dramatic glimpses of heaven and hell, and its almost completely spiritual pattern, runs the obbligato of the complaints, the protests, and the tearful pride of Rose’s mother. She loved her daughter, but could not understand her.

When Rose was twelve years old, the question of her marriage was broached. Her mother was a match maker, like many others, and she envisioned her beautiful daughter as Lima’s loveliest bride. Rose hated to hurt her mother, and she actually did not know how to explain that she wished to consecrate herself to God. She had, in fact, already done so many years ago and she had no intention of marrying. When her mother finally accepted this, she conceived what she thought was the only sensible answer: Rose should enter a convent. Neither she nor anyone else could sympathize with the girl’s intention of becoming a Dominican Tertiary, living at home. A long and difficult period ensued. Finally, however, the girl’s plan became a reality, and Rose, followed by her weeping mother, went to the Dominican Church to receive the habit of St. Dominic and the Tertiary rule of life.

Rose set about scaling the heights in her own peculiar way. She and her brother Ferdinand built a tiny hermitage in her father’s garden. She planned to live there. It was so small that her mother protested. “It is big enough for Jesus and myself,” said Rose. Here, for the remainder of her life, she was to spend all of her days and part of her nights in contemplation, performing the penances which she devised to punish herself for the sins of the world. Reading about these penances, we are appalled at the thought of anyone deliberately inflicting such sufferings on themselves. She was very fond of fruit, but, from the age of four, she would not touch it. She never ate meat. Her ordinary fare consisted of hard crusts, water and bitter herbs; during Lent she omitted the bread.

Thus far we can follow her; other saints have done the same. But few would strew their beds with rocks and broken glass in order that the hour or two of sleep they allowed themselves were as uncomfortable as possible; deprive themselves for weeks at a time of drinking any water in that hot tropical summer, or wear a crown of thorns carefully concealed under an innocent headdress. Sometimes she pinned the crown to her head, pulled tighter the cords she had tied about her body, or walked barefoot in her father’s garden at night, carrying a heavy cross. One penance she devised in her early years was to have the family servant, (who wept bitterly while doing as she was told) load the little girl with blocks of firewood until she collapsed under the weight. It seems, in reading the life of this ingenious sufferer, that there was nothing at all that Rose could not turn into a penance.

Let us remember that Rose was a working girl; she could not afford simply to go off and pray to her heart’s content. She had to help support the family; ten hours of every day went into this necessary work. She was an expert needlewoman, and she made many fine embroideries which were purchased by people who probably never suspected that the one who made them was a saint. She also raised flowers for market, and it was her greatest joy to keep the Lady Altar at the Dominican church supplied with the loveliest blossoms from her garden.

Rose discovered the same thing that many another Dominican has bewailed: there are only twenty four hours in a day, and after you take ten for work there are not too many left. She partly solved this problem by going without sleep, which most of us cannot do, and partly by making her work a means of union with God, which all of us can attempt. There was probably no time during the twenty four hours when Rose vas not closely united to her heavenly Spouse, and it made little difference to her whether her hands were busy with embroidery, with her flowers, or free to finger her Rosary. She was just as ingenious at keeping her heart united with God as she was at making everything into a penance. A good patroness for today’s busy religious our St. Rose.

We do not know as much as we would like of the visions and celestial favors of Rose. Obviously she was in a state of ecstasy a great deal of the time. The tiny cell in the garden accommodated a steady stream of heavenly guests. Sometimes, when she went down to the church to receive Holy Communion, she was rapt in ecstasy, and for hours she would be unconscious of the people who crowded around to watch her. She experienced the mystical espousals and other heavenly signs of union which belong to the highest order of mystical prayer. She was also exposed to the most terrifying temptations to visitations of the devil who came in visible form, and to long periods of spiritual desolation. Once, at the end of a particularly grueling encounter with the devil, she reproached our Lord: “Lord, if you had been here I would not have been exposed to such horrible temptations.” To which our Lord replied: “Rose, if I had not been there, do you think you would have conquered?”

Rose prayed for martyrdom, longed for the life of a missionary. Both of these things seemed remote in Catholic Lima. She prayed incessantly for missionaries, and we wonder how many of the Japanese martyrs, who were to die at Nagasaki in the year of Rose’s death, owed the grace of perseverance to the little Tertiary of Lima who never saw Japan. At one time, the chance of martyrdom seemed almost within her grasp. A fleet of Dutch pirates anchored off Callao, and Lima was in a paralysis of fear. Rose hurried to the church, planning to give up her life in defense of the Blessed Sacrament. However, the fleet sailed away without harming them, and the people of Lima credited her prayers for their deliverance.

Rose died at the early age of thirty one, on August the twenty fourth, 1617. The entire city mourned the death of the saint, for it seemed that the people of all classes owed her a special debt. Indians and Negroes, whom she had nursed back to health, knelt around her bier alongside of Spanish grandees, whom she had brought back to the sacraments or saved from loss of fortune.

One and all, they held the same opinion; Rose was a saint. The Church confirmed this opinion in 1671, making her the first canonized saint of the Americas.

(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic’s Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)