|Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.|
The Feast Day of St. Alphonsa - India's 1st Saint - is 28 July.
She was canonized by H.H. Pope Benedict XVI at Vatican on 16 October 2008.
An agnostic political leader visited the tomb of St. Alphonsa at Bharananganam. He stood awhile at the tomb and later in a spontaneous move, this world renowned leader of Marxist leanings, knelt before the resting place of a nun unknown in her lifetime. He remained there a long time on his knees. Later he narrated his experience. As he was standing at the tomb, he felt overwhelmed by a peaceful stillness filling the depth of his heart that he had never known was even possible.
All his life he was busy working out the establishment of a paradise on this earth. What he was left with however was the frustration that he could not manage to bring the peace and joy of paradise even to his own heart. It was irritation and anger that would only well up from his heart every time he met with the slightest resistance. After all the ideals that were professed and energy put in, the society was only getting more corrupt. Unjust structures were getting more firmly rooted and the lives of people more difficult. It was at the tomb of this unknown nun that an inexplicable peace pervaded his heart to give him a glimpse of what he was struggling for all through his life. He ended by saying, “I will come back here whenever my inner self cries with the thirst for peace.”
“I Will Give You As A Light To The Nations” (Isaiah 49:6)
Sr. Alphonsa was never known outside the convent walls until her death in 1946. There was nothing even remotely remarkable by human scales of judgment. She was a nun living in the confines of the Clarist convent in the remote and insignificant Bharananganam - without any glitter or glamour which makes for stardom in the world. Even her funeral was attended only by a few of her family members and a small number of nuns from her community. But those who knew her closely could sense the sanctity of her soul. One such person was her Spiritual Guide, Fr. Romulus C.M.I. In the funeral oration, as if being inspired by a prophetic vision he exclaimed - “In future, pilgrims from all over Kerala and India will visit this tomb of Alphonsa. Bishops and Cardinals will come and pray in front of it.” Down the years, all this came to pass when Sr. Alphonsa was declared a saint and her tomb has become a teeming pilgrim centre. Thousands of distinguished men and women of her time are now forgotten - yet Sr. Alphonsa remains a radiant beacon of hope inviting the whole world to a new vision of eternity by the message of her life.
Sr. Alphonsa was born on 19 August 1910 in a beautiful little hamlet called Kudamaloor in the district of Kottayam in South Kerala. The child was christened Annakutty on August 27. Just three months after her birth, Annakutty lost her mother Mariam and was entrusted to the care of her aunt Annamma. Her entire life from the earliest days of her childhood right until the last agony which ended in her premature death on 28 July 1946 was plagued by different forms of physical sickness and mental distress.
“Thou Hast Hidden These Things From The Wise And Understanding And Revealed Them To Babes” (Matthew 11:25)
After her death and burial, it was to children that the extraordinary spiritual significance of her life was revealed. They flocked with flowers in their hands to offer their little pains and needs and they felt assured that the Sister who loved them when she was alive continues to live praying for them. It is always the children who recognize the wonder of the extraordinary in the ordinary! One might wonder what could be extraordinary in the simple life of this nun. If anything was extraordinary about her, it was her insignificance! Most of her days, she spent on the sick bed suffering excruciating pain. Added to this, what she received was only an unbearable isolation with her extended periods of sickness being misunderstood by her own Sisters. She suffered the deepest agony when even her own community members alleged that she was pretending it to attract sympathy and love. So much so that she had to go through the most embarrassing process of being questioned by her superiors and spiritual Father. In such moments of pain and loneliness, she jotted down her thoughts. These notes reveal to us how she struggled to find meaning for her sufferings in her love for the Crucified Lord.
St. Alphonsa was given a rare vision to understand realities in Divine Light and to accept everything that came to pass from the Hands of God. Even as a child, seeds of contemplation and commitment were sown in her heart. Her years at home was marked with much difficulty and yet was the time when her heart was imprinted with a great love for Jesus and an ardent longing to remain His spiritual bride. When her aunt began to search for a groom for her, Annakutty revealed this deepest desire enshrined in her heart to be consumed by the Fire of the Love of Jesus.
“I Bethrothed You Too Christ To Present You As A Pure Bride ( 2Corinthians 11:12)
When she was given the official habit of the Clarist nun, she was also given together with it a crucifix. She would wear it as a bride in the traditional Kerala family wore the wedding pendant - the “mangalsutra”. This cross was a constant reminder of her commitment of unflagging love and fidelity to the Divine Bridegroom. In her unique form of spirituality, love and pain would merge into an act of total self surrender to the Lord. This sacrificial love led her into a mystic marriage with the Crucified Lord. Every form of pain, whether physical or mental, became an offering of love to the Divine Bridegroom who became more real to her than anyone else - offering the deepest consolation in the lonely moments of her bedridden life. She was most deeply hurt when even her excruciating bodily pain was met with misunderstanding. When the pain was intense in her body and all she received was suspicion and rejection, she would clasp the crucifix and offered herself as a holocaust for the Love of Jesus. This transformed the bitter chalice of her suffering into a pleasing offering to the Lord.
In a mystic marriage, every form of suffering was accepted as an invitation and occasion to partake of the intense Love of the Lord and transformed into a spiritual force uniting her with her Beloved. In this spiritual discipline, Alphonsa becomes a radical answer to the modern man who shuns any form of pain as a curse all the time - rushing towards the little consolations the world offers. In the process, man meets with more sufferings! He cannot face life’s many unresolved conflicts and he ends up in despair. This is the rough texture of life today. It is against this dark background that the life of Alphonsa shines out giving us a transcendent hope - specially in moments of inconsolable pain and mindless suffering. What makes her life unique is not the multitude of her sufferings but the extraordinary ability to accept these sufferings and transform it into a force of love. She is indeed a perfect disciple of Jesus Christ! What makes the Crucified Lord precious for us is not so much the Cross He bore but the way He harnessed it into a spiritual force that defeated the finality and bitterness of pain. Here lies the uniqueness of the Christian faith! A faith that Sr. Alphonsa professed most meticulously without any corruption or dilution.
“I Am To Be Poured As A Libation Upon The Sacrificial Offering Of Your Faith” (Philippians 2:17)
When one meditates on the life of St. Alphonsa, one can clearly recognize the strong hues of the spirit of the early Christian community. The Cross of Jesus was a scandal the disciples themselves were unable to accept initally. They could not understand why the Master who went about doing good should be condemned and crucifed. The words of Simon Peter were an echo of the heartbeat of the small band of followers. When Jesus predicted his passion and death, Simon Peter quipped “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22) Suffering was a horrific curse that one must flee from at the remotest warning. And this is how the disciples responded when they were faced with the uncertainty of the Passion of Jesus. In Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested, they all fled from His vicinity. Even when they saw the Master in the glorified form of the Resurrection, they could not understand that the Cross had been the key to the Glory of the Resurrection. They doubted Him (Matthew 28:17). But with the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, a new vision and a tremendous power transformed their lives! Simon Peter and John would rejoice when they were flogged in the jail for being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41). From then on, every time they were threatened, a fresh force was released from within, invigorating them to proclaim their love for Christ. Every time pain burned into them, an ineffable comfort soothed their hearts. In the midst of painful rejections and atrocious persecutions, the Christian community flourished in the Joy of the Spirit. St. Peter gives expression to this changed spirit of the disciples in his epistle - “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)
St. Alphonsa lived this remarkable spirit of the Pentecost experience that marked the beginnings of Christianity. Of her trials she wrote to her spiritual director, Fr Louis: “For a long time now, my suffering has been both physical and mental and I have sometimes felt that it was beyond my endurance. I shed tears over it. But until now I have kept them hidden before the eyes of others…There are those who think that I do not suffer any mental agonies because I am always cheerful before them but my desire is to immolate myself totally at the sacrificial altar of love.” Whenever there was anything to suffer, she would remember the invitation of Jesus - “Take up your cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). Every pain that she bore gave her an ecstasy of the loving touch of the Lord. While talking to the novices and junior sisters, she once shared this reflection: “By giving us crosses He shows us His Love. He send crosses only to those whom He loves.” Because of this contemplative attitude to the sufferings of life no amount of pain could leave a shadow of despair in her soul. What impressed everyone who visited her was the disarming smile on her face. Fr. Sebastian Pinakatt who knew her closely recalls, “Sr. Alphonsa’s countenance radiated an extraordinary serenity. She had a habitual smile on her face which reflected her stainless soul. Although she was beleaguered by sickness and trials, these in no way affected her gracious behavior or her natural gait.”
“The Memory Of The Righteous Is A Blessing” (Proverbs 10:7)
The psalmist exclaims “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:71) To learn the Will of God and be conformed to the mind of God was the one aim of the life of the seeker. When afflictions came his way, he realized that this was indeed the Divine process to effect in oneself conformity with God’s Will. Suffering for Alphonsa was like the potter’s wheel moulding the clay to a beautiful shape. Whenever her body was in pain she recognized that she was at the centre of the wheel and was being acted upon by God, the Potter. Every one of her groans was turned to a heavenly hymn of praise. In 1939 she suffered from a severe convulsion that drained her thoroughly. In the midst of such agony she wrote in her diary, “When the grains of wheat are ground and crushed, then the wheat flour is obtained and is baked and transformed into the host for the Holy Eucharist. Even so must we be ground and crushed and transformed by suffering like the host. It is when grapes are pressed that we get the juice, the wine; they do not yield wine of themselves. When God purifies us by suffering, we become like good wine.” She understood her salvific value of suffering and accepted every bit of pain from the Hands of God in order that she would be conformed to the Image of God. One remembers what the Book of Hebrews says of the sufferings of Jesus: “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Hebrews 2:10) She did not complain at any moment of her bodily pain or mental distress because she knew that it was all part of a great Plan of God to make her perfect. Resounding in her heart and often on her lips was this word of Jesus - “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
St. Alphonsa’s spirituality was marked with a burning zeal for the salvation of all men and women. She knew the only way she could become a supple instrument in the hands of God was to be connected to Jesus in the moments of His sufferings. She had a deep insight into what St Paul says - “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24) Even when her body was languishing in pain, her spirit rejoiced that her decaying body was giving life to many for whom there was no one to pray for. She compared herself to a leaf that falls from the plant and gets dried and decayed on the earth - nourishing it to bring forth beautiful blossoms that would spread fragrance and beauty on the altar of God.
The message of St. Alphonsa is most crucial to the men and women of this generation. All of us are searching for the way to fulfillment in life. We want to become winners by making a mark in this world. However we seem to have lost track somewhere. No achievement seems to fill the heart of anyone. No amount of pleasure that is grabbed has managed to satisfy the thirst of man. Even those acclaimed to be winners in the arena of life seem to be utterly frustrated with the flashes of victory. The quest to amass more wealth, to make life more comfortable and secure has only rendered man more insecure and dissatisfied than at any other epoch of human history. The paradise everyone is trying to build around them seems to be escaping the reach of everyone. Thinkers of this century seem to wonder whether there is any meaning for life at all. Where have we lost our way? St. Alphonsa is a beacon beckoning us on to the road to life in all its fullness. Her life, an apparent failure by the scales of worldly understanding, is in fact the ultimate answer for the quest of every human heart. She did not make any mark in any field of life. Her life was spent in obscurity. Her body decayed even before her breath left it. Her days too few to begin any notable work. And yet her little life that was poured out as a libation for her Divine Bridegroom has an eternal worth that the heavens declare. “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3) St. Alphonsa has become a star that guides the wanderer here on earth.
Let Us Pray
Lord Jesus we thank You for the gift of St. Alphonsa to us as a beacon of hope in our dark nights. Her life assures us that even the worst sufferings are but transitory and that You will be with us to lead us to the great reward of heaven for us to rejoice over in eternity. We praise you Lord that every suffering has the promise of glory because of Your exceeding Love that triumphs over all evil. We offer to You in thanksgiving every cross of our life for here we are united to Your Most Precious Love. May our lives of commitment and love be a fragrant offering pleasing to You most gracious God.