Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Notes on the Memorial of St. Rose of Lima.

Today the Church remembers Rose of Lima, a Dominican tertiary of the early 17th century known during her short life as an ascetic, a mystic and a servant of the poor. Born in 1586, Rose was known even in her earliest years for the depth of her faith. Admired for her physical beauty, as a teenager Rose also began to attract notice for her austere piety and the rigor of her penitential practices. Though her parents rejected her plans to enter the cloister, Rose took a private vow of virginity and, as a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic, ultimately took the habit as well. With the help of her brother, Rose built a small hermitage for herself in the courtyard of her family home. Rose spent untold hours in prayer in this tiny refuge, but she also found time to care for Lima's poor, offering medical attention and shelter to the sick, the dying and destitute. Worn out by her austere life and apostolic work, Rose died in 1617 at the age of 31. Canonized a mere fifty-four years later, Rose became the first person born in the Western Hemisphere to be so honored.

As some longtime readers of my old blog may recall, my home parish was named for St. Rose of Lima. On this date last year, I wrote about my youthful awareness of my parish's patron - an awareness that was frankly quite minimal. My awareness and appreciation of St. Rose of Lima has grown over time, helped perhaps by a sense of nostalgia for the place where I had my earliest experiences of faith. One of the many blessings of my time in Peru was the opportunity to learn more about Rose and discover the important role she plays in Peruvian culture. The image of Peru's patron saint is ubiquitous in the nation's capital, found in the spartan chapels of the pueblos jovenes as well as in the ornate sanctuaries of downtown churches, hung on shop walls and inside public buses, borne on medals and carried by street vendors. I saw almost as much of Rose's image in Cusco as I did in Lima. In fact, the hostel where I stayed during my week in Cusco was called the Residencia Santa Rosa de Lima, run by a congregation of Dominican sisters bearing the same name. Accustomed to Rose's relative obscurity in the United States, I appreciated being in a place where my home parish's patron was widely known and deeply revered.

The photo above was taken at Rose's shrine in the center of Lima. That's me standing beside the saint's hermitage. As you can see, the only way Rose could get in and out of the hermitage was by crawling through a small opening. Through the hermitage's window, Rose could receive communion and, I imagine, converse with visitors as well. Built on the site of Rose's family home, the Santuario Santa Rosa de Lima preserves many of the saint's relics and serves as a place of pilgrimage for her devotees. The shrine does not contain Rose's tomb - she is actually buried a few blocks away at the Convento Santo Domingo, close to her friend and fellow Dominican Martin de Porres - but it clearly reflects her spirit. Santo Domingo attracts many more tourists, but the Santuario Santa Rosa de Lima seems to be a greater center of popular devotion. On the two visits I made to the shrine with other novices, my Jesuit companions and I were the only foreigners, while Peruvian pilgrims were numerous.

In contrast with many other shrines I've visited, the church and grounds where Rose is remembered have a strikingly homey and intimate feel - which struck me as quite appropriate, given that Rose spent most of her life at home. Rose's shrine is also a strikingly friendly place: on my first visit, I struck up a conversation with two Dominican sisters who run a small gift shop on the grounds of the shrine. In better Spanish than I thought I was capable of, I managed to explain to the sisters who I was, what I was doing in Peru, where I first learned of St. Rose of Lima, and how many years of Jesuit formation I would have to go through before being ordained. When I returned to the shrine a couple weeks later, the sisters greeted me enthusiastically by name as soon as they saw me, recalling details of our previous conversation and asking me how I'd been since my last visit. After another enjoyable chat, in the course of which I explained that I would soon be leaving for Cusco and thereafter returning to the United States, the sisters offered their prayers for me and my Jesuit companions. In return I promised to pray for the sisters and the work of the shrine, and the weeks since I have done so.

Since my return to the United States, I've often felt the desire to return to Peru. Whenever I'm able to make it back, I'll definitely make another visit to the Santuario Santa Rosa de Lima. The time I spent in Peru has undoubtedly left its mark on me, and it will probably be some time before I'll be able to totally appreciate the impact of the experience. Until then, I'll simply remain grateful for the time I spent in the homeland of St. Rose of Lima. AMDG.


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