Saint Alphonsa-the passion flower of Bharananganam (a village in Kerala) or Alphonsamma as she was fondly called, is the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 2008, and the first canonized saint of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
The reason she caught my attention was not because she hailed as the first Indian Saint but the life of suffering that she lived with joy, for the love of Jesus. Around a year ago, one day while surfing TV channels, I stumbled upon a serial on the life of Alphonsamma on Madha TV, a Tamil Catholic Channel. Something that started out of boredom finally resulted in me falling in love with this saint.
Alphonsamma, born as Annakutty (little Anna) tasted suffering even when she was in the womb of her mother. When her mother was in the eighth month of her pregnancy, she was awakened by a serpent that had entwined her waist. Though she managed to tear the serpent away, the shock resulted in the premature birth of her baby. Annakutty lost her mum a few weeks later and was raised by her maternal aunt.
Though Annakutty came from a rich family, she desired simplicity, even as a child. She fasted thrice a week and gave up luxury, all for the love of God. Her grandmother instilled in her the love for daily mass, personal prayer and devotion to Mother Mary, St Therese of Avila and St Therese of Liseux.
At the age of seven, Annakutty received the sacrament of the Holy Communion. She used to say to her friends,
“Do you know why I am so particularly happy today? It is because I have Jesus in my heart.”
Annakutty also had a vision of St. Theresa of Liseux, while reading her autobiography, who told her, “Do not be afraid my daughter, become a nun.” This inspired her even more to become religious.
The greatest dream of her aunt was to raise Annakutty as a respectable housewife for a deserving bridegroom, but Annakutty had a different dream. She desired to make Jesus her bridegroom. She often visited the nearby monastery run by the Carmelites and spent long hours in prayer at the foot of the altar. Worried that Annakutty would choose a religious vocation, her aunt brought her a proposal of a wealthy and handsome young man when she was just 13 years old. Annakutty, in order to escape marriage, voluntarily put her foot into a heap of burning embers, which left her with serious burns.
“My marriage was arranged when I was thirteen years old. What had I to do to avoid it? I prayed all that night… then an idea came to me. If my body were a little disfigured no one would want me! … O, how I suffered! I offered all for my great intention,”
she wrote in her spiritual dairy.
Her aunt then came to realize the passion and desire Annakutty had to make Jesus her spouse, hence she permitted her to join a convent. A cheerful Annakutty preferred the poor Clarist convent to the more prosperous ones. She joined the Clarist convent on the feast of the Pentecost in 1927 and received the postulant’s veil in 1928 and took the name ‘Alphonsa’ after Saint St. Alphonsus Liguori, whose feast was on that day.
Soon, Alphonsamma was affected by a grave illness. Her weakness forced her to stop teaching school children and only allowed her to take up small jobs like writing official letters. About one week after the beginning of her novitiate, she suffered from a hemorrhage from her nose and eyes and purulent wounds on her legs. The illness deteriorated, to such a point that the worst was feared. Hence, the convent decided to pray a novena to ‘The Servant of God – Fr. Kuriakose Elia Chavara – a Carmelite‘, who was subsequently beatified. Alphonsamma had a vision of Father Kuriakose and she was miraculously and instantaneously cured.
Having restarted her novitiate, she wrote the following in her spiritual diary:
“I do not wish to act or speak according to my inclinations. Every time I fail, I will do penance… I want to be careful never to reject anyone. I will only speak sweet words to others. I want to control my eyes with rigor. I will ask pardon of the Lord for every little failure and I will atone for it through penance. No matter what my sufferings may be, I will never complain and if I have to undergo any humiliation, I will seek refuge in the Sacred Heart of Jesus”.
In 1936, on the feast of St. Clare, also the day of her perpetual profession, was a day of inexpressible spiritual joy for Alphonsamma. She had realized her desire, guarded for a long time in her heart and confided to her sister, when she was just 12,
“Jesus is my only Spouse and none other”.
Jesus, however, wished to lead His spouse to perfection through a life of suffering.
“There are abundant occasions of suffering… I have a great desire to suffer with joy. It seems that my Spouse wishes to fulfill this desire,”
Painful illnesses followed Alphonsamma; she suffered from typhoid fever, double pneumonia, and, the most serious of all, a dramatic nervous shock, the result of a fright on seeing a thief enter her room in the middle of the night, when she was asleep in her convent. This caused her amnesia which lasted for about a year, during which she was unable to read, write or even recognize her own father. With prayers, penance and sacrifices by her Clarist sisters, she later regained her memory.
Alphonsamma continued to have repeated spells of sickness, and excruciating pain and agony became part of her life. She constantly advised her companions and novices to accept suffering cheerfully, citing biblical references to the grain of wheat which has to fall down and decay for raising new sprouts; it has to be ground in order to be turned into hosts for transformation as the Body of our Lord. She also reminded them of grapes which have to be crushed for yielding wine to become the Blood of our Lord.
There are many reasons why St. Alphonsa is my favorite saint. Firstly, she had a burning passion for God. No matter what came her way, she continued being head over heels in love with Jesus and believed that every suffering she endured was for her own sanctification. She made Jesus her ‘spouse‘ just at the age of seven. I don’t even remember what I was doing at seven!
Secondly, she loved the Holy Eucharist. She said that the food she relished the most was the Holy Eucharist. Even when she was bedridden and couldn’t move an inch by herself, she dragged herself on her knees and hands and threw herself like a dog at the door of her chapel, just to receive Jesus. She had tears of joy, when she received Jesus in the Eucharist. Despite her weakness, she remained on her knees for hours after receiving Holy Communion. She knew she was closest to Jesus when she received Him in the Eucharist. So very often we do not even kneel for five minutes after receiving Jesus but her actions proved that she truly loved God in everything she did!
Lastly, she lived a simple life. Though she had all the luxuries in the world, she gave them up and chose to live an ordinary life to please God. When she knew her time had come to go back to the Creator, she requested that she be laid on bare ground so that she could go back to God without any luxuries of the world.
On the 28thof July 1946, at the age of 36, she breathed her last. The funeral was simple, like a reflection of her life. Very soon school children who loved her received favors through her intercession. Her tomb at Bharananganam turned into pilgrimage centre attracting people from far and wide, even before she was proclaimed a Saint.
During the homily of her canonization ceremony, Pope Benedict XVI stated
“This exceptional woman was convinced that her cross was the very means of reaching the heavenly banquet prepared for her, by the Father. By accepting the invitation to the wedding feast, and by adorning herself with the garment of God’s grace through prayer and penance, she conformed her life to Christ’s and now delights in the ‘rich fare and choice wines’ of the heavenly kingdom. Her heroic virtues of patience, fortitude and perseverance in the midst of deep suffering remind us that God always provides the strength we need to overcome every trial”