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Saint Peter of Alcantara

We do not pass through this “vale of tears” in a vacuum.  We are always surrounded by others who are either headed toward Heaven or toward eternal punishment in Hell.  Who we choose to be our friends then is very important, because if we surround ourselves with those traveling to eternal perdition we will most certainly be carried off with them.  On the other hand if we look for those who are living holy lives and seeking to please God in all they do and striving with all their might for Heaven and we surround ourselves with these people we will certainly find our way to eternal happiness alongside them.


This truth is evident simply by looking at the history of the Church and the many groups of Saints who worked together, were friends, or at least knew each other.  The very first and most shining example of this is the Apostles Peter and Paul who are so closely connected in devotion that any time one is mentioned in the Sacred Liturgy the other must be too and whenever either has a feast day the other is commemorated.  In the East you cannot have an Icon that has only one or the other, but for it to be complete both must be present in the Icon.  And then in every age of the Church we see the holy friendships of the saints: Athanasius and Antony of the Desert, Benedict and his sister Scholastica, Francis and Clare, Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert the Great, John of Matha and Felix of Valois, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal, Father Damien of Molokai and Marianne Cope, Jacinta Marto of Fatima and her brother Francisco, and one of the most amazing examples in the history of the Church is Saint Bernard of Clairvaux whose immediate family have nearly all be canonized: his father Venerable Tescalin, his mother Blessed Alice, his sister Blessed Humbeline, and his brothers Blessed Guy (and his wife and eldest daughter), Blessed Gerard, Blessed Andrew, Blessed Bartholomew, and Blessed Nivard!


And in this time in the Liturgical Year we have three Saints who all knew one another and worked together for the building of the Mystical Body of Christ in a most profound way.  On October 15th we celebrate the feast of the glorious reformer of Carmel Saint Teresa of Avila and next month on November 24th we celebrate her co-worker and fellow Doctor of the Church: Saint John of the Cross.  But on October 19th we also celebrate the feast of one of their close friends and co-workers: Saint Peter of Alcantara.  He would aid the Carmelites in their reform while he sought to return his own order to its own primitive observance as the Carmelites were seeking to do.  Peter would then undertake one of the great reforms of that august order founded by Saint Francis of Assisi, and lived a life worthy of giving him the title of one of the greatest sons of Saint Francis.



The Liturgical Year


Dom Prosper Gueranger


October 19


Saint Peter of Alcantara




“O Happy penance, which has won me such glory!” said the Saint of today at the threshold of heaven. And on earth, Teresa of Jesus wrote of him: “Oh! what a perfect imitator of Jesus Christ God has just taken from us, by calling to his glory that blessed religious, Brother Peter of Alcantara! The world, they say, is no longer capable of such high perfection; constitutions are weaker, and we are not now in the olden times. Here is a Saint of the present day; yet his manly fervour equalled that of past ages; and he had a supreme disdain for everything earthly. But without going bare foot like him, or doing such sharp penance, there are very many ways in which we can practise contempt of the world, and which our Lord will teach us as soon as we have courage. What great courage must the holy man I speak of have received from God, to keep up for forty-seven years the rigorous penance that all now know!


“Of all his mortifications, that which cost him most at the beginning was the overcoming of sleep; to effect this, he would remain continually on his knees, or else standing. The little repose he granted to nature, he took sitting, with his head leaning against a piece of wood fixed to the wall; indeed, had he wished to lie down, he could not have done so, for his cell was only four feet and a half in length. During the course of all those years, he never put his hood up, however burning the sun might be, or however heavy the rain. He never used shoes or stockings. He wore no other clothing than a single garment of rough, coarse cloth; I found out, however, that for twenty years he wore a hair-shirt made on plates of tin, which he never took off. His Habit was as narrow as it could possibly be; and over it he put a short cloak of the same material; this he took off when it was very cold, and left the door and small window of his cell open for a while; then he shut them and put his cape on again, which he said was his manner of warming himself and giving his body a little better temperature. He usually ate but once in three days; and when I showed some surprise at this, he said it was quite easy when one was accustomed to it. His poverty was extreme; and such was his mortification, that, as he acknowledged to me, he had, when young, spent three years in a house of his Order without knowing any one of the Religious except by the sound of his voice; for he had never lifted up his eyes; so that, when called by the rule to any part of the house, he could find his way only by following the other Brethren. He observed the same custody of the eyes when on the roads. When I made his acquaintance, his body was so emaciated, that it seemed to be formed of the roots of trees.” (St. Teresa of Avila. Life, xxvii. xxx.)


To this portrait of the Franciscan reformer drawn by the reformer of Carmel, the Church will add the history of his life. Three illustrious and worthy families now form the first Order, of St. Francis, known as the Conventuals, the Observantines, and the Capuchins. A pious emulation for more and more strict reform, brought about in the Observance itself, a subdivision into the Observantines proper, the Reformed, the Discalced or Alcantarines, and the Recollets. This division, which was historical rather than constitutional, no longer exists; for, on the feast of the Patriarch of Assisi, October 4th, 1897, the Sovereign Pontiff Leo XIII thought fit to re-unite the great family of the Observance, which is henceforth known as the Order of Friars Minor. (Constit. apost. Felicitate quadam.)

Peter was born of noble parents at Alcantara in Spain, and from his earliest years gave promise of his future sanctity. At the age of sixteen, he entered the Order of Friars Minor, in which he became an example of every virtue. He undertook by obedience the office of preaching, and led numberless sinners to sincere repentance. Desirous of bringing back the Franciscan Order to its original strictness, he founded, by God’s assistance and with the approbation of the Apostolic See, a very poor little convent at Pedroso. The austere manner of life, which he was there the first to lead, was afterwards spread in a wonderful manner throughout Spain and even into the Indies. He assisted St. Teresa, whose spirit he approved, in carrying out the reform of Carmel. And she, having learned from God that whoever asked anything in Peter’s name would be immediately heard, was wont to recommend herself to his prayers, and to call him a saint, while he was still living.

Peter was consulted as an oracle by princes; but he avoided their honours with great humility, and refused to become confessor to the Emperor Charles V. He was a most rigid observer of poverty, having but one tunic, and that the meanest possible. Such was his delicacy with regard to purity, that he would not allow the brother, who waited on him in his last illness, even lightly to touch him. By perpetual watching, fasting, disciplines, cold, and nakedness, and every kind of austerity, he brought his body into subjection; having made a compact with it, never to give it any rest in this world. The love of God and of his neighbour was shed abroad in his heart, and at times burned so ardently that he was obliged to escape from his narrow cell into the open, that the cold air might temper the heat that consumed him.

Admirable was his gift of contemplation. Sometimes, while his spirit was nourished in this heavenly manner, he would pass several days without food or drink. He was often raised in the air, and seen shining with wonderful brilliancy. He passed dryshod over the most rapid rivers. When his brethren, were absolutely destitute, he obtained for them food from heaven. He fixed his staff in the earth, and it suddenly became a flourishing fig-tree; One night when he was journeying in a heavy snow-storm, he entered a ruined house; but the snow, lest he should be suffocated by its dense flakes, hung in the air and formed a roof above him. He was endowed with the gifts of prophecy and discernment of spirits, as St. Teresa testifies. At length, in his sixty-third year, he passed to our Lord at the hour he had foretold, fortified by a wonderful vision and the presence of the Saints. St. Teresa, who was at a great distance, saw him at that same moment carried to heaven. He afterwards appeared to her, saying: Oh! happy penance, which has won me such great glory I He was rendered famous after death by many miracles, and was enrolled among the Saints by Clement IX.

“Such then is the end of that austere life, an eternity of glory!” (St Teresa of Avila, Life, xxvii.) And how sweet were thy last words: I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord. (Pa cxxi, 1.) The time of reward had not yet come for the body, with which hou hadst made an agreement to give it no truce, in this life, but to reserve its enjoyment for the next. But already the soul, on quitting it, had filled it with the light and the fragrance of the other world; signifying to all, that the first part of the contract having been faithfully adhered to, the second should be carried out in like manner. Whereas, given over for its false delights to horrible torments, the flesh of the sinner will forever cry vengeance against the soul that caused its loss; thy members, entering into the beatitude of thy happy soul, and completing its glory by their own splendour, will eternally declare how thy apparent harshness for a time was in reality wisdom and love.


Is it necessary, indeed, to wait for the resurrection, in order to discover that the part thou didst choose is incontestably the best? Who would dare to compare, not only unlawful pleasures, but even the permitted enjoyments of earth, with the holy delights of contemplation prepared, even in this world, for those who can relish them? If they are to be purchased by mortification of the flesh, it is because the flesh and the spirit are ever striving for the mastery; but a generous soul loves the struggle, for the flesh is honoured by it, and through it escapes a thousand dangers.


O thou who, according to our Lord’s promise, art never invoked in vain, if thou deign thyself to present our prayers to him; obtain for us that relish for heavenly things, which causes an aversion for those of earth. It is the petition made by the whole Church, through thy merits, to the God who bestowed on thee the gift of such wonderful penance and sublime contemplation. (Collect of the Feast) The great family of Friars Minor cherishes the treasure of thy teaching and example; for the honour of thy holy father Francis and the good of the Church, maintain in it the love of its austere traditions. Withdraw not thy precious protection from the Carmel of Teresa of Jesus; nay, extend it to the whole Religious State, especially in these days of trial. Mayest thou at length lead back thy native Spain to the glorious heights, whence formerly she seemed to pour down floods of sanctity upon the world; it is the condition of nations ennobled by a more sublime vocation, that they cannot decline without the danger of falling below the level of those less favoured by the Most High.


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