Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The life of Saint Alphonsa: how adversity can strengthen faith

In the south west of India, next to the Arabian Sea, lies the state of Kerala - a beautiful tropical land that is abundant with coconut trees, paddy fields, picturesque beaches, and a network of canals, lakes and estuaries. It was to this part of India that Christianity first took roots, soon after its birth in the first century. Today Kerala is a popular tourist destination, but it has always attracted visitors to its shores long before the modern age. St Thomas, the apostle of Jesus who famously doubted the resurrection of Jesus, is believed to have come to Kerala in 52AD by boat. He landed at the great spice port of Kodungallur, and from there he proceeded to establish seven churches among the natives and the Jewish diaspora in Kerala. Today, Christians comprise 19% of Kerala’s population of 31.8 million people, the remainder being a mix of Hindus and Muslims.

The year 2008 was a troubling time for India’s Christian minority due to anti-Christian violence. The situation remains tense in some areas, particularly in states like Orissa and Karanataka which are currently ruled by Hindu nationalist state governments. With the backdrop of such violence, on 12 October 2008, Pope Benedict XVI announced the canonisation of Sr Alphonsa to a large congregation at a ceremony in St Peter’s Square saying, “As the Christian faithful of India give thanks to God for their first native daughter to be presented for public veneration, I wish to assure them of my prayers during this difficult time.” Alphonsa thus became the first Indian woman saint in the Catholic Church, much to the joy of many Indian Christians, providing them some cheer at a difficult time in the history of the church in India.

Born on 10 August 1910 in the small village of Kudumalur, Kerala, Alphonsa was christened Anna. She was called Annakutty (literally “Anna child” in Malayalam) by friends and family. She lost her mother when she was barely a month old, and her early years were spent rotating between the homes of her father, her paternal grandmother and her maternal aunt. Under the influence of her pious and benovelent grandmother, Annakutty developed the practice of praying and a deep compassion for the poor. Her early years were relatively happy times, but things took a very different turn when she moved to the home of her maternal aunt, who was so strict, even to the extent of forbidding her foster child to speak to fellow schoolchildren, that she often inflicted psychological turmoil on Annakutty.

Annakutty believed, even from the early age of seven, that Christ was calling her to spend a life devoted to Him, and after reading the biography of St Thérèse of Lisieux she felt the urge to emulate her. In those days in Kerala, it was not uncommon for girls to be married off early, but Annakutty resisted repeated attempts by her aunt to marry her off, eventually reaching the point of causing self-harm. She put her foot in a heap of burning embers, causing it severe burns, in an attempt to disfigure her body so that no one would want to marry her. This was a great shock to her family and a clear sign of her sincerity about her religious vocation, and they decided to allow her to follow her religious vocation and become a nun.

Annakutty joined the Congregation of Franciscan Clarists in Bharananganam, Kerala, beginning her postulancy on 2 August 1928, taking the name of Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception in honour of St Alphonsus Liguori. She continued her studies, staying in the boarding school attached to the Franciscan convent. She experienced a few more hurdles in trying to achieve her ambition of becoming a nun, such as when she went to Changanacherry, Kerala, for her higher studies, the sister in charge of the postulants thought she was too prone to sickness that she tried to talk Alphonsa out of becoming a nun. She prayed hard, resisted new attempts by her aunt to marry her off, and with the support of some priests she came in contact, she was able to continue with her postulancy. The day she finally became a nun, on 12 August 1936, was one of immense joy for Alphonsa.

Alphonsa taught at the boarding school attached to the convent, but she was plagued by frequent illness. Some of her more cynical compatriots in the convent thought she may have been feigning illness, and that her humility in accepting suffering was nothing other than a charade to win the hearts of the superiors. Eventually, after suffering from an agonising tumour, she died at the age of thirty six on 28 July 1946.

People who knew Sr Alphonsa described her as a very devout, loving, and forgiving individual who, despite her constant ill health, maintained a charming disposition. She believed that her sufferings were meant to bring her closer to Christ; this is evident in a letter she wrote to her spiritual director: “Dear Father, as my good Lord Jesus loves me so very much, I sincerely desire to remain on this sick bed and suffer not only this, but anything else besides, even to the end of the world. I feel now that God has intended my life to be an oblation, a sacrifice of suffering.” Nuns also attest that Sr Alphonsa possessed the gift of prophecy, being able to predict accurately when different people would die.

After Sr Alphonsa’s death, her school children, with whom she had formed a close bond, began visiting her tomb and offering prayers. Many of them discovered their prayers were answered. Soon stories of people being healed of illnesses, after praying to Sr Alphonsa began to spread, leading to her tomb quickly becoming a pilgrimage site. With pressure from people, who had witnessed the favours that were performed through the intercession of Sr Alphonsa, the local diocese appointed a committee to look into the cause of recommending her for sainthood. Sainthood in the Catholic Church is a long and laborious process, divided into different stages, that requires formal inquiries into the sanctity of the candidate’s life and miracles attributed to that person's intercession. After conducting an extensive study of Sr Alphonsa’s life, the local diocese took up the case for her sainthood with the Vatican.

On 9 July 1985, Pope John Paul II formally approved a miracle attributed to Sr Alphonsa’s intercession, which was the healing of a boy called Thomas who was born club-footed. The boy’s feet were badly deformed and twisted inwards, which forced him to walk with a limp. His parents had tried various medical treatments, but all to no avail. Eventually in January 1947, they went to Sr Alphonsa’s tomb and prayed ardently, seeking her intercession. Two days later, Thomas began to walk normally. Medical examination could offer no explanation for the cure.

In 1999 another young boy - called Jinil - who was born club-footed, was miraculously cured of his deformity after the boy’s parents took him to Sr Alphonsa’s tomb and prayed for his healing. Again there was no medical explanation for the cure. In the process of canonisation, one miracle must be verified to have happened after the beatification and in Sr Alphonsa’s case the curing of Jinil proved to be it. There are many other favours that people have received after praying to Sr Alphonsa; these include people in India, from abroad, and members of non-Christian faiths.

It may be surprising to some, given that Christianity has been present on the Kerala soil for nearly two millennia, that Saint Alphonsa is only the second Indian saint to be canonised by the Vatican. However, the Eastern Christians of Kerala – the largest and earliest group of Christians in India - did not come under the purview of Rome until after the arrival of the Portuguese conquistadors in the fifteenth century. The Portuguese, who considered these early Christians of Kerala as heretics, forcefully brought many of them under the Pope of Rome by Latinizing their Syrian liturgy and by purging them of their “heretic” beliefs and traditions. Over the years, the St Thomas Christians of Kerala have developed a distinct indigenous culture, which is Hebrew-Syriac in tradition and includes several Jewish elements along with some Hindu customs.

Saint Alphonsa was very much influenced by the late nineteenth century French saint, St Thérèse of Lisieux, keeping her autobiography on her window sill and reading it often. There are some interesting similarities between the lives of the two: both were pious from an early age; both overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to join the religious life; both suffered much physical and emotional turmoil; and both were relatively unknown until after their deaths. The Christians of Kerala are fond of emphasising these cross-cultural similarities between the two saints, so much so that Bharananganam has become popularly known as “Lisieux of India”. However, Saint Alphonsa had her own nuanced ideas of sanctity and therefore scripted her own path.

The life of St Alphonsa reminds Christians that suffering and obstacles are very much part of life. As followers of Christ, they should be willing and prepared to suffer if necessary to follow God:

“Since Christ suffered and underwent pain, you must have the same attitude he did; you must be ready to suffer, too. For remember, when your body suffers, sin loses its power, and you won’t be spending the rest of your life chasing after evil desires.” (1 Peter 4: 1, 2)

When our bodies are in pain, we are reminded of our physical frailty and sinful pleasures seem less important. The life of Saint Alphonsa is an example of how adversity can strengthen faith.

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