By Brian Cole
There are many saints we know primarily by their wounds. Sebastian has his arrows, Francis his stigmata and Catherine, her wheel. With them and so many other stories of the saints, we know there will be blood.
It is not so with St. Alexis. St. Alexis, or St. Alexius as he is called from other accounts, is not remembered for his wounds, but rather for a journey which took him far from home and then, on his greatest pilgrimage, back home.
Alexis was born in the 5th century in Rome, the only son of wealthy Christian parents. His parents taught him to be charitable to the poor. Their charity made such an impression on him that he desired to follow a holy vocation as a beggar.
But his parents had other plans for Alexis. They arranged for him to be married to a rich bride. And so they were married. But on his wedding day, Alexis told his bride of his call to live as a beggar. So, she released him from his vows and he left her for God. He fled to live as a beggar in Syria in a town called Edessa. For 17 years, he lived in great poverty.
Until the day that people began to surround him, certain that he was holy. They began to call him “the man of God”.
Now, if you are convinced that you are called to be a beggar, fame is the last thing you want. Alexis did not want to stand out, but rather to disappear amidst all of God’s little ones, forgotten by the powers that be, but not by God. And now he has made the all-state begging team. This was not in the plans.
So, he flees Syria. He runs from the fame of a holy beggar. He runs all the way to his parents’ house.
He had been gone for 17 years. For seventeen years, he had lived on the streets in Syria. We know his parents sent people to look for him. For how long they searched, we do not know. Surely they had ceased searching by now, no longer going out to the end of the road, no longer gazing out along the horizon.
He returns home. However, his parents do not recognize him. And Alexis does not tell them who he is. He is a beggar and his parents always welcomed beggars. They gave him a place to stay, in a small space under the stairway. For seventeen more years, he lived as a beggar in their house.
He would leave their house to go to church to pray and to teach little children about God. But he never told his parents he was their son. And they never turned the beggar out. They never suggested to him to move on.
After seventeen years of living under the stairway in his parents’ house, Alexis died. His family found a note attached to him. The note told them of his story, of the journey to Syria and of the journey home. He was more than a beggar. He was their son.
Had you ever heard of St. Alexis before? I had not heard of him until last a few years back. I had traveled to New York, to go on retreat, to pray at a monastery along the Hudson River. It was there I was introduced to St. Alexis’ story.
At the monastery, each retreatant is assigned a simple room with a bed and a desk and a lamp and a simple closet with three hangers. Each room at the monastery is named after a saint. In the past, I had always stayed in St. Anthony’s room.
St. Anthony is considered the father of monasticism. In the story of St. Anthony, it is told that he wrestled with demons disguised as wild beasts in the desert. That’s very impressive. St. Anthony suffered many wounds from these encounters.
Truth be told, I had always longed to be assigned to St. Martin’s room. This was not because of some strong interest in the life of St. Martin. It was because it was a bigger room with a larger bed and two windows.
But no, this time they sent me to St. Alexis’ room. It was there that I read the biography about him. No great heroics with St Alexis. How many great saints spent much of their time in their room, under the stairs, and lived with their parents?
In the ranking of the calendar of saints, St. Alexis is listed as a simple saint. In other words, he barely made it. If we were voting on saints today, we might even refuse Alexis the designation, what with his withholding from his parents his true identity. Imagine all those Mother’s Day cards he failed to send. For this, they made him a saint?
But any reading of the history of the saints suggests that certain times tend to shape a certain kind of holy life and certain holy lives tend to speak more clearly in certain ages. The thirteenth century Church needed a St. Francis. Nazi Germany needed a Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I do not believe this is the time to seek out more bloodied and wounded saints. There is enough blood in our time already. And there are too many examples in too many religious communities of an unholy willingness to spill blood for righteousness’ sake.
“After this, I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…”
“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
“These are they who have come out of the Great Ordeal…”
“For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will no hunger no more and thirst no more. For the Lamb will guide them to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This is more than an image of some far off heaven we hear in St. John’s vision. This is a scene from home. This is a place where everyone finds shelter, everyone is gathered in.
In the story of St. Alexis, we hear of a man called to be a beggar. And we hear of a man who knows a beggar will find welcome in his mother’s and father’s house. He is who he is and he gets to go home. That is heaven. That is holy. That is the hope we hold on to for all of us.
The Great Ordeal for our time is finding a house big enough so they all may have a place, all may find rest, all the sons and daughters can come home.
For seventeen years, each time the mother and the father were compassionate to the beggar, their son remained safe another day. If as night fell, St. Alexis’ mother ever prayed aloud for her long lost son, now probably dead, it was her son who heard her prayers as he fell asleep under the stairs. Everyone was safe. All were gathered in.
We are often encouraged to see the face of Christ in others. Such an exercise is noble and worthy. But the story of St. Alexis makes it clear that many of us might be more moved if we saw those we have lost in the faces of strangers.
The homeless woman outside the theatre might be your sister. The stranger in the hospital elevator is your son. The woman who tries to take too many items through the 10 items of less checkout line is actually your mother.
“Who are these, robed in white and where have they come from?”
The Rt. Rev. Brian Cole is Bishop of East Tennessee.