Alphonsus Rodriguez (c 1533-1617) began his life in prosperity, yet spent his last 46 years in total abandonment to poverty and simplicity.
He was born in Segovia, the third child of a wool merchant, and at 14 went to study with the Jesuits at Alcalá. When his father died, however, he was constrained to return to Segovia in order to take over the business. Married at 26, he had a daughter.
Then his world fell to pieces. His daughter died, and his wife failed to survive the birth of a son. Soon afterwards his mother also expired.
Alphonsus sold the business and went to live with two maiden sisters, whose profoundly Catholic lives deepened his own spirituality. A further tragedy, the death of his son, broke his last hope for this world. He gave his money away and applied at Segovia to join the Jesuits, but despite his early contacts with the Society he was rejected as too old and uneducated.
In 1571, however, a friend of his, a Jesuit at Valencia, arranged for him to join the Society as a lay brother.
After six months, Alphonsus – or Alonso as he was often known – was sent to Majorca, where for the next 46 years he served as hall porter at the Jesuit college of Montesione. His conduct in this humble role impressed all who encountered him. “That brother is not a man – he is an angel,” exclaimed a superior.
Alphonsus’s advice and counsel were eagerly sought by the brothers. Among those he inspired was Peter Claver, who followed his advice to become “Apostle of the Negroes” in America, and was himself canonised.
Alphonsus himself, though, found his way far from easy, being beset by sickness and violent temptations. These difficulties, however, only inspired him to fiercer austerities and more rigid obedience, as he trod down on the serpent which writhed underfoot.
When he was over 70, and very infirm, the rector, to test him, asked him to go to the Indies. Alphonsus went straight down to the gate, and asked it to be opened for him. “I am ordered to the Indies,” he explained.
Notwithstanding his lack of education, he left a number of writings, somewhat disordered in form, but rich with spiritual insight illustrated by examples from everyday domestic life.
Alphonsus was canonised by Pope Leo XIII in 1887, an elevation which inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem about him:
Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.