A Great Saint Today, But Not for the Affianced

Today, July 17, is the feast day of Saint Alexis the Beggar. He is honored in the East on March 17.

When I was studying in Rome many years ago I visited a church dedicated to Saint Alexis on the Aventine hill. At the time I knew nothing about him. There was a staircase in the church under which, the story goes, Alexis lived in a little room. He devoted his life in the early fifth century to helping the poor in the “Eternal City.”

That would be praiseworthy enough, but there is much more that makes his life most extraordinary.

Alexis was born into a noble and pious Roman family, the son of one Euphemianus. On the night of his wedding he did a very strange thing: he left Rome and journeyed to Edessa in Syria. This is where his cultus took root.

Until this morning I had had misgivings about why this saint, who was known as “the holy man of Edessa,” left his bride-to-be and his family and disappeared some fifteen hundred miles away. Why, for instance, did he get engaged in the first place? Well, with what little is known about him, I just learned an hour ago from one source that he and his bride had previously agreed to this separation. From what I can surmise from that the contra-elopement must have been because the marriage had been arranged and Alexis wanted to avoid confronting his father directly about his decision not to marry. That is my own opinion. It is uncertain, however, whether there was a marriage or whether the bolting occurred the night before the wedding. The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, says that the tenth century record has it he left Rome “the night of the wedding.”

In any event, I had always thought that this was not a very nice thing to do to your fiancée. That is, if she was actually left high and dry . . .  and very hurt — without even a “Dear Joan” letter.

So, I was happy to read that there is the probability that there was a mutual agreement to live separately for God.

For seventeen years Alexis lived the ascetical life of a beggar in Edessa, asking alms outside a church door every day, and giving almost everything he had to the sick and the poor. In spite of all his efforts, however, Alexis’ began to be revered as a saint in Edessa. It was, therefore, time to go. Where did he go? Back to Rome.

Seventeen years is a long time. From a young and healthy son of a nobleman, he returned as a ragged and gnarled bag of bones. So changed was he in appearance that he sought, incognito, to make amends to his father by going to him as one homeless and asking for a job. By the providence of God the guise worked. The family (the legend has it), impressed by his works of charity on the streets of Rome, hired him as a servant and gave him quarters in a small room under a staircase in one of the lodges on the estate. Something tells me that his mother was no longer living. I mean, how could a mother not recognize her child, no matter how different his appearance? Then, again, God was guiding every action and it was His will that His servant remain unknown.

For seventeen more years Alexis served at his father’s house while giving all his spare time to prayer, visiting churches, helping out in hospitals, and serving the poor. Soon, he was hailed in Rome, as in Edessa, as “the man of God.”

When his earthly course was nearing its end, and, according to the western account, while his parents were still living, Alexis wrote a letter revealing his identity. When he died that letter was found clenched in his hand — and all the church bells in Rome pealed in his honor. In the fifteenth century a religious order, “the Alexian Brothers,” was founded in his name to take care of the old, the insane, and the poor/sick.