Admire, But Don’t Imitate

There are certain saints about whom it is said, “admire, but don’t imitate.” One who comes to mind is Saint Peter of Alcantara, the famous Franciscan reformer, whom I am told Franciscan novices have long been specifically warned not to attempt to emulate. The friar’s austerities were so severe that most of us would die, or at least lose heart, if we tried to imitate them.

Another example is Saint Simon Stylites, known to live on the top of a pillar for many years, never coming down from it for any reason. Once, he was commanded by a legate of the bishops to come down, and he began to do so, but was quickly told to reverse himself. The whole thing was a test to see if he was humble enough to obey. One might rightly wonder what good living day and night on the top of a pillar would do. Aside from the obvious penance of living utterly subject to the elements of sun, rain, wind, etc. — this was common to many Eastern anchorites: Saint Maron, for instance — living atop a large column was a practical advantage to one who was among nomadic peoples. Hearing the wonders of the Stylites, these traveling folk could come to him, rather than he come to them. (I owe this insight to Brother Francis, who is familiar with the scene of Saint Simon’s landscape, and who grew up within walking distance from two Lebanese monasteries named after him.)

Recently, our liturgical calendar was marked with the feast of another saint whose virtues leave us in spellbound admiration, but at something of a loss in the category of imitation. He is Saint Alexius the Beggar (or Saint Alexis, as his name is sometimes spelled). About this Saint, the Roman Martyrology — typically a laconic volume — becomes virtually voluble:

“At Rome, St. Alexius, confessor, son of the senator Euphemian. Leaving his spouse before the night of marriage, he withdrew from his house, and after a long pilgrimage, returned to Rome where he was for seventeen years harbored in his father’s house as an unknown pauper thus deluding the world in this strange way. After his death, however, becoming known through a voice heard in the churches of the city, and by his own writings, he was, under the sovereign Pontiff Innocent I, translated to the Church of St. Boniface, where he wrought many miracles.”

If a young man came to me and said, “Brother, I’m soon to be married. I’d like a saint you can recommend to me as a model and intercessor for my life as a husband,” I would possibly recommend to him Saint Louis the King of France, Blessed Karl von Hapsburg, or even Louis Martin, the as-yet-un-canonized Father of Saint Therese. I would definitely recommend Saint Joseph! But I would most certainly not recommend to him Saint Alexius the Beggar.

Yet, like Saint Simon, Saint Peter of Alcantara, and the legion of other inimitable saints, Saint Alexius the Beggar teaches us something. In his case, the specific truth he teaches is the greatness of the evangelical counsels of celibate chastity and absolute poverty. Even independently of the religious state, these counsels can be lived with great strictness in a manner most pleasing to God and worthy of great merit.

In our present age, such an affirmation of these virtues is badly needed.

On second thought, maybe I might recommend Saint Alexius to that young man getting married. I would recommend him along with the afore-mentioned married saints — not because he left the poor would-be Mrs. Alexius the Beggar high and dry, but because all of us are called to practice ordinarily the same virtues he practiced so extraordinarily. Married folk are, after all, called to be chaste. The rationale is as follows: If Saint Alexius could do what he did, certainly a married Catholic man striving to be a saint can be chaste according to God’s Law and the precepts of the Church.

If you wish do “admire, but not imitate” — don’t forget to admire!