Alonso Rodriguez [1532-1617] is a shining example of ‘blooming where you’re planted’. He didn’t found churches, win crowds to Jesus or conquer heresy. He was one of God’s ‘unknowns’, who won hidden victories: over failure, sickness, loss and heartbreak.
He was a wool merchant with a wife and three children, but by the time he was 40, they had all died and his business had collapsed. His life in ruins, he asked to join the Society of Jesus, at that time a newly-formed mission movement in the Catholic church. They said no: he was uneducated. So Alonso tried to study – and failed. In desperation he begged the Provincial of the order for a chance, who finally said he could be a servant at their mission in Majorca.
At this point a confusion arises: there was another Alonso Rodriguez, born only 2 years apart, who was also in the Society of Jesus at the same point, and who is credited (though some dispute his authorship) with a 3- volume devotional tome, ‘The Practice of Christian Perfection’. The two have been widely confused by commentators since.
Our Alonso spent the rest of his life on the island as a porter. While other members took the gospel around the world, Alonso ran errands, delivered messages, received guests and carried bags – for 46 years! This is how he is represented in the painting above: door keys at his side, but behind all his actions an angel of God, and the full approbation of heaven.
He had a nervous twitch and was often sick, but everyone could see he knew God. Students came to him for wisdom and prayer. One, Peter Claver (1581-1654), set out as a missionary to slaves in Colombia because of a prophecy from Alonso. Claver is remembered in the Roman Catholic Church as patron saint of foreign missions.
When Alonso was old, his superiors asked him to write down his experiences. After his death, these papers were found to contain the fruits of much meditation, faithfulness and service to Jesus, whom he loved passionately. Here is an example:
I put myself in spirit before our crucified Lord, bearing great sufferings for me. I consider how much I owe Him and what He has done for me. As love is paid for in love, I must imitate Him. Thus, amid hardship and trial, I stimulate my heart and encourage myself to endure, for love of the Lord who is before me, until I make what is bitter sweet.
Perhaps this is what attracted the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to devote a poem in 1918 to God’s servant, Alonso Rodriguez:
HONOUR is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
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 Alonso watched the door.
J.B. (John Bertram) Phillips (1906-1982) is remembered today chiefly for his paraphrase of the New Testament: The New Testament in Modern English. A canon in the Anglican church, he realised that people did not easily understand the English of the Authorised Version, so he began his own, readable version in the air-raid shelters of London during the Blitz of 1941. It was described by one reviewer as “making St. Paul sound as contemporary as the preacher down the street” and “transmitting freshness and life across the centuries”.
What is less well known is that Phillips suffered mental affliction for many years – and wrote about it. It seems his father was never satisfied with anything John did as he was growing up. This turned him into a perfectionist. Yet, because he was always falling short of his own standards, he constantly struggled with self-recrimination and a fear of failure. He could not bear any criticism.
Phillips received hours of counselling, but to little avail. Throughout his life, even as he helped others with their spiritual doubts, he knew mental troubles of his own (including ‘visitations’ from C S Lewis, who was already dead). Yet he never let the fears and guilt overcome him. He worked hard, writing, counselling and addressing large audiences.
One fruit of his struggles is that Phillips thought through the dark things of human life, prayed, then wrote about them. Here is how he describes his battles:
“I can with difficulty endure the days, but I frankly dread the nights. The second part of almost every night of my life is shot through with such mental pain, fear and horror that I frequently have to wake myself up in order to restore some sort of balance.”
His writings offer a rational, sensible account of the Christian faith, devoid of frills and triumphalism. It is no surprise that his biography, by his widow Vera and Edwin Robertson, is called The Wounded Healer – because this is what Phillips became. They write:
“While he was ministering to others he was himself powerfully afflicted by dark thoughts and mental pains. He knew anxiety and depression from which there was only temporary release. And while he never lost his faith in God, he never ceased to struggle against mental pain.”
Phillips won through, in part, by choosing to be a giver. Through his books and his wide correspondence, he ministered to people going through their own darkness. At times, the most helpful thing he could offer was his own experience. In one letter to a fellow struggler he wrote:
“As far as you can, and God knows how difficult this is, try to relax in and upon Him. As far as my experience goes, to get even a breath of God’s peace in the midst of pain is infinitely worth having.”
Perhaps, in the final resort, Phillips’ experience was akin to his paraphrase of 1 Peter 5:7 : “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.”