Today is the feast day of Saint Peter Alcantara. Ora pro nobis.
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. Peter was born in the year 1499, at Alcantara, in Spain. He became celebrated for his great piety, and the austerity of his life, and in order to distinguish him from other Saints of the same name, received the surname, “of Alcantara.” Besides other signs of future holiness, Peter, when only seven years of age, evinced so great a love for prayer, that he sometimes forgot to eat and drink. During the time of his studies he kept his innocence unspotted in the midst of many dangers, by making prayer, the holy Sacraments, and penances, its guardians. When hardly sixteen years old, he secretly left his father’s house and entered the Franciscan Order, in which he soon became a model of all virtues. After having finished his novitiate, he was charged with different functions, all of which he discharged most successfully. The office of preacher was the most agreeable to him. An incredible number of hardened sinners were converted by his sermons, in which he treated of penance and a reform of life. The fame of his virtues and holiness gave additional weight to every word he uttered. Especially admirable were the untiring zeal with which he practised all manner of bodily austerities, and his continual communion with God in prayer. His whole life was one of extraordinary and almost unexampled mortification. He guarded his eyes so closely, that he not only never looked on a woman’s face, but knew his brethren only by their voices; and after a long sojourn in the monastery, could not tell whether the choir and the dormitory were vaulted or covered with boards.
The cell he chose for his dwelling was so narrow, that it was more like a tomb than the abode of a living human being, and so low, that he could not stand upright in it. He kept an almost continual fast, and hardly partook, every third day, of some undressed herbs, bread and water. It even happened that during eight days he took no food whatever. He scourged himself twice daily with iron chains. He wore, day and night, a penitential instrument made of tin, pierced like a grater. During forty years, he allowed himself only one hour and a half of sleep at night, and this, not lying down, but kneeling, or standing with his head leaning against a board. The remainder of the night he occupied in prayer and meditation. As long as he lived in the order, he went barefoot and bareheaded, even in the coldest season. His clothing consisted of his habit and a short cloak, made of rough sack-cloth. He seemed to have made a compact with his body never in this world to allow it any peace or comfort. His union with God in prayer had reached so high a degree, that he was often seen in ecstacy, or raised high in the air, and surrounded by a heavenly brightness. The power of his holy prayers was experienced not only by many hardened sinners, but also by many sick for whom he obtained health and strength. The inhabitants of the city of Albuquerque, ascribed to him their deliverance from the pestilence; for, as soon as St. Peter had called upon the divine mercy, the pestilence, which had most fearfully ravaged the city, disappeared.
The love of God, which filled the heart of the Saint, manifested itself in his intercourse and conversation with men, whom he endeavored to inflame with the same love. This appeared in all his actions, but especially at the time of Holy Mass, when he stood like a Seraph before the altar, his face burning, and tears streaming from his eyes. When meditating on the passion and death of our Saviour, he was frequently so deeply torched in his inmost heart, that for hours he was like one dead. His devotion to God would sometimes burn his heart so intensely, that to moderate his emotion, he would go into the fields to breathe more freely. Having reached his fortieth year, he was chosen provincial, but endeavored to refuse the dignity, and when compelled by obedience to accept it, he regarded it as an opportunity to do good to those under his charge. God admonished him to restore the primitive observance in the Order, according to the rule and spirit of St. Francis. Although he could not but foresee the many and great difficulties which he would encounter in this undertaking, still, trusting in God, he went courageously to work after having obtained the sanction of the Pope.
The Almighty visibly aided His faithful servant; for, in six years, the Saint had founded nine monasteries, in which the mortification and the perfect poverty which St. Francis especially cherished were observed in all the rigor of the first Rule. In the course of time, this renewed Order was disseminated through all Spain, to the great joy of the Saint. This and other labors which he performed to the honor and glory of God made him greatly esteemed by every one. St. Teresa, who lived at that period, asked his advice in her cares and doubts whenever she had occasion, and called him a Saint while he was yet upon earth. St. Francis Borgia entertained great friendship for him, and the praise of his great virtues resounded throughout all Spain. The Emperor Charles V. desired to make him his confessor, but the humble servant of the Almighty knew how to say so much of his incapacity for this office, that the emperor abandoned the idea, to the Saint’s great joy. This became a new incentive for him to devote himself entirely to the service of God and the welfare of those under him.
He had reached his 63rd year, more by a miracle than in a natural way, when he was visited by Providence with a severe illness, which soon left no hope of his recovery, as his body was entirely wasted away by the severity of his life, his painful journeys and his uninterrupted labors. He himself was informed from on high of his approaching end and he received the last Sacraments with so deep a devotion, that the eyes of all present were filled with tears. After this he fell into a rapture, in which the Divine Mother and St. John, the Evangelist, appeared to him and assured him of his salvation. Hence, regaining consciousness, he cheerfully recited the words of the Psalmist: “I have rejoiced in those things which have been said to me; We shall go into the house of the Lord.” Having said this, he calmly gave his soul into the keeping of his Creator, in the year of Our Lord 1562. St. Teresa, who has written much in his praise, says among other things: “He died as he had lived, a Saint; and I have, after his death, received many graces from God, through his intercession. I have often seen him in great glory, and when I saw him the first time, he said to me: ‘O happy penance, which has obtained so great a glory for me!'” The Roman Breviary testifies that St. Teresa, though, at the time of his death, far from him, saw his soul gloriously ascend into heaven. The biographers of St. Peter, relate many and great miracles which he wrought while he was still living. In the Breviary, we read, among other things, the following. “He crossed rapid rivers with dry feet. In times of great poverty, he fed his brethren with food which he received from heaven. The staff which he placed in the ground, immediately became a budding fig-tree. Once, in the night-time, when he sought shelter from a snow-storm in a roofless house, the snow remained hanging in the air, above it, and thus formed a roof to protect him from being buried in the snow.” (1)
Perhaps the most remarkable of Peter’s graces were his gift of contemplation and the virtue of penance. Hardly less remarkable was his love of God, which was at times so ardent as to cause him, as it did St. Philip Neri, sensible pain, and frequently rapt him into ecstasy. The poverty he practised and enforced was as cheerful as it was real, and often let the want of even the necessaries of life be felt. In confirmation of his virtues and mission of reformation God worked numerous miracles through his intercession and by his very presence. He was beatified by Gregory XV in 1622, and canonized by Clement IX in 1669. Besides the Constitutions of the Stricter Observants and many letters on spiritual subjects, especially to St. Teresa, he composed a short treatise on prayer, which has been translated into all the languages of Europe.
Image: Peter of Alcantara (9)
Research by REGINA Staff