Alphonsa’s cloistered life lasted about sixteen years. During most of this period she was afflicted with various illnesses so much so that some people may think of her as an unfortunate character whose life was overcast by the shadows of melancholy to the exclusion of all spots of sunshine. Others may think that Alphonsa, who turned her back on pleasures and embraced sufferings and crosses as her life’s portion, rendered herself inaccessible or unattractive to others. In other words people may think that she was too holy and unworldly a person to cultivate social ties. But this view has no correspondence with the reality. Anybody who has met her or talked to her at least once will readily admit this fact.
She was troubled by afflictions of all kinds for about seven years but nothing could rob her of the serene brightness of her face. Writ large in her blue eyes, which were long and lustrous, one could find the virtues of innocence, kindness and humility. But what really surprised her visitors was the joyful smile that never parted from her face despite even the onslaught of untold suffering. We have seen that even while she was and smiled at them several times during her last fit of restlessness. When she enjoyed normal health, she laughed as generously as a child and spoke to others sweetly and with hearty enthusiasm. She spoke without inhibition or shyness even to strangers or highly placed persons, though with humility and due politeness. Nor was humour wanting in her conversation but this never led her to frivolous, worldly or indiscreet conversation. She had the knack, not often seen in others, for talking about spiritual matters sweetly, yet energetically and in an interesting manner. And her talk was totally free from any kind of condescension or unnaturalness that might stem from possible awareness of her own high virtue. Her egalitarian attitude, innocent love and cheerful nature won for her a special respect and loving attention in the company of her fellow sisters or other friends. They felt free to take liberties with her and, according to reports, when others tried to have some fun at her expense by teasing her, her face would expand so as to show that she really enjoyed it. The remarks of her friends elicited from her witty, and logical replies. This is the testimony we get from certain people who visited her while she was in conversation with others.
Alphonsa possessed an uncommonly strong memory. She could reduce from her memory the words of advice the master had given her during her novitiate. She could also reproduce parts of the speeches she had heard during her annual retreats. She would repeat them only if the con text warranted it. Once Alphonsa noticed an inaccurate statement in a speech during the annual retreat and brought it with polite humility to the attention of the priest who had made it. The priest reportedly thanked her for it. Once a priest who visited her before she had recovered her memory completely, asked her, circumstantially, if she could make a speech on St. Francis of Assisi. He asked this question possibly because he had to make a speech on St. Francis in a few days’ time. As she could not read in those days, she asked for sometime to think about the subject and promised to give the speech on a certain days she specified. At the appointed time she made an eloquent and fairly long speech on St.Francis . It was rich in ideas and the sequence of thought was quite orderly. Pleased with her performance the priest gave her a present before he left.
On Christmas day in 1945, standing in front of the crib a group of sisters sang a song which one of the new nuns had composed. Alphonsa happened to hear this song. She immediately committed this to her memory and later that day, while in the company of a nun, she produced the whole song for her from memory.
The writing of a person are in fact a mirror which clearly reflects his or her essential personality. The letters which are given at the end of this book as an appendix constitute most of her writings. These letters are, as it were, a bauquet of flowers which Alphonsa culled from the garden of her life with her own hands. The authorities would have got her to gather more but for her illness. The present writer who was aware of the unusual nature of Alphonsa’s spiritual life, once enquired of Mother Ursula if it was possible to get her to record the story of her own life. It was then that he came to know that efforts Mother Ursula had made earlier to collect her writings had resulted in some of her writing being destroyed. This incident brings out her deep humility as also her conciliatory skill and not inconsiderable power of persuasion. The incident is narrated below in the words of Mother Ursula. “One day in April 1946, I visited her in her room in her and told her that the authorities considered it fitting and proper to write down the story of her spiritual evolution as they were convinced that there was some divine mystery relating to her spiritual life. I said to her that as she was too weak to write it herself, she could dictate it to an amanuensis. Alphonsa refused to oblige and this is what she said to defend her decision: “Please do not do any such thing. There is nothing worth recording in my life.’ I wrote down certain things about me but I want i0t to be destroyed.” So saying she urged me to tear those notes to pieces in her own presence. When she repeated her request, I said I could not be expected to do any such thing. Hearing this she burst into tears. She went on with her plaint. “You will get transferred. Somebody else will come in your place. While they take things from my box for me, they may see the notes and may read them. I don’t want anybody to know about me. I am no more significant than a worm. There is nothing extraordinary in me. Haven’t you seen the tiny particles of dust in the air? I am no more important than that. What is there to be recorded about this mean creature? “Though I heard her words, I could not bring myself to tear the notes to pieces. Seeing my hesitation, she continued: “Mother, don’t you have faith?” Nothing is impossible to God. If there is some good in me and if God wants people to know about me, that will happen automatically and people will come to know about me. Mother you should not bother about that. Mary of Egypt lived in the wilderness, alone and cut off from everybody. Yet God revealed her to the world. Haven’t you read about this? Who ever wrote about her? Then why should you worry? Overwhelmed by her logic, I took her notes in my hand and tore them to pieces in her own presence. She felt satisfied.”
The six letters Alphonsa wrote during the last phase of her life(1943-46) to Fr. Louis, her novitiate director, constitute a valuable treasure, so far as Alphonsa literature is concerned. Despite being brief they present a concise spiritual autobiography as well as the theology of her life. Besides they unveil certain treasured secrets of her life.
As we have seen, ever since she attained the age of discretion she had pursued her overpowering desire to please God and thus rise high in devotion to God. These letters present a record of her spiritual ambition. They reveal the extent to which she had advanced on the path of virtue and what obstacles she overcame and how. The letter she wrote in February 1946 brings out her philosophy of life in the following words: “I have surrendered myself completely to Jesus. Let him l do whatever he pleases with me. To suffer crosses for my love of God and to rejoice in that is my only desire here in this life.” The theme of almost all her letters and conversations was mostly this. This is precisely the reason why, when she found the cup of her suffering was not brimful she prayed to God that it might overflow.
Just four days before her death she wrote to her elder sister about her satisfaction at having realized her spiritual ends. She said: “I have had the good fortune to become a nun in full. Further, I received from Jesus the special boon of being, able to share his passion and suffering. What higher bliss can I aspire than this? So you may rejoice with me.”
Needless to say that only a person who is deeply convinced about the purity of his/her conscience and about his/ her unswerving loyalty to God can assume such an attitude and record it boldly in words as in the above passage. Alphonsa’s spiritual directors were firmly convinced about the purity of her soul, but they did not need to record it themselves. It is certainly an act of providence that God got it set down in another way without having to depend on the spiritual directors. It is unlikely that even saints would record such details as belong to the mystery of the conscience. She wrote a letter to Fr.Louis in May, 1946, in which she reminds herself about the many blessings, including suffering, she has received from God. “The good Lord has helped me so far not to lose the grace I received from him at my baptism. When I consider how much more another person, similarly placed would have loved God, my heart is filled with sadness. I comfort myself with the hope that God will continue to support and guide me as before.”Having stated that she has not lost the baptismal grace, she proceeds to say that she has endeavoured to avoid even venial sins and minor short comings and that she has come by a lot of spiritual riches as a result of this effort. The following is an extract from a letter she wrote in February 1946. “Beloved father, I have been endeavouring not to commit even a slight sin willfully. However, I am aware of many shortcomings which adversely affect my devotion to God.” But it is practically impossible to become completely free such shortcomings which are unintentional.
In an earlier chapter a reference was made to the dark night of the soul feeling Alphonsa experienced and particularly to the mental suffering it brought on to her. In that context Alphonsa was quoted as saying with a reference to the great pain she felt in the lower part of her mind: “the Lord does not seem to be pleased, however much I suffer for his sake.” We have seen that, while trying to account for the Lord’s displeasure she expressed her suspicion that it could be God’s punishment for her sins committed through her words or deeds. What she says after this should engage our attention in a special way: “examined my conscience but did not find any sin that I committed willfully.” This is an example of Alphonsa’s single minded pursuit sanctity.
She kept the purity of her conscience intact by not being guilty of even slight offences. What helped her in this was her deep faith in God. This letter contains besides statements on her hope in God and on her own self-confidence, both of which had accrued to her from her deep faith. In a letter she wrote on 30 Nov. 1943 she says: “Now to speak about another thing. Whatever I might seek from him, my Good God never turned down my prayers. This gives me boundless joy.” In the same letter she seeks advice from her spiritual director about praying to God requesting him to give her some pain other than the present illness so that others will not cone to know the intensity of her suffering. “I feel that the Lord will give me some other illness instead. In fact I do not know what I should do. As we have seen, Alphonsa sought the permission of her spiritual director to pray to God for more crosses so that she might show her love for God by suffering them all. Later she requested him to let her pray to God that he be pleased to take her soul unto him. On both these occasions she was guided by the firm faith that God will not refuse either of her request.
She surrendered herself voluntarily to God so that he may rule over her like an absolute monarch. This she did by subjecting every part of her consciousness—heart, mind, reason, emotions everything—to the will of God in their entirety. This act of surrender, coupled with her Christ-oriented life enabled her to soar high in the love of God. That is why Alphonsa who described herself as the child of suffering, appeared to others as the child of smiles.
Only those who cultivate God’s friendship by keeping a clear conscience are privileged to enjoy genuine happiness, which is an effect of the Holy Spirit.
Courage of conviction and moral fortitude, not to mention a strong mind, usually characterize God oriented people who lead a life of renunciation and selfless service. People in the monastic orders belong to this group Alphonsa possessed the extra ordinary ability to combine these qualities in her and she reinforced them with the quality of humility. It was these qualities that enabled her to establisher right to enter a religious life by undergoing the ordeal of fire and also to repulse the advances of two men who approached her with amorous intent. If she heard anyone speaking against discipline, obedience, or charity, be it her friends, be it her benefactors, she would discourage their criticism calmly or firmly, if needs be, without fear or favour. She did so even when she knew that their conversation was prompted by their sympathy for her. She did not hesitate to react when the authorities themselves were at fault. She would point out their mistakes to them secretly and discreetly and with great humility. It may be remembered in this context that she presented her arguments with courage even before her bishop who failed at first in understanding her reason for joining the Clarist congregation. For a long time she was troubled by diseases of all kinds, which came one after another without break. The courage she showed in enduring her woes and her submission to the will of God are truly heroic, if anything.
In a letter she wrote in Feb. 1946, she unravels her secret of being able to remain at once the child of suffering and the child of joy. “In the eyes of the others I am always happy and cheerful. So they think that my mind is free from unhappiness of every kind and that I do not experience any form of mental suffering. They attribute this to the love and attention I get from the authorities and other sisters. They think so about me because I have sacrificed myself completely so much so that others are not able to detect my likes or dislikes. Sometimes I feel like complaining. But so far I have not let myself do that.”
Given below are a few incidents which throw light on the distinctive features of her personality.
Whenever her health improved, Alphonsa went to the chapel to attend the mass and to receive the holy communion. The way she returned to her seat after receiving holy communion was compellingly attractive and very edifying too. Her face then seemed to radiate a heavenly light, a kind of divine glory. The children of the boarding house would remark that after receiving the holy communion she returned to her seat smiling to herself. If took her considerable effort to keel down to receive the holy communion. After receiving communion, she walked back to her seat often with floundering steps. It seemed that she would fall down if she walked unaided and so some sisters asked her why she did not get somebody to support her while she walked. In answer to this question Alphonsa said: “I dislike being touched by anyone at that time. I cannot bear that. If anyone touched me, that would bring distracting thoughts into my mind and this might make me weep. That is why I do not allow anyone to help me back to my seat.” During those intervals when her health improved, she took part in the community prayer with concentraction and careful attention. She sat with downcast eyes and her posture was such that others saw in her what an ideal nun should look like while praying. Some of her fellow sisters say that while at prayer, she seemed to belong to another world. A teacher once said that she had gone to the convent chapel several times with the sole purpose of watching Alphonsa at prayer.
Alphonsa, like her role model, St.Therese, never outgrew her spiritual childhood. She possessed besides moral innocence and real sincerity. Whenever she got anything beautiful like a flower or a fruit, the child in her would take over and she could be seen smiling at it and examining it from all angels. If she got any present from the authorities, she would show it to everybody else and tell them who gave it to her, very much like a child. Her friends used to tease her about her child-like candour. It grieved her to hear others tell lies, though only for diversion. She was so credulous that she would believe anything that she was told. One day, with the election of the superior only a few seeks away, the sisters along with some of the office bearers pulled her leg by saying that there was a serious proposal to elect Alphonsa the Mother superior. She took it quite seriously and immediately started to present her arguments against this proposal. She was not well, she did not have the strength to observe the community routine, how could people incapacitated by illnesses run a convent—-so went her arguments. When a sister told her that it was only a joke, she said that since the authorities themselves were involved, it could not but be true. One day a priest said to her jokingly that she ate a lot of food at night secretly and that her talk about fasting was mere pretense. Alphonsa was too simple a soul to take it as a joke. She took the accusation seriously and spoke to the sisters as feelingly as if the priest had levelled a serious allegation against her.
As Alphonsa was bed-ridden she had to be administered the holy communion in bed. It was the same priest who brought the holy communion to Alphonsa’s room every day. One day he suggested that he was not disposed to go to her room and said in a light hearted manner. “Someone is feigning illness; she wants the holy host to be brought to her. I am tired of taking it to her. Hereafter, if she wants to receive holy communion, she must come to the chapel.”Thinking that the priest really meant what he said, Alphonsa started to cry. The priest visited her in her room and assured her that he ha said that by way of a joke and expressed his regret for the indiscreet joke. Alphonsa later told her friends about this: “That priest made it up with me. He apologized to me. I felt pity for him.”
One of those days when she suffered from loss of memory following her encounter with the thief, someone in the convent said to her pettingly: “Alphonsa is a smart person” Thereafter very much like a child, she kept on repeating : “I am smart.”The sisters reminded her that only fools other than children would claim they were smart. But Alphonsa was far from convinced. In confirmation of her claim she said naively: “I enjoy a share of my Lord’s cross. I am on the cross with him. How many others can claim this privilege”? Now, do you understand why I say that I am smart?”
This child-like strain in her character which comes to the surface occasionally, is not, however, a major trait in her personality.
She was capable of seriousness in words and deeds, she possessed a strong will, she had determination and she showed greatness when an occasion demanded it. We have demonstrated all this with illustrative examples earlier. Moreover, with tact and with her own exemplary conduct she exerted corrective influence on others, helping people to get over their moral malaise and setting them on the path of righteousness.
Alphonsa loved to find herself in the company of the new nuns and to converse with them. And the young sisters never missed a chance of meeting Alphonsa. Whenever they got permission to speak to the senior nuns, they flocked round her and listened to her sweet words. Even when she was fighting with pain, she spoke to them about devotion to God, the need for sacrifice, the importance of obedience etc. She spoke in a humorous style and now and then cracked jokes. The following is the testimony of a new nun. “One day I met Sr.Alphonsa . I was aware that I had slackened a little in religious matters. In the course of the conversation she said to me .”You have grown lukewarm so far as religious matters are concerned. You must get closer to Jesus of the holy Eucharist. You must pray to him as to a father.” There are the words of another new sister. “It was a time when I was worried having lost the peace of my mind. One day I was able to meet Alphonsa and to talk to her. I did not need to tell her about my worries; she guessed them a right and promised to pray for me. She told me that I must be prepared to bear my crosses with patience. After my meeting with her I felt much better; happiness and contentment came back to my mind.”
On another occasion a sister from another convent came to see Alphonsa along with a junior sister. Those were the Christmas Holidays. Among other things Alphonsa spoke to them about the Christmas gifts she had received. She showed them one of them; it was across, carved in wood. To quote the visiting sister: “Alphonsa expressed her desire to give that cross to us as her present. She did so not because we asked for it or even remotely suggested we would like to get it. Giving away her own things as gifts to others was in her nature. I dissuaded her from it saying that as it was a Christmas gift; she should keep it with her.
Alphonsa then offered the cross to the junior sister. She said she was giving it to the junior sister as of the two she was younger. So saying she gave that cross to the junior sister. But then she realized that she had not obtained permission from the Mother to give away that cross as a gift. After giving this reason Alphonsa took the cross back from the junior sister. The junior sister then told Alphonsa that she did not need that gift; she said she had another cross with her. Alphonsa had got it as a gift and she might keep it with her. At this point the Mother Superior joined us. She laughed to hear our conversation. The Mother then asked Alphonsa whether she was showing her gifts to the visiting sisters. Alphonsa replied that she was showing her gifts to the visitors. She asked for permission to present the cross to the junior sisters. The Mother told her that she had her permission to do so. Alphonsa then handed over the cross to the sister. Alphonsa then asked me if I was sorry for not having received it myself . I said I was not at all sorry and that the junior sister could keep it as she was younger than I. Alphonsa now told the sister by way of advice that crosses are to be brome. Sisters had got to carry their crosses. We had to get used to suffering by carrying small crosses at first. That way we would learn how to bear great crosses. Alphonsa appeared to have diagnosed that sister’s spiritual state at the first sight, for she asked the sister whether it was not true that she found suffering difficult to bear. She said she should not be a “touch me not” in spiritual life. Aversion to suffering is unbecoming of sisters. Without accepting suffering we could not live in the world, let alone in the convent.
Whatever Alphonsa said about that sister was true thought she had not met that sister previously. After saying a few more things about suffering Alphonsa concluded: “Let us pray to Infant Jesus. Jesus will give us the strength we need”. I have often felt that what Alphonsa told that sister about suffering did her a lot of good”.
Alphonsa’s moral superiority coupled with the sweetness of her character and personal charisma made her a counselor for everybody who had a problem, physical or mental. They sought relief by listening to her advice. The sisters who listened to her advice found in her an empathetic mentor who understood their problems and behaved towards them with great sympathy and consideration. They returned from her better prepared to cope with their problems. One sister writes: “One day there was a thunder storm at 8 o’clock at night. Alphonsa was alone in her room and was in an exhausted condition, having had an attack of restlessness earlier that day. Fearing that Alphonsa would get scared because of her exhaustion, I rushed to her room. I scarcely noticed how fast time went by while I sat there listening to the sweet words of that angel.”
Another sister writes “The students in the boarding house were celebrating the feast of St.Alphonsa. On the eve of the feast they conducted entertainment programmes which consisted of music, play acting etc. Alphonsa was not well and so I sat in a room which was close to both the school and Alphonsa’s room, so that I could be near enough to Alphonsa and yet listen to the music. I conversed with Alphonsa and I did not notice the passing of time. I did not hear the music at all.”
Fr. Muttathupadam (Sr), Alphonsa’s grand uncle always showed very great affection for his niece. A few days after he had celebrated golden anniversary of his priestly ordination, he sent her the golden garland which he had received from the people on that occasion. Later, when he visited her, he made her wear it round her neck. On another occasion, seeing a towel in her room, he took it in his hands and asked her if it belonged to her. Alphonsa told her uncle that the towel was used to clean up when she vomited and that he should not touch it with his hand. Fr. Muttathupadam did not seem to care for her words but proceeded to take it with him as a keepsake.
Like her master, Alphonsa loved children and found happiness in their presence. She would pet and play with the children the visitors brought with them. She talked to them lovingly and even gave them small presents. She was a close friend of several children at the convent school. During the season of examination children flocked to her hoping that her prayers would ensure them a pass in the examination. They would tell their parents or even teachers. “Exams? No problem. She will get us through them, even if we fail to study.” The sisters helped the children with their prayers but who should pray for a particular student was decided by lot. While drawing the lot it was the prayer of every student that he or she should get Alphonsa as their helper.
Now after her death; Alphonsa has become the common treasure of all. She is no longer a Clarist. She does not belong to any particular congregation so much as to the whole nation. If the church in Kerala, which has a tradition of 2000 years, is like a tree, Alphonsa is a sacred flower on it—-the finest that has ever appeared on it. Love, sacrifice and suffering fashioned around her head the nimbus of sainthood. The saying that the kingdom of heaven yields to force is particularly true of Alphonsa. Alphonsa carried her cross and followed her Lord and in the forced her way, as it were, into the kingdom of God. No, cross, no crown. The crown she won had to be paid for in crosses; it was “the far off interest of tears,”so to speak.