“O happy penance, which has won me such glory!” said the Saint of today at the threshold of heaven. And on earth, Teresa of Jesus wrote of him “Oh! what a perfect imitator of Jesus Christ God has just taken from us, by calling to his glory that blessed religious Brother Peter of Alcantara! The world, they say, is no longer capable of such high perfection; constitutions are weaker, and we are not now in the olden times. Here is a Saint of the present day; yet his manly fervor equaled that of past ages; and he had a supreme disdain for everything earthly. But without going barefoot like him, or doing such sharp penance, there are very many ways in which we can practice contempt of the world, and which our Lord will teach us as soon as we have courage. What great courage must the holy man I speak of have received from God, to keep up for forty-seven years the rigorous penance that all now know!
“Of all his mortifications, that which cost him most at the beginning was the overcoming of sleep; to effect this, he would remain continually on his knees, or else standing. The little repose he granted to nature, he took sitting, with his head leaning against a piece of wood fixed to the wall; indeed, had he wished to lie down, he could not have done so, for his cell was only four feet and a half in length. During the course of all these years, he never put his hood up, however burning the sun might be, or however heavy the rain. He never used shoes or stockings. He wore no other clothing than a single garment of rough, coarse cloth; I found out, however, that for twenty years he wore a hair-shirt made on plates of tin, which he never took off. His Habit was as narrow as it could possibly be; and over it he put a short cloak of the same material; this he took off when it was very cold, and left the door and small window of his cell open for a while; then he shut them and put his cape on again, which he said was his manner of warming himself and giving his body a little better temperature. He usually ate but one in three days; and when I showed some surprise at this, he said it was quite easy when one was accustomed to it. His poverty was extreme; and such was his mortification, that, as he acknowledged to me, he had, when young, spent three years in a house of his Order without knowing any one of his Religious except by the sound of his voice; for he had never lifted up his eyes; so that, when called by the rule to any part of the house, he could find his way only by following the other Brethren. He observed the same custody of the eyes when on the roads. When I made his acquaintance, his body was so emaciated that it seemed to be formed of the roots of the trees.” (St. Teresa. Life, xxvii, xxx)
To this portrait of the Franciscan reformer drawn by the reformer of Carmel, the Church will add the history of his life. Three illustrious and worthy families form the first Order of St. Francis, known as the Conventuals, the Observantines, and the Capuchins. A pious emulation for more and more strict reform, brought about in the Observance itself, a subdivision into the Observantines proper, the Reformed, the Discalced or Alcantarines, and the Recollects. This division, which was horizontal rather than constitutional, no longer exists; for on the feast of the Patriarch of Assisi, October 4th 1897, the Sovereign Pontiff Leo XIII thought fit to reunite the great family of the Observance, which is henceforth known as the Order of Friars Minor. (Constit. apost. Felicitate quadam)
Peter was born of noble parents at Alcantara in Spain, and from his earliest years gave promise of his future sanctity. At the age of sixteen, he entered the Order of Friars Minor, in which he became an example of every virtue. He undertook by obedience the office of preaching, and led numberless sinners to sincere repentance. Desirous of bringing back the Franciscan Order to its original strictness, he founded, by God’s assistance and with the approbation of the Apostolic See, a very poor little convent at Pedroso. The austere manner of life, which he was there the first to lead, was afterwards spread in a wonderful manner throughout Spain and even into the Indies. He assisted St. Teresa, whose spirit he approved, in carrying out the reform of Carmel. And she, having learned from God that whoever asked anything in Peter’s name would be immediately heard, was wont to recommend herself to his prayers, and to call him a saint, while he was still living.
Peter was consulted as an oracle by princes; but he avoided their honors with great humility, and refused to become confessor to the Emperor Charles V. He was a most rigid observer of poverty, having but one tunic, and that the meanest possible. Such was his delicacy with regard to purity, that he would not allow the brother, who waited on him in his last illness, even lightly to touch him. By perpetual watching, fasting, disciplines, cold, and nakedness, and every kind of austerity, he brought his body into subjection; having made a compact with it, never to give it any rest in this world. The love of God and of his neighbor was shed abroad in his heart, and at times burned so ardently that he was obliged to escape from his narrow cell into the open, that the cold air might temper the heat that consumed him.
Admirable was his gift of contemplation. Sometimes, while his spirit was nourished in this heavenly manner, he would pass several days without food or drink. He was often raised in the air, and seen shining with wonderful brilliancy. He passed dry-shod over the most rapid rivers. When his brethren were absolutely destitute, he obtained for them food from heaven. He fixed his staff in the earth, and it suddenly became a flourishing fig tree. One night when he was journeying in a heavy snow-storm, he entered a ruined house; but the snow, lest he should be suffocated by the dense flakes, hung in the air and formed a roof above him. He was endowed with the gifts of prophecy and discernment of spirits, as St. Teresa testifies. At length, in his sixty-third year, he passed to our Lord at the hour he had foretold, fortified by a wonderful vision and the presence of the Saints. St. Teresa, who was at a great distance saw him at that same moment carried to heaven. He afterwards appeared to her, saying: Oh! happy penance, which has won me such great glory! He was rendered famous after death by many miracles, and was enrolled among the Saints by Clement IX.
“Such then is the end of that austere life, an eternity of glory!” (St. Teresa. Life, xxvii) And how sweet were thy last words: I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord. (Psalms 121:1) The time of reward had not yet come for the body, with which thou hadst made an agreement to give it no truce in this life, but to reserve its enjoyment for the next. But already the soul, on quitting it, had filled it with the light and the fragrance of the other world; signifying to all that the first part of the contract having been faithfully adhered to, the second should be carried out in like manner. Whereas, given over for its false delights to horrible torments, the flesh of the sinner will forever cry vengeance against the soul that caused the loss; thy members, entering into the beatitude of thy happy soul, and completing its glory by their own splendor, will eternally declare how thy apparent harshness for a time was in reality wisdom and love.
Is it necessary, indeed to wait for the resurrection, in order to discover that the part thou didst choose is incontestably the best? Who would dare to compare, not only unlawful pleasures, but even the permitted enjoyments of earth, with the holy delights of contemplation prepared, even in this world, for those who can relish them? If they are to be purchased by mortification of the flesh, it is because the flesh and the spirit are ever striving for the mastery; but a generous soul loves the struggle, for the flesh is honored by it, and through it escapes a thousand dangers.
O thou who, according to our Lord’s promise, art never invoked in vain, if thou deign thyself to present our prayers to him; obtain for us that relish for heavenly things, which causes an aversion for those of earth. It is the petition made by the whole Church in the Collect of the day, through thy merits, to the God who bestowed on thee the gift of such wonderful penance and sublime contemplation. (Collect of the Feast) The great family of Friars Minor cherishes the treasure of thy teaching and example; for the honor of thy holy father Francis and the good of the Church, maintain in it the love of its austere traditions. Withdraw not thy precious protection from the Carmel of Teresa of Jesus; nay, extend it to the whole Religious State, especially in these days of trial. Mayest thou at length lead back thy native Spain to the glorious heights, whence formerly she seemed to pour down floods of sanctity upon the world; it is the condition of nations ennobled by a more sublime vocation that they cannot decline without the danger of falling below the level of those less favored by the Most High.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)