Many canonised Saints are spiritual entrepreneurs: they head missions, are abbesses of large monasteries, found religious orders, advise kings. They are nobly born, intelligent and good at management. They know things and do things. They go places.
But among the saints are also a few simple people of limited education, who live simply, grapple bravely with their personal limitations and who show transparent faith. They stay in one place. They were the majority among the people to whom Jesus appealed.
On closer knowing, of course, they turn out to be not quite as simple as they first appear.
St Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit brother of the late sixteenth century was the archetypal simple man who stayed faithfully in a humble place. He joined the Jesuits as a lay brother in his late thirties – he had previously tried unsuccessfully to study.
After six months he was sent to the newly founded Jesuit College in Mallorca and stayed there as porter till his death at the age of 84.
Although Alphonsus is described with reason as a simple man, that phrase only begins to describe him. He received little education because his father died when he was 14. He had to leave school in order to help his mother run the family business.
He married at 23 and had two children before his wife died three years later in childbirth. He was then left to raise his remaining child and carry on the business. The business failed, and his child died by the time he was in his early thirties. He then lived an extremely penitential life before seeking to become a Jesuit.
If this is the story of a simple man, it is not that of a person with limited life experience. It is more like the story of Job, the good man whom God tested with misfortune. Alphonsus had constantly to adjust to limited possibilities, showed considerable resourcefulness and resilience in doing so, only to see those possibilities further diminished. He had rich experience of pain, of failing hopes and of the resultant mental and spiritual anguish.
At the College, an important institution in Mallorca from its beginning, he was the porter, the man whose one responsibility was to answer the doorbell. A humble role for a person of limited ability, we might think.
But a little more imagination suggests that Alphonsus was not given this task because of its lack of importance but precisely because it was so central. Institutions of the time usually fronted directly on to the street, with only one door to which grandees, beggars, parents, tradespeople and casual visitors all came. The porter was the switchboard and the filter for all who came to the door. He needed to be firm, warm and shrewd.
As a man of great spiritual depth and simplicity Alphonsus evidently had an enormous influence on those who came to the College and so on the whole town. People came to him for advice, to ask prayers for their families and for encouragement. He was not peripheral but central to the preaching of the Gospel through the College. In this his limitations were his strengths.
The Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, also a man familiar with mental anguish, caught the paradox of a saint who seemed to do nothing decisive, nothing of value but through whom decisive value radiated:
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.