The Syro Malabar Catholic Church Community, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is named after St Alphonsa, a Franciscan Clarist nun celebrated as the first indigenous Indian saint who lived in Bharananganam, Kerala, India. Born on 19 August, 1910, in a traditional Catholic family of Syro Malabar Church, which prides itself as descendents of those evangelized by St Thomas the Apostle, she lived only for 36 years. After battling hard against various illnesses, she died on 28 July, 1946. Bharananganam, her burial place, is now called the 'Lisieux' of India. After 62 years of her death, she was declared a saint by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on 12 October, 2008.
St Alphonsa was afflicted by various illnesses from her infancy which grew chronic and more intensive from her time of novitiate - large ulcer and hemorrhages on her leg, long spells of fever, tuberculosis, Pneumonia etc. However, sickness only brought her closer to God. She is reported to have remarked, "To suffer out of love and to rejoice in it is all that I desire on earth."
Alphonsa is a saint who made suffering salvific. She turned to God in sickness as the compass-needle turns to the North Pole. The life of Alphonsa is a proof that sickness is not a sign of God's displeasure. God loved Lazarus, still he was sick. Disease and death come to all people. We can't avert them. There is no land, no race, no group, and no climate which is immune from illness. Nothing reminds men and women of their weakness as sickness. No medical science - Allopathy, Homeopathy or Ayurveda - can ward off disease from the earth entirely. The testimony of the Psalm is correct, "Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong, and most of them are fruitless toil, for they pass quickly and we drift away" (Ps. 90: 10). Its truth seems universal and eternal.
Alphonsa never looked at sickness as an unmixed evil. Disease dispels the delusion that this earth and this life are eternal. The sick-bed teaches us of our frailty and final death. Afflictions are sometimes beneficial. King David said, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I learn your statutes" (Ps. 119:71). Benhadad, the king of Aram, thought of Elisha when he was sick (2Kings 8:8). In danger of death many send SOS to God. "Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god" (Jonah 1:5). Disease is a good eye-opener. It hammers home the fact that we are "vessels of clay (2Cor. 4:7) and that we are creatures "crushed more readily than a moth" (Job 4:19). Sick-days are the time of God's visitation. By patiently suffering her pain, Alphonsa glorified the Lord. Patience, Calmness, joy and pleasantness never shone so brightly anywhere as in the sick-room of Alphonsa. In her silent suffering many heard an eloquent sermon, which they never forgot. She beautified the religion she professed by her silent suffering.
Well, sickness is never away from us. Eventually all of us must sicken, bend like sickle and die! St Alphonsa taught us that we can honor God as much by patient suffering as we can by active work. Alphonsa teaches that suffering can fetch for us a crown of glory that won't fade away (1Pt. 5:4).
Time is short. We may have to bear a few more sickness and it will all be over forever! We may have to see a few more death-scenes and then comes our own death. St Alphonsa, pray for us!
Fr Thomas Thychery
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