As the Story Is Told

Why is this story of St Rose told in 1968 and reprinted in 1982? Mary Alphonsus suggests throughout the story that Rose's austerities and self-mortification are not a way to recommend for imitation. She recognizes them as practices of another time. Rose's self-discipline is partly explained, for instance, by her identification with Catherine of Siena and the penitential orientation of monastic practices. More importantly, Mary Alphonsus indicates that Rose is uniquely impelled by love. Rose's self-imposed trials are not practices that are recommended to Rose and certainly would not be recommended to anyone else. Rose's mortifications come from within, and influences from without, such as her mother, family, and church, serve in the biography to provide necessary limits upon her zealous behavior. Rose cannot help herself, and the story would fall apart if she were not held within the care of others. Rose cannot bear her own desires alone. Mary Alphonsus's narrative would be undermined if her agonizing love could be repeated. Rose's love stands out and disrupts the world. This is why the story is told.

Mary Alphonsus, in her preface, gives a sanguine beginning to what seems to be a morbid tale. She calls Rose's life "a spotless mirror in which we see ourselves" and "our boast, our crown, our defense, and a challenge to love completely" (Alphonsus 1982: ix). It is entirely consistent with this description and with the narrative, it seems to me, to censure its sexism and its cruelty (consider Maitland 1987). The story's violence ought not be accepted. We ought to be appalled. Rose's agony must hang before us as absurd; there is no neat means to categorize and contain it. Her pain and love are inexplicable and intractable inasmuch as they are God's own. She "keeps company with Christ." Mary Alphonsus entertains the question of sadism, but she resists putting the brutality off on Rose or God. For the narrative to work as a "spotless mirror," its violence cannot be blamed on the wrath of God or a theory of Rose's masochistic desires. Mary Alphonsus even avoids making Rose a victim, either to medieval piety or an oppressive culture. Rose willingly takes on suffering, but she takes no pleasure in it. She simply suffers in love, and in her suffering we see a mirror image of ourselves. In her passion, we see our apathy. We see the pain of the world that we would prefer to repress and evade. We see a dangerous, undomesticated love of God.

Rose's body, full of pain and passion, becomes representative of God's love for the world. The contrast between Rose and Kapur's Elizabeth is notable. Just before the film's final scenes, Walsingham advises Elizabeth to take on celestial virginity as a necessity of her rule. Princess Elizabeth indulges in the innocence of natural pleasures, but the body of the Virgin Queen must carry power through its distance and indifference to mere human desires. As she transcends to be the Virgin Queen, she elevates herself beyond mere woman or mere person. She is the divine Queen, and her power is secured by leaving behind the burdens of love. She must appear impassible. In contrast, the burdens of love destroy the pitiful Dudley who cannot carry on without Elizabeth. His weakness is mirrored in the Queen's strength. Desire in Elizabeth is both innocence and destruction, and the Queen moves beyond.

Rose's virginity is all too human. Her struggles with sexual desire bind her more deeply to the burdens of love. Mary Alphonsus calls St Rose our "crown" and "boast" because she shares the divine embodiment. This disturbing story of God's passion is our challenge to love.


1 Wyschogrod explains that "whether unconsciously or artfully inserted into the text, the political, economic, and social conditions of the time of writing are exhibited in hagiography. . . . Contemporary social existence therefore serves both as a system of placeholders and reference points against which changes in saintly consciousness and behavior are marked off, and as a catalyst of these transformations. 'In-text-ured,' as it were, in social catenae, the saint's life becomes transparent as a life when memory and expectation, desire and hope interact in wider contexts" (1990: 28).

2 Most accounts of Rose's life derive from Leonhard Hansen, OP, Vita mirabilis, mors pretiosa, Venerabilis Sororis Rosae de S. Maria Limensis, ex Tertio ordine S. P. Dominici (1664). For an extended rendering in English see Alban Butler (1903).

3 Bynum (1987) argues that medieval mystics like Catherine of Siena identify Christ's flesh with their female body and undergo their sufferings as the redemptive sufferings of Christ.

4 The phrase is used by Bynum in reference to Catherine of Siena (Bynum 1987: 178).

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