The Hidden Life Of St. Rosalia
Published: September 4, 2008
I have a rather dangerous hermit streak. I often get so annoyed with people that I long to escape to some huge farm in the country, where the only residents would be squirrels and birds.
But this is a selfish reason for living apart from people.
The holy hermit leaves the world not out of selfishness but sacrifice. He gives up the world’s pleasures because he seeks to discover the pearl of great price.
Which is a relationship with Jesus Christ.
There was a holy woman in Sicily, long ago, who lived a quiet, hidden life. Legend says she was born in 1130 into a wealthy family in Palermo.
When she reached her teen years, several rich men wanted to marry this beautiful girl, but the Blessed Virgin appeared to her, alerting her that her soul was in danger. And at the tender age of 14, the girl left her father’s castle at night.
She found two angels outside, waiting to escort her to the summit of a nearby mountain. Later, she moved to a cave atop Mount Pellegrino, devoting her life to God.
Her name is Rosalia, and she was probably a great mystery in the eyes of the world. After all, she could have married one of those rich men. She could have savored parties, dinners and dances.
Instead, she lived as a hermitess and died alone.
Little is known of her life, except for the lines she wrote upon the cave wall: “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.”
We can imagine hours of prayer, days of fasting—and times when she longed for the sound of a human voice.
But then the vow must have come back to her. She had promised to give up many pleasures for the best of reasons: love for Jesus Christ.
Thomas Merton, the 20th-century Catholic writer, lived in a hermitage for the last few years of his life. In “Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton,” there is a compelling quote about what drew him to live in seclusion at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky:
“I can imagine no other joy than to have such a place to be at peace in, to love silence, to think and write, to listen to the wind and all the voices of the wood … to live in the shadow of the big cedar cross, to prepare for my death and my exodus to the heavenly country, to love my brothers and all people, and to pray for the whole world …”
St. Rosalia also must have enjoyed the sounds of the wind and the voices of the wood. And she surely found great joy in prayer.
Her life on earth ended in 1160, and that would have been the end of her tale. But the Lord had more in store for her.
In 1624, a plague swept through Palermo, and a hermit had a vision of a woman who instructed him to search for her remains. A group of monks, led by the hermit, did as the woman requested and found the cave on Mount Pellegrino where she had died.
The plague ended shortly after, and Rosalia was credited with ending this suffering. She became the patron saint of Palermo, and her feast day is celebrated Sept. 4.
I will never be a holy hermit, but still I feel drawn to this simple woman. Her life reminds me that a hidden life can bear great fruit.
Today, there are many contemplative priests, brothers and sisters who live apart from the world. Although they are not hermits, they exist largely in silence, like Rosalia, giving their hearts entirely to Christ.
And they remind us all that prayer can change the world.
Every year there is an elaborate celebration in Sicily to celebrate the discovery of St. Rosalia’s relics. I find it ironic that there is much boisterous fanfare to honor a woman who lived so quietly. The festival, you see, features dancing in the streets, processions, feasting—and a night sky ablaze with fireworks.
I picture Rosalia atop a celestial mountain, gazing with amusement at the festivities in her honor. Then I see her returning to her great joy in heaven, which she also treasured on earth: loving her Lord, Jesus Christ, and praying for the whole world.
Lorraine Murray’s latest book is “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” (Ignatius Press). Artwork is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Readers may contact them by e-mailing email@example.com.