Bait and Switch: Of Points, Parenting, and a Beggar-Saint Son

St. John of the Cross said it best: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love”.

Saint Alexius, from the Church of Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens in Pomport, Dordogne, France.
Saint Alexius, from the Church of Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens in Pomport, Dordogne, France. (photo: Photo credit: Père Igor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Calvin: I cleaned my room, Mom. And I even did it without you telling me to.
Mom: Well, that was very thoughtful.
Calvin: Of course, this isn’t going to be a habit or anything!
 —Bill Watterson

We joke a lot about “points” in my family—that you get points for good deeds and lose points for screw-ups. The Church’s detractors already accuse us Catholics of precisely this kind of moral calculus, so intentionally incorporating it in a jovial way helps diffuse the critique and underscore the truth for my kids.

An ideal scenario in this satirical economy is getting free points—that is, offering to perform a service or favor that subsequently becomes no longer required. For example: Offering to do the dishes on a night when everybody ends up going out to eat. A similar example familiar to healthcare workers is when you answer a call light and the patient says, “Oh, I bumped the button by accident”—yes! All the points for doing the right thing with none of the work!

According to St. Matthew, Jesus himself set up a slightly different beneficial points scenario. It’s the parable of the father who asks his two sons to go work in the family vineyard—reasonable enough, right? And one of the two sons readily agrees…but in the end goes off to do his own thing: zero points. In contrast, the other son initially rebels, yet later repents and does indeed head out for a day’s work: full pointsmaybe even double points if you factor in dad’s lowered expectations.

Ludicrous, I know, for this is clearly not what the Lord had in mind. There’s no credit, no points for doing what we’re supposed to do anyway. On the outside chance there’d be any confusion, however, Jesus drives home the message in a different set-up recorded by St. Luke.

Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and sit down at table?” …. Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

Apparently this was also the philosophy of real estate magnate Jona Goldrich whose rags-to-riches story was recounted in a WSJ obituary recently. “He didn’t hand out much praise to employees,” it read. “His attitude was ‘I never tell you when you do a good job because that’s what I hired you for.’”

All these images help me come to terms with the confounding legend of St. Alexius, the 5th-century “Man of God” from Edessa in Asia Minor—his feast was just this past Sunday (July 17). I say “legend” because historical details in Alexius’s case are uncommonly clouded by time and apocryphal accretions. “Perhaps the only basis for the story is the fact that a certain pious ascetic at Edessa lived the life of a beggar and was later venerated as a saint,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Even so, St. Alexius was the medieval namesake of a nursing order that gave rise to the contemporary Alexian Brothers healthcare system, and so his legend’s longstanding edifying influence makes it worth revisiting today. ht

Born into the Roman upper class and raised in a devoutly Christian home, Alexius is said to have early on embraced the holy path of renunciation. “From the charitable example of his pious parents he learned, from his tender years,” Fr. Butler writes, “that the riches which are given away to the poor, remain with us forever.” Thus, Alexius’s great desire was to abandon himself to a life of poverty in pursuit of holiness, but his father, Euphemian, a Roman senator, had other plans. Out of genuine paternal solicitude, Euphemian and his wife, Algas, arranged an advantageous marriage for their son, to which Alexius submitted in filial obedience. Nevertheless, before the marriage was consummated (and presumably with his bride’s consent), Alexius fled Rome to Edessa in order to take up a life of extreme asceticism.

There, he encamped outside a Marian shrine, begged alms, and helped care for the sick in a nearby hospice—hence his association with healthcare and his identification as a patron saint of nurses. “Of his earlier condition and greatness he said not a word,” goes a medieval Syriac text, “nor did he even wish to reveal his name.” For seventeen years Alexius lived this anonymous life of devout destitution, until a sacristan at the shrine received a tip from the Blessed Mother and the pious cover of the Senator’s son was blown.

To avoid the ensuing fame and veneration—and to hold on to his singular vocation—Alexius once again hit the road. Through a series of providential events, he wound up again in Rome—at his childhood residence, of all places, and in the care of his parents who’d long ago given up tracking him down. Euphemian and Algas no longer recognized their bedraggled and penniless son, but their native charity compelled them to offer the stranger generous hospitality. Alexius insisted on inhabiting a cubby underneath his parents’ staircase, and there he lived another seventeen years in prayerful obscurity, begging his keep, teaching children about God, and silently enduring abuse from the household servants.

On the day Alexius died, the church bells of Rome rung out on their own, and a supernatural voice urged Pope Innocent I along with the Emperor to seek out the hidden saint’s abode. When they arrived, they found Euphemian and Algas attending their dead son’s body and pondering over a document they discovered that revealed his true identity.

What can we moderns do with a story like this—aside from actually following in the saint’s footsteps? As Butler notes with reference to Alexius, “The extraordinary paths in which the Holy Ghost is pleased sometimes to conduct certain privileged souls are rather to be admired than imitated.” Right—total impoverishment and 34 years of oblivion need not be at the top of our getting-to-heaven blueprint. (Phew!)

Nonetheless, the Alexius saga does offer us insights, and, speaking as a dad, I’m first drawn to the example of his parents. Remember Euphemian and Algas? Consider the anguish they must’ve suffered once they discovered that their son had effectively duped them at the altar—at least as far as their good intentions were concerned. It’s as if they’d done their job as Christian parents too well—their son had evidently decided to take the Gospel truths they’d inculcated way too seriously. Sure, Alexius had gone through with the arranged marriage ceremony, but he immediately abandoned his new vocation for a peculiarly radical eremitical existence—as if Alexius were both brothers from aforementioned Lucan parable, acquiescing and refusing, following through and reneging, all at the same time.

As my friend Tim always used to say, “When you have kids, all plans are tentative.”

Still, despite their undoubted disappointment and grief, Euphemian and Algas carried on and continued to live out their faith—and in a roundabout, hidden way, they got back their son as a result. Their solicitude and affection for Alexius, even in his latter-day beggar’s disguise, and his ongoing deference towards them, illustrates the kind of communal “educational exchange” that Pope St. John Paul II described in Familiaris Consortio:

By means of love, respect and obedience towards their parents, children offer their specific and irreplaceable contribution to the construction of an authentically human and Christian family. They will be aided in this if parents exercise their unrenounceable authority as a true and proper "ministry," that is, as a service to the human and Christian well-being of their children, and in particular as a service aimed at helping them acquire a truly responsible freedom… (#21).

We parents do well to remember in this regard that our aim is solely faithfulness to our task—to loving and providing for our children, raising them in the Faith, and facilitating a robust domestic Christian culture. Since a “truly responsible freedom” is a part of that upbringing and culture, we cannot hold ourselves ultimately responsible for keeping our children in the faith, nor ensuring their temporal success—nor even shielding them from ascetical excesses à la St. Alexius, regardless of how many points are at stake.

And that leads to a second lesson from the Alexius cycle: the uselessness of our paltry human efforts—the pointlessness of points, as it were. Bottom line? We can never do enough, and that’s OK! “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man,” the Catechism plainly teaches us. “Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (#2007). The Alexius of lore, who at least could’ve rightfully claimed the privileges associated with his family ties, instead embraced a life of severe deprivation and extravagant piety in absolute concealment.

Why? Not for points, not to earn salvation, but out of a rare plenitude of gratitude and love. “In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works,” is how St. Thérèse of Lisieux expressed the same notion. “I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself” (CCC 2011).

Even simpler is St. John of the Cross: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (CCC 1022), and nobody will be comparing scores.