Life & Soul

First impressions can be misleading. Just ask St Alexius

On the heights of Rome’s Aventine Hill, between the basilica churches of Sant’Anselmo and Santa Sabina and near to the gated grounds of the Knights of Malta, is the basilica called Sant’Alessio, whose feast is commemorated in the traditional Roman calendar on July 17.

Once upon a time, in the late 4th or early 5th centuries, a wealthy man with a great house on the prestigious Aventine had a son who travelled to the Greek east to live a pious and ascetic life. After many years the son, Alexius, returned to Rome and his father’s house. They didn’t recognise him. He determined to live incognito as a servant and beggar under a staircase of his own family home. After he died, they discovered who he really was.

The poor pious Alexius was renowned for his sanctity. Soon the family house was converted to a church in his honour and it became the basis for the existing basilica. In the crypt there are relics of St Thomas Becket. In the church’s nave is a medieval Madonna. Visitors will be shown what is reputed to be the staircase under which Alexius lived and died. At the main altar is a fabulous monument, portraying in a striking baroque diagonal the fabled staircase, the saint lying peacefully beneath.

Last month Roman news outlets reported a rediscovery at Sant’Alessio. A 12th-century fresco depicting St Alexius and Christ in the guise of pilgrims was revealed. St Alexius, wholly depicted, points to Christ, slightly cut off by the addition of a wall, whose hand is raised in blessing. The fresco is important because of its fine state of preservation and the retention of its lovely painted border.

You never know about people whom you casually meet. Or even those whom you think you know well. They have their hidden histories, problems, joys, concerns. Under their own book’s cover may be the soul of a saint, a scoundrel, a suffering searcher. It’s easy to judge – nay, rather misjudge – people through a cursory assessment of their outward appearance or a prima facie appraisal of a few words or gestures. Res ipsa doesn’t always loqui the whole story. We, as images of God, are hard-wired to make judgments about everything. But when we encounter other images of God, we would do well to make our judgments with an eye to mercy and respect.