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The saint who only slept three hours a night

St Alphonsus was born in the province of Toledo, above

Alphonsus de Orozco (1500-1591) experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary in a dream in 1542. She spoke but one word to him: “Write.” 

Over the next 50 years this instruction served to make him the most prolific and widely read Spanish spiritual author of his day. Yet his writings were only part of his witness to sanctity.

Alphonsus, or Alonso, was born in the province of Toledo, where his father was governor of the castle of Oropesa. The boy was sent to study at Talavera de la Reina, and afterwards became a choirboy in Toledo cathedral, an experience that inculcated a lifelong love of music.

At 14, Alphonsus went on to study law at Salamanca University in company with his elder brother Francisco. There the experience of hearing the sermons of the Augustinian friar Thomas of Villanova (later Archbishop of Valencia, and canonised in 1658) inspired both young men to enter the Augustinian order. Francisco died in 1522, a devastating blow for Alphonsus, nevertheless he persisted in his vocation. Ordained by Thomas of Villanova in 1527, he began his career as a travelling preacher.

In 1549 he set off on a mission to Mexico, only to be struck down in the Canary Islands by arthritis. Doctors forbad him to continue the voyage.

Subsequently, in 1551, Alphonsus was appointed prior of the Augustinian house at Valladolid. In 1554 he became “royal preacher” and chaplain to the court of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, who abdicated in 1555-56. When Philip II, his successor as King of Spain, moved the capital to Madrid in 1561, Alphonsus reluctantly accompanied him.

He insisted, though, on living in the utmost austerity at the monastery of San Felipe el Real. Notwithstanding his duties at court, he continued to minister to all classes, paying particular attention to the poor and sick.

Deeply devoted to his order, he founded three convents for contemplative Augustinian nuns and a college for the education of potential friars.

Somehow – perhaps because he slept only three hours a night – Alphonsus was able to combine this strenuous existence with the prolific composition of spiritual works. These included Rule for a Christian Life (1542), Garden of Prayer and the Mount of Contemplation (1544), Spiritual Treasury (1551), The Art of Loving God and Neighbour (1567), and The Book of the Gentleness of God (1576).

At 80, Alphonsus asked to be relieved of his duties at court, but could not be spared. In his last illness, he continued to say Mass daily, remarking with delicious understatement that “God does no harm to anybody.”
His death was followed by massive demonstrations of grief and reverence in Madrid, where the population went on a hunt for relics. Yet Alphonsus was not canonised until 2002.