Saint Peter of Alcántara
Alcántara, Cáceres (Spain) in 1499
Arenas de San Pedro, Avila (Spain) on October 18, 1562
Gregory XV beatified him on April 18, 1622.
Clement IX canonized him on April 28, 1669.
Peter was born in Alcántara, Caceres in Spain in the year 1499 and was baptized with the name John. His parents, Alonso Garavito and María Villela, were recognized for their piety and personal qualities. Don Alonso studied law and was the town governor, but he passed away when John was only eight years old. John’s mother then married Alfonso Barrantes.
Although he was of small stature, John stood out for his great strength of will and his piety. He studied in Alcántara and later his stepfather sent him to Salamanca to continue his studies. He was only 16 years old when, as a university student, he decided become a Franciscan.
He entered the convent of Majarretes, Caceres in 1515. The community desired to live the observance of the Rule of St. Francis more rigorously and John immediately felt attracted to their spirit of penance. When he received the habit, he took the name of Fray Peter.
During the novitiate he had several different positions, like that of the sacristan or the doorman. From the first moment, Fray Peter decided to fight to reach holiness and he surrendered himself to the Lord with exemplary generosity. He was extremely austere and penitential: he always looked towards the ground, he did not permit himself any gratification or satisfaction, he spent most of his day in prayer, and he slept on the floor… But he did all of this for love of God and he lived an unconditional surrender to others.
While he was still quite young, before receiving holy orders, he was named guardian of the convent of Badajoz. In 1524, when he finished his ecclesiastical studies, he was ordained a priest. He became the superior of several convents in Extremadura and dedicated himself primarily to preaching. Many souls were nourished thanks to his words and example. He lived so intimately united to God that he could transmit Him without having to give a polished speech, though he did have a special gift of preaching. He possessed the wisdom that comes from the contemplation of the divine mysteries. There were many who, after simply seeing him walk up to the pulpit, felt repentance for their sins and understood that they needed to change their lives. He traveled throughout Extremadura and Portugal, and did much good as founder of several convents, as a superior, as a preacher, and as a director of souls.
The fame of his sanctity began to spread. The king of Portugal, John III, offered the saint a place in his court. The Emperor Charles V asked the saint to be his spiritual director. St. Peter, however, rejected both proposals. He felt that the Lord called him with insistence to an austere life of prayer, poverty and penance.
In 1554, St. Peter proposed to his superiors his idea of establishing a community with a stricter Rule. His proposal was initially met with opposition, but later he was given permission to withdraw with another friar to live the life of hermits. Other friars who experienced the same desire joined them, and they founded the convent called “El Palancar” in Pedroso de Acim (Cáceres) in a little house that was ceded to them. The cells were very small, the cots were made of wooden boards, they were always discalced, and they did rigorous fasts and dedicated long hours to prayer. The penance of St. Peter was even more severe: he ate once every three days, he reduced the hours of rest to one hour and a half, and spent the rest of the night in prayer. The little rest he did get he spent sitting on a rock, resting his head on a wooden beam. He only had one habit, and it was old and patched.
St. Peter of Alcántara often fell into ecstasy and levitated during prayer. In 1560, when he passed by Avila, the Lord ordered him to visit the convent of the Incarnation. There, for the first time, he met St. Teresa, who in that moment was passing through a period of darkness and scruples. St. Teresa was amazed by the holiness of this man, and later described him in her autobiography with these words:
“He was very old when I met him and he was so extremely thin that he seemed to be made of nothing more than roots of a tree. He was very holy and also very kind, though he spoke little, unless asked a question. However, his responses were exquisite because of his deep understanding.”
The saint was able to calm Teresa’s soul, giving her support and advice and a holy friendship was formed. She herself affirmed, “From the beginning, I saw that he understood me from experience, which was all that I needed. This holy man shed light on everything for me.”
Some time after, a hermitage in the town of Arenas was offered to the saint. He visited the area and it seemed perfect for a new foundation. Not only did he like the place, but he felt interiorly that God had great plans for that little hermitage. Immediately he began to build the little cells and hermitages for the friars, and prepared for the foundation. From 1562 onwards, St. Peter remained in Arenas.
Physical fatigue and illness battered him, but the saint refused to mitigate his penances. In October, while he was traveling, his illness worsened. He asked to be carried to Arenas to die among his brothers. On October 18, 1562, he woke up with joy and began to pray the Miserere. Later, he exclaimed, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” In that very moment, he asked for help to kneel down and he died.
The news of his death spread immediately and the people from Arenas and other towns came to bid farewell to the holy man. From the beginning, his tomb became a pilgrimage site. Pope Gregory XV beatified him on April 18, 1622 and Pope Clement IX canonized him on April 28, 1669.
The references we have of St. Peter of Alcantara’s love of the Eucharist are his own words, written down in the Treatise on Prayer and Meditation. When the saint speaks of the institution of the Most Holy Sacrament, he explains how Christ, in his infinite love towards his spouse, the Church, and towards each soul, remained with us in the Eucharist.
“He that desireth to comprehend anything of this noble mystery must certainly think that no tongue is able to express that immense love and ardent affection wherewith our blessed Saviour was inflamed towards his holy church and all faithful souls, in instituting this stupendous mystery. For when this bridegroom determined to depart out of this mortal life, and to leave the church his beloved spouse; lest this his departure should be any occasion to her of forgetting her redeemer; he gave her this sacrament wherein he himself is present, as a pledge and memorial of his perpetual love. Then, seeing he was to be long absent, lest his spouse should remain solitary and alone, he, for her consolation, would remain with her as a companion in this holy sacrament.
When our blessed Saviour was to suffer death for the redemption of his spouse, to enrich her with his most precious blood, and to purge her from sins, lest she should be defrauded of so great a treasure; he would give her a key in this sacrament whereby she might at her pleasure enjoy these riches; for as St. Chrysostom saith, we must think as often as we come to this sacrament, we put our mouth to the bleeding side of Christ, and from thence drink his most precious blood, in whose merits we participate. Moreover, this celestial bridegroom, did desire to be tenderly beloved of his spouse, and for this cause would leave her this mystical flesh, consecrated with most efficacious words, and therein so great virtue, that whosoever receives it worthily shall presently be struck with the darts of love. […]
He would, moreover, when he died, make his last will and testament, wherein he left to his spouse a singular manna, to cure all her infirmities; a gift, than which nothing can be more sovereign, nothing more precious, seeing the Deity itself is therein
contained. Lastly, he desired to feed our souls with some heavenly food, seeing they need no less nourishment that they might live spiritually, than the body needeth corporal sustenance, that she might live corporally.
Wherefore, this spiritual physician, when he had diligently examined and felt the pulse of our fragility, instituted this holy sacrament, which he exhibited unto us under the species or form of bread, that he might declare what effect it should work in us, that is to say, that it is as necessary for our souls as bread for the body.” (Of the Institution of the Blessed Sacrament, Treatise on Prayer and Meditation)
St. Peter of Alcántara had a special devotion to Mary as Mother of the Redeemer. In his life and in his writings we can discover the profound union of his soul with that of Jesus Christ through the mysteries of the Redemption. In his Treatise on Prayer and Meditation, St. Peter recommends the frequent meditation of those mysteries and he wrote some considerations to help us to do so. He often looks to Mary to learn from her the correct approach to the Passion and to accompany her in her sufferings.
“Oh Lady of angels, queen of heaven, gate of paradise, advocate of the world, sanctuary of sinners, health of the just, joy of the saints, mistress of virtue, mirror of purity, symbol of chastity, pattern of patience, and rule of all perfection! Oh me, miserable and unfortunate, what have I seen with the eyes of faith? How could I live to behold such inhuman usage? Interrupting sighs will not permit me scarce to speak how I left thy only begotten Son, loaded with a mighty cross, to which he was presently to be nailed, and carrying it to the place of execution.
What heart, what mind, what soul, is able to comprehend the pain the Blessed Virgin Mary then did suffer; her heart fainted, and a dead sweat with extreme anguish possessed her whole body, and presently she’d have given up her spirit, had not the divine dispensation reserved her till better times, for her greater merit, and more abundant reward. Oh! what strife was there in the soul of this Blessed Virgin betwixt fear and love? She did vehemently desire to see her Son, but, on the other side, she durst not cast her eyes upon him in this lamentable and afflicted state. At length, when she drew nearer, these two celestial lights beheld each other, their eyes pierced each other's souls, but grief enforced their tongues to silence; notwithstanding, their hearts did mutually discourse.” (A meditation for Thursday, Treatise on Prayer and Meditation)
The most important places to visit on a pilgrimage related to St. Peter of Alcántara are located in Spain.
Arenas de San Pedro (Ávila):
The Royal Chapel of St. Peter of Alcántara was built on top of the old hermitage of St. Andrew, the hermitage in which St. Peter of Alcantara’s mortal remains were kept. The hermitages where the friars retired to pray and do penance during the times of the saint are also open for visits, along with the place where St. Peter died on his knees. There is also a museum with other items and relics.
-The Parish Church of Holy Mary of Almocóvar: St. Peter of Alcantara’s parish church, where the baptismal font where he was baptized can be seen.
-Church of St. Peter of Alcántara, built over the location where the saint was born and raised.
Pedroso de Acim (Cáceres):
-El Palancar: The miniscule and austere convent where St. Peter retired with the first friars who joined his reform. St. Peter’s cell is so small that it is impossible to stand up straight inside it. He slept about two hours every day, crouched down, resting his head on a piece of wood.
From the Saint:
The principle writing of St. Peter of Alcántara is “Treatise on Prayer and Meditation” also translated as “A Golden Treatise of Mental Prayer” which was published within the lifetime of the saint. It is based upon writings of Louis of Granada, and it explains a prayer method based on the meditation on the mysteries of the Passion of the Lord. It has advice and counsels to reach a prayer that leads us to knowledge of God and union with Him.
There are also several versions of the constitutions the saint wrote, along with some notes and commentaries on different subjects and a dozen of letters he wrote.