Many Christians have turned to the Harry Potter series of books for a modern fable of good and evil, redemption, and resurrection. It’s all there. There may be a very small haigographical clue that you missed, though. It’s the saint under the staircase. In the Harry Potter series of stories, our protagonist begins his life living in a small cupboard under the staircase of his uncle’s house. Saint Alexis of Rome, who we remember today, also spent a good deal of time living under a staircase in his parents home. Of all the stories surrounding Alexis — and there are several — the one element that is consistent is that at some point he returned to his parent’s home in Rome where he found shelter living under the staircase.
The hagiographies agree that Alexis was the son of wealthy Romans. He might have been the only son of Euphremian, a Roman senator, and his wife Aglae; both of whom were devout Christians. He might have been someone else. It’s a story! Whoever he was, Alexis loved charity and from an early age he was drawn to a holy life. It is hard, though, for a rich man to live a holy life, so he had to make other plans.
He got married to a high-ranking young woman chosen by his parents, but he left her immediately after the wedding and went to follow his vocation. Apparently she was in on the plan and didn’t mind, allowing Alexis to slip out of town disguised as a beggar before anyone noticed that he was gone.
Leaving Rome, he traveled to Edessa in modern Syria where he begged for alms, sharing what he received with others and only keeping what he needed. His disguise was so good, that Alexis was able to receive alms from his parent’s slaves who had been dispatched to find him. Nobody in Edessa knew that he was from a wealthy family. He appeared to be a common beggar.
For seventeen years Alexis lived in a shack next to the church of Our Lady of Edessa. Though there were many pilgrims during the day, Alexis did not beg. He fasted during the daylight hours and only begged during the evening. When he had enough, he stopped begging. Thus, he never had more than he needed. Apparently, he never had less either.
His life at Edessa must have been just what Alexis had dreamed of when he set out from Rome. He was living a holy life, and doing alright for himself… as begging goes. He lived right next door to a famous church, spent his days praying and fasting, and yet still had a small meal in the evenings. After 17 years, it would have become a comfortable routine. The Holy Spirit had other plans for Alexis, though.
Though Alexis had never revealed his identity, he was found out. Some say that a sacristan recognized him, others say that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at the church and, identifying Alexis she said, “Seek the man of God.” Either version makes a fine story, but the crux of it is that Alexis’s cover was blown. To escape the resulting fame he decided to go to Tarsus. But, once again, the Holy Spirit had other plans,On the way to Tarsus there was a big storm with a lot of wind, and the storm drove Alexis’s ship away from Turkey and towards Italy. Once in Italy Alexis went to his parent’s house in Rome. In the intervening seventeen years he had changed so much that his parents didn’t recognize him. That is the power of God to transform a life! When Alexis asked for a place to stay, they made room for him under the staircase where he battled demons and was comforted by angles. He worked part-time in the kitchen and ate what was left over from the servants.
Nobody knew that he was the rightful heir until he died, seventeen years later. The story has been expanded to include a pope and an emperor, and to lend some royal sheen to Alexis. It seems that one day as Pope Innocent I was celebrating mass for the emperor a voice spoke to him and said, “Seek the man of God.” He and the emperor followed the voice to Euphremian’s house where Alexis was found dead, under the staircase. A note was found on his body revealing his true identity.
It really is a story of Harry Potter proportions. There’s intrigue, royalty, a disguise, and a special appearance by the Blessed Virgin. Beyond the story line, though, we can ask some questions about transformation, recognition, and identity: Who are we, really? Who recognizes us? How have we been transformed?
The life of Saint Alexis of Rome invites us to examine identity in a new way. What do we identify with? How do we identify others? Is it by social status? Race? Gender? Or, might we learn to see beyond those things and realize that the beggar and the prince are the same?
Linda McMillan “Lindy” lives in Shanghai, China