Commentaries on how Don Alonso Peres de Guzman sacrificed his own son rather than surrender to the Muslims

February 6, 2012

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

In September 1292, Yacub Ben Yussuf, King of Morocco, took over the stronghold of Tarifa. Infant Dom João, brother of Sancho IV the brave, king of Castile and Leon, in fact made a pact with Yacub that enabled him to conquer Tarifa, defended by Alonso Perez de Guzman. Rather than surrender, Guzman allowed his own son, a prisoner of the Infant, to be sacrificed within its walls, a deed that earned him the nickname ‘The Good’ (1294).

In a handwritten letter, King Dom Sancho thanked Guzman for his loyalty, saying, “For the death of your son, which made you like unto our Father Abraham, out of courage, loyalty and fidelity to the oath you had made to me regarding the city of Tarifa, you provided the dagger with which the Moors beheaded him.” This excerpt is taken from Johann Baptist Weiss, História Universal, vol VI, p.603. That page reproduces a painting depicting the heroic gesture of Dom Alonso de Guzman as he throws, from atop the walls, the dagger to the Moors.

From atop the walls, Dom Alonso de Guzman throws the dagger to the Moors.

So this is how that historic episode unfolded: The one Yacub took the town of Tarifa. The king’s brother had made a pact with Yacub so he could pull it off; in other words, he betrayed. Tarifa was defended by Alonso Perez de Guzman, who, in order not to surrender, allowed his own son, a prisoner of the wayward prince, to be sacrificed within its walls.

From atop the wall he threw the dagger for the Moors to kill his son, as if saying, “You are saying you will kill my son if I do not surrender the place. Look, here is a dagger, go ahead and kill him.”

It is an extraordinary move, one with such grandeur as to leave us absolutely at a loss for words.

We can see such feats in our Saint-of-the-Day series and in some episodes in the life of Christian civilization. There is such a great integrity of soul in Don Alonso’s attitude and he takes sacrifice to such a point and bears the pain of his situation in such a manly fashion that no manner of pettiness or fear can be found in him at all.

He could have said, for example – in the romantic fashion in vogue in the 19th century – “Well, go ahead, take my son. Dear son of mine, be thou the pained yet innocent victim of the hateful enemy of Christian civilization.” None of that! He could at least have said, “I watch impassible and indignant, shaking with sorrow, this sacrifice about to be done.” None of that, either.

Castle of Tarifa, where Don Alonso threw the knife to the Moors.

His attitude was like saying, “For you to see that I command my own soul and master even the most legitimate feelings of my paternal love out of love for the Catholic Church, look, here is my dagger.” And he throws it. This really means, “I take to the ultimate degree my victory over the legitimate fears of nature.”

This integrity is really enchanting. One can say this truly is a Catholic man in whom there is no fraud, the praise Our Lord made of St. Bartholomew: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile” [John. 1:47]. No deceit, no concession. He goes all the way to the full length of his duty. This is what is so enchanting in that magnificent move.

One of you could object: Well, Dr. Plínio, all this is true but only to a certain degree. Because in the final analysis, it is a bit inhumane for a father to watch so deliberately the death of his son. I would like to see some uncertainty in that father; I would like to see some tears in his eyes; I would like to see some hesitation: ‘Should I or should I not let them kill him?’ If that father atop the walls had only had a moment of hesitation and then said, ‘Well, go ahead, kill him!’ I would understand and sympathize with him more than when I see that determination from the very first instance, taken to the point of throwing them the dagger with which to kill his son.”

I would respond to this saying that is not true; because Our Lady at the foot of the Cross suffered incommensurably more than that father; and yet, She did not hesitate even once. She deliberately consented during the whole time that the sacrifice of her Son be carried out. Even more, the whole tradition of the Church presents Our Lady standing at the foot of the Cross: juxta crucem, dolorosa, stabat Mater, lacrimosa. She was crying but was standing. In other words, She was in full control of herself and did not swoon or show any excessive sensitivity, fully obeying her reason, which oriented her in that sense.

Statue of "Guzmán the Good" in Tarifa

All theologians say that Our Lady had, deep down in her soul, at the foot of the Cross, a true joy: the fact that the Sacrifice, the goal of her Son’s life was being fulfilled; because her Son was doing the will of God. Such is the integrity of a Catholic soul.

Don Alonso was called “The Good.” In times of old, “good” had a different meaning than today. ‘Good’ is not a sentimental, bleeding heart. Good meant tough, diehard, as would be called a hardwood that can bear a lot of weight.

(Question: Is it normal for an action like Don Alonso’s to be done without any sentiment and even with a certain coldness, a deliberate coldness and lack of sentiment that might even appear somewhat abnormal?)

There is no coldness, but something else. There is no absence of sentiment facing something that should make a father suffer. But there is such a determination to make that sacrifice at any cost, that all the other movements of soul do not even become manifest. They remain, as it were, contained and circumscribed to an inferior sphere of the soul. For example, at the foot of the Cross, Our Lady had no coldness at all. With His death She suffered more than all creatures ever suffered and will suffer from the beginning to the end of the world. But her resolution had been made. She had been asked for her consent and She had given it. And that which She wanted was being done. In other words, there is a complete absence of hesitation and of the least refusal to go to the end with that deliberate sacrifice. This is sublime and it is not coldness. She stood by the Cross, in tears. (…)

 (Would it be natural to tremble with fear, or not?)

It would be natural. You see saints that trembled with fear even at the hour of death but allowed themselves to be killed. But even though it is natural to fear, there is true beauty in contemplating souls whose resolution was so strong that it obtained that effect, isn’t it true?

That was precisely the example that Our Lord Jesus Christ gave in the Garden of Olives. There He meditated on, and gauged all the deluge of pains in which He was entering. And He made the resolution—which He had had throughout His life but renewed it there, at the hour of His sacrifice, to suffer everything. So He knew and deliberately accepted in advance everything that He would have to suffer.

This is what we must do. Obviously, our reasoning must be: at this moment I may not have the sufficient, extraordinary grace to face an extraordinary risk. But I do want to face that risk and ask Our Lady to give me that grace when the risk presents itself.

I know that this touches every man on a sensitive point, and particularly my dear new generation. The manly thing to do facing pain is to foresee it rather than close one’s eyes; foresee it and say, I want everything.

If it is a pain that I must suffer out of love for the Church, then I want it entirely. I have gauged the risks and I know this can happen in this or that way. If that is the price, then I accept this pain. I ask Our Lady to give me strength to bear it when it comes. But I accept it all.

This is a capital point. Also, bear in mind that God often does not demand the pain that He wants us to accept; He contents Himself with our acceptance. And if we accept everything, in some way we have already suffered everything.

Portrait of Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia

(What about the fear of torture? Wouldn’t a young man from the new generation go crazy thinking about all night?)

The best thing to do here is to pray to Our Lady saying, “My Mother, look at my fear. It is due either to weakness or cowardice. If it is weakness, give me strength; if it is cowardice, forgive and also give me strength. But assist me at the hour that I have to suffer for Thee.” And then stop thinking about this matter.

This is different from coming up with wishy-washy answers to be able to resist: ‘He’s saying this but he certainly won’t do it.” Or: “I know stories in novels in which, at the 11th hour, a judge walks in and prevents it from happening. Perhaps before the first torture session starts, the cell door opens and a judge saves me from it all;” or then, “who knows if a communist revolution breaks out that same night and everyone runs away and at the time set for my torture I’m already back home, being welcomed by my relatives.” And he goes on imagining all these things all night… and in the morning nothing happens…

What I think is that our deliberation to suffer must be firm: “I will do it.” Something else is the state of my sensibility facing that, so I say, “I will suffer and confide in Our Lady that, through Her grace, I will attain the necessary strength for it. I am weak but strong, because I confide in grace.”

Another attitude would be, “I will suffer, for I am a colossal man and have never shrunk from any suffering all my life; O my God, admire from the heights of Heaven this man that Thou hast created. Without thy help I will now confront pain.” This would be sheer arrogance.

(I read a version of that episode in which Dom Alonso tells the Moors, “I’d rather you kill my son and put an angel in heaven, than for me to break the pledge I have given my king.” He had a supernatural vision of life that strengthened him at that hour to watch the sacrifice of his son. He knew his son would go to Heaven.)

What an extraordinary fact, I had not heard of it. I believe it may be perfectly true. But I believe that this is a somewhat diminished vision of the episode; because he kind of comes through as a person that is doing something to obtain a good place in Heaven for his son. While this is legitimate, it is not the highest sentiment that a father can have. Because, before being a father, he is a[n adopted] son of God, the Father of all; and he must want the glory that that action will render to God and to the Catholic Church. His son must come in second place.

In other words, if he had that disposition of soul, that’s very well; if he told it to the Moors because they would understand nothing else, fine. But I do not believe it was his highest motive to do what he did.

These commentaries are drawn and adapted from a meeting given by the author on August 26, 1970. He was not able to review them prior to this publication.



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