Today is the feast day of Saint Martin de Porres. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru in 1579, during the days when Spanish noblemen and many adventurers were still in the land, fascinated by the lure of the gold and silver. His father was a Spanish noble man and his mother a freed black slave from Panama. He inherited his mother’s African features. His father virtually disowned him, though he did take him and his sister to Ecuador to be educated. After his father’s appointment as governor of Panama, both children were sent back to their mother in Peru. She practised herbal medicine and Martin picked up that knowledge from her. He also became apprenticed to a barber, which at that time meant he also picked up some surgical expertise.
Although “Indians, blacks and their descendants” were barred from becoming religious, Martin was accepted by the Dominicans as a ‘donado’, a lay person allowed to live with the community and wear the habit in return for performing menial tasks. But Martin had such gifts of healing that he soon had a reputation as miracle-worker. Also in distributing food from the convent to the poor, the food seemed to multiply miraculously. He set up a residence where he nursed the sick, befriended the poor, especially ill-treated slaves. He also had an orphanage, and set up a shelter for stray animals to whom he was extremely kind. He was eventually accepted as a lay brother.
One day an aged beggar, covered with ulcers and almost naked, stretched out his hand, and Saint Martin, seeing the Divine Mendicant in him, took him to his own bed, paying no heed to the fact that he was not perfectly neat and clean. One of his brethren, considering he had gone too far in his charity, reproved him. Saint Martin replied: Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness. Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create.
Saint Martin was graced with the extraordinary ability of bilocation—the ability, provided by God, to be in more than one place simultaneously. While he never left the city of Lima, during his lifetime he was seen in many places, including Africa, China, Mexico, Algeria, and Japan. For example, an African man who had been held enslaved reported knowing Martin, recounting how the saintly man had came to relieve and console many like himself, telling them of heaven. Later, upon arrival in Peru, this same slave was very happy to meet Saint Martin again, inquiring if he had had a good journey home. Only then did he learn that Martin had never left Peru. Similarly, a merchant in Mexico fell ill and called upon Saint Martin, saying: “Oh, Brother Martin, if only you were here to care for me!” Immediately, he saw the pious saint enter his room, and was miraculously cured. Only later did the merchant learn that Saint Martin had never been in Mexico. He was further observed to experience ecstasies while praying, would be surrounded by a heavenly light, and occasionally would rise off the ground in communion with the Lord!
When an epidemic struck Lima, there were in this single convent of the Rosary sixty religious who were sick, many of them novices in a distant and locked section of the convent, separated from the professed. Saint Martin is known to have passed through the locked doors to care for them, a phenomenon which was observed in the residence more than once. The professed, too, saw him suddenly beside them without the doors having been opened; and these facts were duly verified by the surprised Superiors. Martin continued to transport the sick to the convent until the provincial Superior, alarmed by the contagion threatening the religious, forbid him to continue to do so. His sister, who lived in the country, offered her house to lodge those whom the residence of the religious could not hold.
One day he found on the street a poor Indian, bleeding to death from a dagger wound, and took him to his own room until he could transport him to his sister’s hospice. The Superior, when he heard of this, reprimanded his subject for disobedience. He was extremely edified by his reply: Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity. In effect, there are situations where charity must prevail; and instruction is very necessary. The Superior gave him liberty thereafter to follow his inspirations in the exercise of mercy.
Saint Martin is remembered for his love of all God’s creatures, caring for not only the people of the city, but stray dogs, animals, even vermin—many of whom would seek him out for healing. No creature was beyond his love and charity. He is well remembered for the legend of the rats of the convent. It is said that the prior, a reasonable man, objected to the rodents that plagued the kitchen and cells of the brothers. He ordered Martin to set out poison for them. Ever obedient, Saint Martin did as he was told, but at the same time felt very sorry for the rats. He went out into the garden and called softly to them–and out came the rats. The holy man reprimanded them for their bad habits, warning them about the poison. He further assured them that he would feed them every day in the garden, if they would refrain from annoying the prior. This they agreed upon. Dismissing the rodents, they never troubled the monastery.
A close friend of Saint Rose of Lima, together they raised the poor and marginalized of Lima from desolation into the light and faith of Christ. Along the hope, they enacted significant social reform, including wages, healthcare, and education! By the time of his death, Saint Martin was known to the entire city of Lima, and especially revered by the poor and struggling of the city who had considered him as a saint while living. News of his miracles had spread, and these miraculous occurrences continued following his death at his tomb side. Upon exhumation, his body was found to be intact and incorrupt, giving off a fine fragrance of holiness.
After many years of loving service, Martin fell ill and died aged sixty. Confounding distinctions of class and race, bishops and nobles turned up to carry his body to his grave. Miraculous cures were claimed at his tomb, but it was 1837 before Pope Gregory XVI beatified him. Pope John XXIII canonised him in 1962. There is a widespread devotion to Martin, who is regarded as the patron saint of those who suffer discrimination, of people of mixed race, and also of barbers,hairdressers and social workers.
Image: Figure of the Saint Martin de Porres in a little chapel in the house where he was born, in Lima, Peru (4)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff