St. Martin de Porres, Dominican
Growing up in poverty
In 1579, Martín de Porres Velésquez was born in Lima, Peru into the kind of poverty familiar to many of the world’s children. He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a black and possibly indigenous freed slave, Ana Velásquez. The nobleman abandoned them – he acknowledged the dark-skinned boy as his son only eight years later – leaving Ana to scrape by a living for herself and her two children alone. At 12, Martín was apprenticed to a barber-surgeon.
The boy learned to cut hair and tend the sick. And increasingly, he prayed, until he was spending hours each night in conversation with God. The Lord was stirring his heart, calling him in love, but Martín was a poor, black boy with no father, in a country where the law prohibited descendants of the African slaves from becoming professed members of religious orders.
A mulatto Dominican
Love was stronger than societal custom, however. It made Martín humble, and he asked to be accepted by the Dominican priory in Lima as a lay helper. Eight years of the humblest service, cutting the friars’ hair, scrubbing, sweeping and tending to the needs of the poor, showed the prior, Juan de Lorenzana, that this “servant boy” had an extraordinary heart. So when Martín was 24 and asked to be admitted as a professed brother, de Lorenzana decided to ignore the law and allow this young mulatto to take vows.
Not all of the friars agreed with their prior. Not all had allowed the light of the Gospel, which is given to all men, to penetrate their heart to an equal degree. “Mulatto dog,” some called him. One of the priests mocked him for his illegitimate birth. While Martín suffered these taunts, they did not disturb his peace. He was God’s servant and the servant of his brothers, even if they were cruel. When the friary fell into debt and the prior set out to sell some of the friary’s valuables, Martín begged his brothers, “I am only a poor mulatto, sell me.” They did not sell him. While there may have been a few hard-hearted friars, others had eyes to see the depths of charity and prayer in this young mixed-race man who was their brother.
The precept of charity
When he was 34, Martín was put in charge of the priory’s infirmary. There, all the love that had filled his heart through prayer could spill over in compassion for others. He cared for the sick friars, but also for others, noblemen and slaves. People felt the love in him. They began to say that he could cure the sick just by bringing them a glass of water. Once Martín carried a dirty beggar covered with sores to his room to tend to him. Another friar scolded him, for the sick man was filthy. Martín responded, “Compassion, my brother, is preferable to cleanliness.”
Many of the friars began to go to this simple brother for spiritual direction. They sensed the wisdom in him just as clearly as the poor sensed his love. Or perhaps they sensed that his wisdom was love. His prior, who had allowed him to take vows, learned from him, too. During an epidemic, when Martín had been forbidden from transporting the sick for fear of contagion, he was found tending to a bleeding Indian in his room. The prior began a hefty reprimand, but Martín’s answer disarmed him: “Forgive me and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over the precept of charity.” Now it was the prior’s turn not to know: How could he hold back a heart so alive with compassion?
That heart followed the precept of charity – love of God and love of neighbor with a single, unified love – until Martín’s death at the age of 59. At that point, his fellow friars and the city already knew: this “poor mulatto” who served the poor because he was one of them, this simple friar who humbled the proud, was their brother: St. Martín de Porres. In an almost superfluous sign, it was as if God smiled and agreed when Martín’s body was found to be incorrupt 25 years after he died.