Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Even the Thorns of Your Life

THIS IMAGE OF SAINT MARTIN DE PORRES was painted by Meltem Aktas and is found in St. Barnabas Church, Beverly, Illinois. Martin was the first mulatto to be canonized a saint for his tremendous and all embracing charity. The branch of a pear tree breaks into the painting and Martin holds and offers the fruit on a blue plate for anyone to take. Pears, heart-shaped, are images of affection and for Christians, they symbolize the love of Jesus for humankind. Take the love, Martin is saying. 

Martin was born in Lima, Peru on December 9, 1579 to Don Juan de Porres, a Spanish nobleman and Ana Velasquez, a Panamanian freed slave. The father was unwilling to officially recognize the boy as his own, as he had inherited the mother's complexion, and so Martin's baptism register records him as illegitimate. As we may imagine, Martin's being presented as an illegitimate mixed-breed impacted him negatively in a 16th century layered society.

Still. the boy and his sister received some education in Ecuador, Martin being apprenticed to a barber which also garnered him skills in the medicine of the day: how to treat wounds and broken bones, prescribe medicine. Apparently he learned from his mother as well, who was an acknowledged herbalist. 

At age fifteen, Martin inquired about being a volunteer at the Dominican Convent of the Holy Rosary in Lima. He asked only for a broom to sweep the floor of the cloister. In time the brothers suggested he take the habit of the Dominican order as a lay brother, ignoring the (sad but true) rule that forbade "Indians, blacks and their descendants" from joining the order.

The testimonies recorded about the life of Martin by people who lived with him give numerous accounts of healing and difficult service: saving the leg of a priest who was about to lose it surgically, sneaking the poor into his cell and letting them sleep in his bed, wondrously feeding people even as the food available was insufficient by all accounts, caring for slaves brought to Peru from Africa, establishing an orphanage and a hospital for unwanted babies. 

The account of Martin's life states repeatedly that it was Martin's humility that so impressed the brothers. But we must remember that Martin came from a marginal place and had likely suffered being belittled, perhaps even abused, likely causing him to become the kind of person who kept his head down and his voice small. It's perhaps more wonderful to say that God brought Martin through this brokenness and inner poverty to great holiness - rather than to suggest that he was simply  infused with the spiritual quality or virtues of holiness. We have the expression: God writes straight with crooked lines. Henri Nouwen would call Martin a wounded healer. That God can pick up the pieces, gather up even the most shredded life, and make of it something bright and redemptive for the world. 

Martin opened a shelter for dogs and cats in his sister's apartment (priests and religious often have the most wonderfully helpful support among family and friends!). It is also attested that in his presence, dogs, cats and rodents ate simultaneously from the same dish. There's no reason to doubt this marvelous story, but it seems to me that it is a sign of the still more wonderful gift he had of reconciling opposites wherever he went.

And so Martin is called the Patron Saint of Justice and Race Relations. Maybe we need to pay close attention to this need for reconciliation in our country these days soon after the Zimmerman trial. There's a lot of hatred in our country. Our president recently asked us all to do some real soul-searching about these things. Sadly, some people missed that request-invitation and instead immediately dissolved into negativity and vitriol after his closing sentence. 

Joy-Ann Reid, an intelligent, articulate, sophisticated African-American political contributor and editor, revealed later, as part of a TV group panel discussion, that on Facebook she is called the N-word so often she feels as if it's every thirty seconds. It makes you wonder if Martin de Porres would even find a friend among some Christians as he had the features and complexion of his dark, slave-mother.

The president asked us to wring as much bias out of ourselves as possible. And Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother has said, "I don't want to block the blessings from pouring down on me because there was hatred in my heart." Maybe this is why there are so many major problems in our country: the declining test scores of our young people, our addictions, that we can't get out of war, that there's so much poverty still in our country - because we're blocking the blessings with our hatreds. 

This good monk with the children of Garbage Mountain is Brother Roger of Taize (TAY-ZAY), France. Taize is a monastery founded by Roger as an offering to the world - an invitation to healing and reconciliation after the devastation of the Second World War. Pope John XXIII called Taize, that little springtime, because the Christian faith is lived there in such a lovely and fresh way: religious brothers of different Christian faiths praying together, offering hospitality to people from all around the world - especially the young, inviting groups to explore the meaning of the Gospels for our world today especially as the Gospel is a catalyst for healing, reconciliation and unity. And all of this is undertaken and offered in a  great Gospel simplicity and poverty. 

Attempts at unity among Christians of different expressions is called ecumenism. There are people who strongly disapprove of ecumenism because they believe their version of Christianity is the only authentic one and it is for other Christians to realize that. But no one group owns the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We're all only searchers. 

There is a little film about the monastic life at Taize. In the film we see the brothers taking their meal together. at a U shaped table. The food is passed from one end and circles around to the other. We notice that when a bowl arrives at the center, where Brother Roger is seated, he turns to his right and places food on the plate of the brother next to him and only then serves himself.  This sense of taking care of someone else first, of anticipating their need, of looking for their comfort before anything else - this person is called other referred. 

In the Genesis account of Abraham receiving the Three Messengers who will announce the birth of a son, Abraham doesn't even ask if they would care for it - he simply goes off and gets water to wash their feet. In a dusty, dry,  hot desert-world, how kind and other-referred is that!

But how do we become healed and whole persons like Martin and Roger? Roger himself gives us the answer. He says:  "Stay close to the fire which is Christ, and eventually even the thorns of your life will burst into flame." The life of Martin testifies to this: his illegitimacy, poverty and marginalization turned to spiritual-human greatness. 


But what are the thorns of our lives? Thorns hurt, thorns prevent or inhibit our movement, thorns keep us back, thorns draw blood. So the thorns of our lives are detected in our human story: our setbacks, our fatigue and fears, abuse, our losses, the sadness of deep failure, what was needed that was denied, the still -raw inner pain, wrongs that need to be righted. 

Stay close to the fire...

  • Find a community where life and  faith are shared. We don't have to go to France! Jesus makes community happen wherever he goes.
  • "If you've got gratitude, you've got the whole of the spiritual life," a priest-friend told me.
  • Get free of the cultural way of  me, me, me, me, me...that sticks to us.
  • Get hatred out of your heart.
  • Beauty heals and puts spirit in us. This planet is God's Paradise.
  • Find that place where the veil between heaven and earth is most thin for you.
  • Read the lives of saints and God-heroes.
  • Practice some prayer discipline. The 150 psalms of the Old Testament are spiritual medicine.
  • If your Christian faith tradition includes the Eucharist (Holy Communion) - return to it often.
  • Give God the space that comes with some experience of silence each day.
  • Some Christians don't get this - but Mary isn't in the Jesus-story just to make Christmas sweeter. I know a young man who was an angry, addicted non-believer and who claims  the Rosary was his doorway to recovery and sobriety! Mary creates a beautiful atmosphere of receptivity around Jesus.
  • Do everything you can to get Christ into your life; there is everything to take him away!


  1. Learning about these lesser known saints and notable, but overlooked persons is very interesting. Let it inspire and guide us in our life journey towards acceptance of others and of ourselves.

  2. There is a lovely hymn, Help Us Accept Each Other, that I have heard in some places. This is the second verse:

    Teach us, O Lord your lessons, As in our daily life
    We struggle to be human, And search for hope and faith,
    Teach us to care for people, For all, not just for some;
    To love them as we find them, Or, as they may become.

    To love people as they may become!

  3. what a beautiful verse.

    Thank you for sharing with all of us. Everybody is so busy and involved with daily life and hardly ever take time to ponder what is really important. You are doing it for us and passing it on.

  4. Buongiorno Padre. I was browsing your blog and got attracted with the title of this particular post.

    St. Martin de Porres was one of the first Dominican saints I got to know through catechism. I admire him for his humility. I do agree that certain circumstances could bring about such virtue in people. How the virtue grows is another question.

    While doing the Purpose Driven Life with a friend, we were led to this, "We are like jewels, shaped with the hammer and chisel of adversity" (Rick Warren, Ch 25. Transformed by Trouble). The world was able to produce great saints in its darkest moments such as the two you have featured here. And it's really amazing how God could inspire audacity to His will through very simple people.

    Thank you very much for sharing St. Martin and Brother Roger to us and thank you for the concrete steps you have provided. I will share this post among my friends so we could practice them.

    Grazie Padre.