Seeking the Lowest Place with Saint Martin de Porres

But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, `Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 14:10-11)

Well, you can’t get much lower than Martin de Porres (+1649), who exemplified the virtue of humility more than most, in a very incarnate way. He was born on December 9th, 1572 in Lima, Peru, the offspring of a Spanish nobleman, aptly named Don Juan de Porres, and a freed slavewoman, Ana Velazquez, Martin was a ‘mulatto’, with the worst of both worlds, accepted neither by the native population, nor by the colonizing Spaniards. After his father abandoned the family early on, after the birth of his sister, Martin was raised by his now-single mother in abject poverty – who took in laundry to make ends sort of meet.

Rather than let resentment breed in his heart, and become, as so many would, ‘an angry young man’ bitter at the world, with the now-nearly ubiquitous victim mentality, Martin instead turned to God and prayer, offering up what sacrifices were required of him, and, God, Who loves a cheerful giver, was not to be outdone in generosity; as often happens when one turns to Him, Deus providebit.

Martin was sent to a public school to learn the surgical art from a barber (in those days of primitive medicine, barbers were often surgeons and vice versa). Yet the call to a higher life pulled him, and he applied to join the Dominicans as a simple lay brother – the rules at the time forbade natives, and still less mulattos, from becoming priests. An enlightened superior rightly considered those rules, shall we say, not quite right, and admitted Martin to the Order, and Martin, in turn, proceeded to take the lowest place, doing all the jobs no one else wanted to do, laundry and scrubbing the floors, and tending the most repulsive sick and suppurating, putting his medical knowledge to good use. When he would place the most desperate cases in his own bed, and his fellow Dominicans murmur, Martin would calmly reply, ‘compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness’, something we might learn anew in this antiseptic Covidian era, our fear of germs becoming itself pathological.

Martin thought himself unworthy of the great dignity of the priesthood, and spent his life as a Brother, even half-joking suggesting that when the community was low on funds, they sell him, since he was expendable and of so little use.

As was his habit from early childhood, Friar Martin spent hours in prayer, and joyfully followed an ascetical life, perpetually abstaining from meat, his time and attention always open to one and all. Miracles soon abounded – healings, prophecies, mystical lights, walking through locked doors, even bilocation. God showered abundant graces on His servant.

He was soon known as a thaumaturge, and people would gather from all around to visit him, even to touch the fringe of his cloak: After his death on this November 3rd in 1639, the miracles abounded all the more, such that when his body was displayed, they purportedly had to replace his habit three times, so many pieces were snipped off as relics. When that same body was exhumed 25 years later, it was found incorrupt, giving off a fine fragrance – a manifestation of that ‘odour of sanctity’.

Yet that sanctity took some time to be recognized officially by the Church, a post-morgen manifestation of Martin’s amare nesciri, his love to be ‘unknown’. He was not beatified until October 29, 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI, and his canonization took place just prior to the Second Vatican Council, by Pope Saint John XXIII on May 6, 1962. He is the patron saint of those of mixed race (but who ultimately is not of ‘mixed race’, we may wonder?), as well as innkeepers, barbers, public servants, and many other walks of life.

As our world continues its pilgrimage towards the eschaton, may we too choose the ‘lowest place’, in whatever that means in our own life, seeing that the ways of men are not the ways of God. Persevere, dear reader, in the paths of truth and goodness, which will, sooner than we might think, win out over the forces of lies and darkness, which fear the light, shining forth in the humility and holiness of God’s saints.

Saint Martin de Porres, ora pro nobis!