Many years ago I spent a summer doing volunteer work in a small town in southern Louisiana. I was a novice in religious life and was being sent to work in a social service center as a way to both work at something I had never done before, and to immerse myself in service. The last part of the trip involved taking a bus from New Orleans to Lafayette. After buying the bus ticket, I only had one dollar and change left in my pocket. Imagine my shock when the bus arrived in Lafayette and I discovered that the sister who was supposed to pick me up was not there. I called the house and the social service center where I was to work, each time getting the answering machine, hence using up just about all my money in the process. Bus stations are not fun places, especially when one is alone, and so my anxiety level continued to rise. (This incident took place before people had cell phones, so all I could do was hope someone would get my messages.) I felt very much forgotten and alone. After what felt like an eternity, one of the sisters finally arrived. It turned out that the sister who was my sponsor had hurt her back and had to go to the hospital. In all the to-do about that, I had been momentarily forgotten.
The first few days in this new place were not all that much more comfortable. However I finally realized that my discomfort was not from the fact that the people around me were different than I. It was that I was different from them: I was the one from somewhere else and they were all at home in this community. But that sense of being an outsider faded very quickly because those very materially poor people were very rich in hospitality. I was only an outsider as long as I felt that way. Once I relaxed and was simply myself, I allowed them to teach me not only about how to become one with people very different than myself, but that if I wanted to grow in true service I needed to recognize that I was not there to ‘save’ them. Rather we were on a journey together with the Lord leading us. It became one of the best experiences of my life as I fell in love with the people and the place.
This month we celebrate two important saints, both named Martin, who teach a similar lesson: St. Martin de Porres and St. Martin of Tours. Both of these men spent a good deal of their lives working for the poor, being dissimilar in some way from the people to whom people they ministered. They lived in very different times, in very different situations, and yet both of them had an incredible love for serving others.
St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), lived in Lima, Peru. He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed slave who was of African descent. His father abandoned their family and so they lived in poverty. Martin apprenticed as a barber/surgeon in order to learn the art of medicine. He wanted to become a Dominican, but could only work as a volunteer because in those days one who was of mixed race was not allowed to enter a religious order. He wanted to serve and so he worked his way up from doing menial tasks to becoming the almoner (distributing money to the poor.) He became so well known for his works of compassion and care that he was invited to enter as a fully professed Dominican Brother. He devoted the rest of his life to using his medical skills both within and outside the community, helping many poor people, performing miracles and working tirelessly to be as Christ for others.
In contrast, St. Martin of Tours (4th century) came from a wealthy family in Pannonia, a Roman province that included modern Hungary. His parents were pagans, but he learned about Jesus and became a catechumen at the age of ten, though was not baptized for many years. He had no choice but to enter the military because his father had been a Roman officer and therefore by law he also had to serve. He became an officer in Gaul, (modern France) and was known for switching places with his servant from time to time simply because he wanted to serve and not be served. He is most known for the famous story about cutting his cloak in half on a bitterly cold night, in order to give half to a beggar. This made Martin the object of derision because an officer’s cloak was a sign of rank. That night Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream wearing the half cloak. Martin was so moved by this experience that he had himself baptized immediately.
Martin (of Tours) was known for giving his money to other soldiers and doing many works of charity. Finally he refused to serve as a soldier any longer and was imprisoned for a short period. When he was released he left the military to become a hermit, so great was his love for God. He was eventually made a bishop by the people of Tours, at first against his will, after they observed his holiness, including a miracle that was attributed to his intercession. Even though he was the bishop, Martin continued to live very simply, spending his life doing works of charity, teaching others about the Lord, fighting heresy, and doing the works of compassion for which he was renowned. When he died, he was buried in the cemetery for the poor, as he had requested.
What we can learn from both these saints named Martin is that having a heart for the poor is having a heart like Jesus. Regardless of whether we come from a simple or wealthy background, we always can find a way to give to others, whether it is in time, talent, or treasure. If one were to only look at the externals, both of these men did not really fit into the communities in which they found themselves. But both men teach us that doing good works comes from our hearts, not our surroundings. Just as Jesus did good works whether he was in gentile territory or Jewish territory, so also we should look to do good works wherever we may be. Our love and service should be for everyone, not only when we are with people with whom we feel comfortable. Jesus challenges us to love our neighbors as ourselves: this includes our enemies, those very different from ourselves, and the ‘least’ of our brothers and sisters.
We also learn from these saints that we can only be at home with others if we are at home within ourselves. We bring our strengths and our weaknesses with us no matter where we are. Often we hear people say things like “if only I was ‘there’, I would do so many good things.” Or we think we can escape our personal shortcomings by escaping to another place. If we find that we are called to go to another place, that’s fine; there is a need for that, too. But the truth is that the first place we are called to serve is right where we are. There is no time like the present to do good works. The smallest act of kindness can change a person’s life. If we wait to be in the ‘right place’ we will never get there. If we wait to be somehow perfected to do good works, it will never happen. In fact, it is in doing the good works that we become perfected, not the other way around.
Therefore, let us learn from the two Martins who devoted themselves to loving Jesus by loving those in need. Let us have the courage to be who we are, to use our unique personalities and the talents given to us by God in order to help bring the Kingdom into the lives of others. Let us embrace our own selves knowing that wherever we are, we are at home with God, no matter what others may say or do to indicate the contrary. Jesus came to His own people: He was accepted by some, and was rejected by many, yet He continued His work so that we might have eternal life. Both Martins imitated Christ, taking His light and His love into places where they might not have been welcomed at first. They found that love for serving Christ overcame resistance from those who then came to be grateful for who they were and what they offered simply by being themselves, sanctified by Love.
May we have the courage to be who we are among all those to whom we bring the love of Christ! May we imitate the work of both St. Martin de Porres and St. Martin of Tours, reaching out to the poor among us, be they poor in spirit or poor materially! May we pray for the intercession of these two saints that we may persevere both in our own communities and with all those to whom God sends us! And may our love of Christ grow each day, as we see Him in all those we meet! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos are mine. The top picture is of Grand Coteau, Louisiana. The bottom photo was taken in Nova Scotia, Canada.
The icons are both the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is San Martin de Porres. If you are interested in obtaining a copy it can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/121-san-martin-de-porres.
The second one is St. Martin of Tours The Shepherd which can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/140-st-martin-of-tours-the-shepherd. This and all of the work of Fr. Bill can be found at his website at www.fatherbill.org.
Heart Speaks to Heart