Feast of St Martin de Porres 2019 – GSC
St Martin de Porres loved rats. I don’t love rats. In fact, I’m terrified of them. In my daily mission of trying to be holy - something we should all strive for - I need to try to remove that fear because fear is not something that is compatible with faith. As St John writes in his first letter, “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18).
After many years of struggling to be a Dominican Friar, St Martin was finally admitted to the community and often given the tasks of caring for the sick and cleaning: it’s really not glamorous being a Saint! One day they had problems with rats in the home where the Dominicans lived and St Martin was asked by the person in charge to put down poison to kill them off. St Martin did put the poison down because he knew the importance of obedience and even to be obedient in those things we don’t really agree with. But then St Martin went off and rebuked the rats for coming in to the house and warned them about the poison. The rats took the message and ran off, not tempted by the nasty old poison.
It’s a quaint story and perhaps one that particularly appeals to a nation of animal lovers, as we British often are. Human beings do have a responsibility to look after animals because they are part of the created order God has set over us. That means we should make sure animals are not neglected or mistreated. Like all our loves and passions, though, we have to ensure that love doesn’t override our love for God. He who made all things is to be chief among our passions and our loves. You must love the Lord your God will all your very being, Jesus instructs the Pharisee in our Gospel today. In doing this He restates the ancient law given in Deuteronomy 6:4 and places alongside it the command to love our neighbour as ourself. When we consider our own spiritual lives we would do well to assess both these pillars of the life of faith: love for God and love of neighbour.
St Martin de Porres loved God as we all are to show our love for God: he said his prayers several times each day, he went to Mass, he fasted regularly simply eating bread and water and would spend whole nights in prayer. He also showed a profound love for his neighbour. His fellow brothers in the community treated him with contempt as he was a former slave and of mixed race descent. Racism is not a new sin and St Martin was often the victim of it. Rather than blame the racism for things being not how he wanted them in life, however, he rather overcame the hatred and that made his love for his neighbours even more radiant. These members of the community who spoke harsh words to him were cared for by St Martin in the infirmary wing of which he was in charge.
How could Martin behave so lovingly? Well, because he could not retaliate, of course, remember the first reading we’d heard from Isaiah: “If you remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness.” Secondly, because St Martin knew that he had to treat others in his proximity, especially the sick, with a compassion as if they were Christ Himself. Remember the words of the Lord when he condemns those who wanted to enter Heaven for not visiting the sick, nor feeding the homeless, nor clothing the naked. Jesus shocks those who thought they were sure of a place in Heaven by saying, “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.” They respond, “When Lord, when did we see you in prison and not visit you?” He responds, “Amen I tell you, when you didn’t do it to the least of my brother and sisters, you did not do it to me,” (Matthew 25:31-46).
We treat others well when we recognise fully that they are made in God’s image, even those who don’t really care about God, even those who don’t really care about you. The Incarnation - which is the fancy word given by theologians to describe what God did in sending His Son as we will celebrate at Christmas - this coming in the Flesh by Christ our Saviour is to redeem a fallen race and undo the effects of sin. Jesus being born for humanity was important for St Martin. According to reports, as he lay dying in his bed, he recited the Nicene Creed, which we will say in a few moments time. He died as he uttered the words: “For us men and for our salvation He came down from Heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became Man.” We bow at these words when we say them because of our reverence and our love for the Birth of Jesus and to imitate the humbling that God went through in being born in a stable. He lowered Himself for us, we lower ourselves to worship Him. These words were the last of St Martin before his death and we might remember that when we gaze upon his statue that we will bless this evening.
Statues have been an important part of Christian worship for centuries. They act to draw us back to our prayers whenever our minds start wondering at Mass. Statues also remind us that the world is essentially very good. Bad things happen in the world but that is because of sin and the capacity to choose that God has given us. This does not change the fact that God has created a world for us to live in, and it is very good. Statues remind us of this because wood and metal and other materials can be forged together to display something of what holiness looks like for our encouraging and to increase our faith and our hope. There’ll be statues we like the look of ascetically, which are beautiful or particularly evocative, like there are buildings or works of art which we appreciate more than others. Whether we like a particular statue or not, there’s something wonderful by the very fact that something moulded out of the earth can teach us something of a citizen of Heaven.
Similarly with those we don’t like. It’s fine for us not to be best mates with everyone but we are to love our neighbour. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) teaches us that our neighbour is anyone whom we come across. As we reflect on our standing before God, we might consider how we measure up to this admittedly difficult standard that St Martin and our Blessed Lord hold before us. As we prepare to make a Confession, we will want to examine people we have responded badly to and indeed may have even ignored. If you can’t think of someone you don’t really get on with or whom you have treated badly, it’s probably a sign you’ve just ignored them and blocked them out, which also needs addressing in our spiritual lives.
St Martin found himself in a religious community which was at best indifferent towards him, at worst hostile. Yet he ended up caring for them. How does that happen? What compels that change of heart? The first step surely is to recognise there is a problem, that we don’t like so-and-so or that sort of person and that we would find it hard to care for them. Then we need to start praying for that person and admit to God what He already knows that we aren’t in the sort of relationship with that person that we ought to be. And then pray for the wisdom to know what your relationship with that person ought to look like. As a minimum we can pray for that person’s wellbeing … and genuinely try to mean it!
Our Lord teaches us an important lesson in all this when he speaks of those whom we greet: “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect.” (Matthew 5:47). If we only pray for the wellbeing of those we like, or those we have a duty to pray for; if we only help those who have helped us, what on earth are we doing that deserves any merit or can really be said to be living out a Christ-like love, who died for the sinner and the ungodly (Romans 5:8)?
So, St Martin teaches that indifference is a sin, that we are not meant only to love those who are pleasant. He modelled it in his own life and that example is still for us to follow even when we’re hacked off, and even justifiably annoyed with people, even when dealing with rats, may the love of Jesus shine through in all we say or do.