Eight-year-old Martin de Porres was not what most people today would call a “normal” child. Living in Lima, Peru, in 1587, the boy was already in training to be a barber, which in his world also meant learning to be a surgeon, pharmacist, and physician.
And there was something else that singled him out: Martin loved to pray. Isabel Garcia, whose house he lived in, would peek into his room late at night and see him on his knees before a crucifix, his face bathed in tears.
What makes a person so devoted to God at such an early age? Some of the factors that we can glimpse in Martin’s story hint at a surprising answer. They show us that in the mathematics of God’s kingdom, even a big minus can be transformed into a plus.
Father Unknown. The great and probably formative “minus” in Martin’s life was that he grew up rejected by his father. Juan de Porres was a Spanish soldier who never married Martin’s mother, a freed African slave; he refused to acknowledge his son because the boy was a mulatto, with his mother’s dark skin. Indeed, in his baptismal record, Martin is described as “son of an unknown father.” Though Juan did pay for his son to attend school for a year, he eventually moved away and left Martin living in poverty with his mother and sister.
Martin could have been embittered by this abandonment. Instead, it seems, he filled the gap by turning to God, who rejects no one. He also turned his heart toward Jesus, who himself had cried out to his Father, “Why have you abandoned me?” And as he knelt before the crucifix, Martin felt growing in him the desire to reach out to other people like himself—to the needy, the oppressed, and the “least” of his world (Matthew 25:40).
Martin identified with the native Indians, who were living as a conquered people, subjugated by the Spanish when they took Peru in 1533. He identified with the African slaves who did forced labor in the gold and silver mines. He identified with all the mixed-blood peoples of his city, those who felt as if they didn’t belong with anyone. Martin’s heart went out to all the disadvantaged to such an extent that, when he was sent on errands, he often gave his mother’s money to beggars and returned home empty-handed. “I can’t turn down the poor,” he would insist. And after training as a barber-surgeon, he took no money for his work—not even when his reputation as a healer outshone that of his teacher.
When Martin was fifteen, he entered the Dominican Monastery of the Holy Rosary in Lima—not as a priest or a brother but as a lay helper. He never thought to ask for more; he wanted only to serve. It was just as well, for being a lay helper was Martin’s only option; the Order did not allow anyone of African or Indian blood to be professed or ordained. Nine years later, though, moved by his exemplary life, the Dominicans not only invited Martin to take vows as a religious brother—they insisted on it.
Assisting the Divine Physician. Statues of Martin often show him holding a broom. It’s true that he began by taking the most menial monastery jobs, like sweeping floors and cleaning toilets. But his other talents were soon recognized: He became the community barber and, more importantly, its medical assistant. Before long, he was sharing responsibility for the medical needs of nearly three hundred Dominicans, plus the sisters from a neighboring convent and all the laborers who worked the monastery’s lands.
With such a heavy workload, Martin could have easily burned out. But his energy and compassion did not wane. He had cultivated a rich inner life through Eucharistic adoration, and it was his prayer that sustained him. His brothers said that he always seemed joyful and that just looking at him could calm those who were agitated.
But Martin did more than radiate the peace of Christ to the anxious. His gift for healing went far beyond anything medicine could do. Once he treated a man with blood poisoning by dusting the infected part with rosemary and making the sign of the cross. The next morning, the wound was healed. Another time, a dying friar pressed Martin’s hand to the spot that pained him and was immediately restored to health. He also seemed able to reach his patients, whether inside or outside the monastery, whenever and wherever they needed him. Several people reported that Martin appeared at their bedside as soon as they called for help—in some cases, even behind locked and bolted doors.
But as amazing as these miracles were, the greatest miracle was Martin himself. His attitude of charity and sacrifice won people over just as much as any wonders he performed. He would do anything for the sick, staying by their beds all night and sleeping wherever he could.
This heroic charity got Martin into trouble, though, as people thronged to visit him at the monastery. Fellow Dominicans objected, especially when he brought the sick into his cell. One brother complained that Martin’s sheets smelled and that he was probably spreading infection, but Martin replied: “A little soap and water will clean the sheets, but only penance will remove the stain of uncharitable words.”
Eventually, the prior ordered him to stop using his cell as an infirmary. Martin obeyed and made other arrangements—except in one case, for an Indian who needed immediate attention. Asked to explain himself, Martin said: “I weighed obedience against charity and decided that charity was more important.” He said it with such conviction and humility that the prior told him to use his own judgment from then on.
Missions of Mercy. Martin de Porres reached out to the needy in so many ways that he has been called a forerunner of the modern social worker. Surely, he exemplified the true spirit of Christian social work—recognizing each person’s dignity and treating them the same way that Jesus would.
As the monastery’s distributor of alms, Martin made numerous trips into the city on errands of mercy. Every day, he gave the leftovers from the monastery meal to hundreds of people. Passing out the food, he would pray: “May God increase it through his infinite mercy!” He never ran out, no matter how large the crowd.
Carrying a basket filled with food and medicine, Martin visited hospitals, prisons, and homes—the hovels of Indians and slaves as well as the dwellings of soldiers and upper-class families who had fallen on hard times. Martin’s generosity was inclusive and lavish, for he not only gave alms but begged for them as well. It’s estimated that he gave away the equivalent of around two thousand dollars a week in goods for the poor—an enormous sum in those days.
Martin took on bigger projects, too, such as building an orphanage for Lima’s abandoned children. Neither the church nor the government would fund it, so Martin went to the wealthy and raised enough money for the building and for teachers. Through fundraising, he also built hospitals, provided agricultural training for young men and dowries for impoverished brides, and planted fruit orchards to feed the poor.
Martin’s charity extended to animals, too, in ways that recall St. Francis of Assisi. He calmed a ferocious dog by telling him to “learn to be good, because bullies end badly.” When mice were invading the infirmary, Martin’s gentle commands—and the promise of a daily meal—drove them out. He even coaxed a dog, a cat, and a mouse to eat from the same bowl!
To Be Like Jesus. Martin lived in a society where racial prejudice was rampant, and because of his skin color, he was often on the receiving end of it—first from his father, but even from his Dominican brothers. Some of them even referred to him as a “mulatto dog.” If the insult had been addressed to someone else, Martin would undoubtedly have defended him. But when it came to himself, he usually replied, “You have only spoken the truth. Please forgive this miserable sinner.”
Some might say that Martin had low self-esteem or was just too holy to let insults bother him. More likely, he was ready to accept any insult because he really was convinced of his sinfulness and absolute dependence on God’s mercy. And every such occasion gave him one more opportunity to grow in charity by responding good-naturedly and showering his abuser with kindness. This approach led one brother to a major conversion—he realized that he was the fool, not Martin!
Martin died in 1639, already hailed as a saint throughout Lima and beyond. Fittingly enough, he was reciting the Nicene Creed, and his last words were an affirmation of Christ’s Incarnation: “and was made man.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Jesus came alive in the person of Martin de Porres. And it’s no secret that Jesus wants to transform us so that our lives reveal him, too. Will we let him? Will we offer God our pluses and minuses and seek him with all our hearts?
Bob French lives in Alexandria, Virginia. This story was based on biographies, including Martin de Porres: A Saint of the Americas, by Brian J. Pierce, OP, and Martin de Porres: Apostle of Charity, by Giuliana Cavallini.