November 3: Become a saint like St. Martin de Porres

Saint Martin de Porres
CarlosVdeHabsburgo, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In a year when racial injustice and “colonialism” have become hot topics, there is no better saint for Election Day than Saint Martin de Porres.

Martin de Porres (1579-1639) was born the illegitimate child of a freed black slave and a Spanish knight in Lima, Peru. His father acknowledged that Martin and his sister were his children, but he virtually abandoned them and their mother when they were young. To learn a trade and support himself, Martin was apprenticed to a barber-surgeon, but he decided to enter the Dominican order as a lay brother when he was fifteen years old.

Martin was born in a poor family without an absent father and was a racial minority in a stratified society. What (or better, who) lifted Martin out of a potentially bitter, miserable life? It was God Himself.

Martin, as a faithful Catholic, knew that God loved him and had created him as a unique person in His own image. Nothing about the circumstances of his birth, life events, or even personal temperament were unknown to God, and none of those things could keep him from becoming a saint.

Because of his poverty, Martin knew that he needed to learn a trade, so he did. When he heard God’s call to become a vowed religious, his previous training as a barber-surgeon helped him care for the sick, and not only in the infirmary of his community, but also the poor of the greater community.

God gave Martin a naturally gentle disposition; this made him very approachable to those who found themselves in need of help. It is probably also the reason that the tenderhearted man established an animal shelter for cats and dogs, even though he had to locate it at his sister’s house since, as a Dominican, he had no private property of his own. His mixed race also opened doors for people of many ethnicities to see Martin as a sympathetic and understanding listener to their problems.

No fallen human being can become humble without the grace of God and a lot of effort, and everyone agrees that Martin was humble. Dominicans beg for money to support themselves, and Martin therefore had to beg money from people for the support of the community from time to time. But when his sister’s daughter needed a dowry so she could marry, Martin begged for her sake too, and he raised all that was needed in just a few days. Oh yes, and he somehow managed to beg enough financial support so that he could establish an orphanage and a hospital for the children in his city, something that literally would not have existed if he had been too proud to beg.

However stable or unstable your family of origin, however gentle or irascible your natural disposition, however lowly or exalted your opinion of yourself, Saint Martin de Porres teaches us that God can help you become a saint.

Saint Martin de Porres, help me become a saint.

Saints

Other resources on becoming a saint

Having All Saints’ Day fall on a Sunday has inspired many Catholic writers to write about how we can not only admire the saints but follow in their footsteps. Check out the following recent articles.

Fr. Charles Fox at Catholic World Report: Our vocation to holiness and the wonderful variety of the saints

Fr. Bevil Bramwell at The Catholic Thing: Faith — the Real Crisis

And Teresa Civantos Barber at Aleteia.org: 7 Books to inspire you on your journey to sainthood. (Her slideshow doesn’t include my book – I checked – but she does include a couple new books about saints that look great. My personal favorite is Butler’s Lives of the Saints, but be aware that there are multiple versions of Butler’s available today. Some are better than others. Read a sample before you invest in the pricier versions.)

Saints

Every Catholic’s goal for November 1: Become a saint

Saints
Detail of painting by Fra Angelico, Wikimedia Commons

Although the Church commemorates individual saints on particular dates throughout the year—typically on the date of the saint’s death—the Church gathers all the saints together for one big celebration on November 1. According to the Martyrologium Romanum, the official calendar of saints for the Church, there are twenty individual saints and blesseds remembered on this date as well. Those holy men and women include an Italian deacon who died a martyr during the days of the early Church; a Portuguese man who started life as a soldier but, after becoming a widower, became a lay brother and lived a life of penance; and a Greek rite Catholic priest who was poisoned by the Communists when he stood up for the rights of the Church. These saints, like the saints on every other day of the year, demonstrate the universality of the Church.

But All Saints’ Day is more than just a remembrance of all the greatest saints of the entire year, more than a remembrance of a handful of lesser-known saints, and more than a remembrance of all the unnamed and unknown men and women who are already in Heaven but whose names we won’t know until (please God) we join them there. All Saints’ Day is a reminder that all of us could be saints and all of us should try to be saints. That means you and me.

For the rest of the month of November, there will be blog posts on specific saints, not one of whom lived a life of blissful ease. All of them had personal quirks, suffered from family difficulties, and/or lived through tumultuous political events. For that reason, they are the perfect people to teach the rest of us how to become saints, one day at a time.

All you holy men and women, pray for us to become saints.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 9

Statue of Saint Therese of Lisieux
Wikimedia Commons

In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Saint Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. This was a startling decision. Perhaps since Saint John Paul II made many startling decisions during his pontificate—such as suddenly adding five mysteries to the rosary—it is easy to fail to notice how unusual this decision really was.

Other Doctors of the Church include Saints Thomas Aquinas, Jerome of Stridon, and Augustine of Hippo, brilliant thinkers who were also amazingly prolific and whose works could fill entire bookshelves. Therese of Lisieux’s writings, on the other hand, include only three short autobiographical documents and personal letters (although there are quite a few of those).

Other Doctors of the Church were noted as founders. Saint Anselm of Canterbury is generally considered the founder of a philosophical school called Scholasticism. Saint Bonaventure is often called the second founder of the Franciscan order because he codified the order’s rules after the death of Saint Francis. Even Therese’s namesake, Saint Teresa of Avila, was the founder of the order of Discalced Carmelites along with (another Doctor) Saint John of the Cross.

Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great were popes before they were acknowledged, posthumously, as Doctors of the Church. Therese only visited the pope, on one occasion, where she caused a minor scandal by breaking protocol and asking the pope to intervene with her bishop and allow her to enter the Carmelites at a young age.

Some Doctors experienced powerful visions, such as Saints Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen. But not Therese. Some Doctors faced personal danger because of their orthodox explanations of the faith, such as Saints John Damascene and John Chrysostom. But not Therese.

So perhaps we should turn to Pope John Paul II himself to understand the reasons behind this seemingly unusual decision. While his apostolic letter explains in detail why he, as pope, decided to acknowledge Saint Therese as a Doctor of the Church, he summarizes this action in a sentence found in no. 6 of the document.

Thérèse of the Child Jesus left us writings that deservedly qualify her as a teacher of the spiritual life. 

May we all take the time to learn from this great spiritual teacher, Saint Therese of Lisieux.

Saint Therese, teach me about the spiritual life so that I too can become a saint.

Note: I have heard that early English translations of The Story of a Soul included a lot of flowery, “prettified” language. I have never seen a translation like that, but translations by Clarke and Beevers are excellent. The Institute of Carmelite Studies publishes all of her works.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 8

Early French version of Saint Therese’s autobiography
Wikimedia Commons

During Therese’s time as a Carmelite nun, she was ordered by her superiors to write her spiritual autobiography on three occasions. One of those superiors was her older sister, Pauline, who was also a Carmelite nun. Pauline knew her younger sister was not only holy but also gifted at explaining spiritual matters, and she obviously thought that Therese’s thoughts about God’s presence in her life would be worth reading. After Saint Therese’s death in 1897, Pauline, under obedience to her own superior at the time, edited the three writings to make them appear to be one document.

Clearly Therese came from a gifted family because her sister Pauline’s edits helped make it easier for readers to absorb what Therese had to say. Therese’s sister Celine brought a camera with her when she too entered the Carmelites and took photographs of Therese, which were later published and helped promote devotion to her saintly sister.

Devotion to Saint Therese outside of France began in Poland and Ireland, but it quickly spread all over the world. Her autobiography has since been translated into dozens of languages, and multiple English translations are available. Devotees of Saint Therese, inspired by The Story of a Soul, include popes (Francis and John Paul I), saints (Teresa of Calcutta, Pio of Pietrelcina, and Giuseppe Moscati), writers, philosophers, and even a convicted and repentant murderer (Jacques Fesch), proving that the “little way” of holiness that she describes in her writings has the power to touch hearts and minds all over the world. Because we are all “little souls” in God’s sight, just like Therese.

Saint Therese, teach me about your “little way” of holiness.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 7

Saint Therese of Lisieux
Wikimedia Commons

Every human being has the experience of illness or injury from time to time, some of us more often than others. Whether it’s life-threatening or not, being sick forces us to do many things we don’t want to do and stop doing many things that we do want to do.

Saint Therese recognized that she had tuberculosis, an infectious disease which was terminal at the time, when she was only twenty-three years old. She spent the last year of her life growing sicker and weaker, with no hope of recovery. Though she had dreamed of becoming a missionary when she was younger, she could only pray for missionaries now. Though she had served her monastery as novice mistress before, now she had to lie in bed and patiently accept medical treatments. Even breathing became difficult for her.

On a deeper level, she was also spiritually tempted. The exhaustion caused by her medical condition also commonly causes depression, and Therese, who had had such a deep prayer life and joyful sense of God’s presence, found herself tempted by despairing thoughts and questions about God’s very existence. In her autobiography, she describes these dark temptations, but her example also shows that temptations are not only not sinful, but can be great opportunities to grow in faith. Even when her prayer life and physical life had become very dark and lonely, Therese of Lisieux continued to trust in God and remind herself of His goodness and care for her.

Saint Therese, remind me of God’s love for me when I suffer from poor health or temptations.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 6

Saint Therese of Lisieux
Wikimedia Commons

In one of the most memorable passages of Saint Therese’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she describes a challenge she faced frequently after she had entered the Carmelite monastery.

As the youngest member of the community, she was told to care for one of the oldest members of the community. The elderly sister needed assistance walking to the refectory (dining room) every evening before dinner. This older sister criticized Therese from the beginning to the end of every trip to the refectory. Therese was told she was walking too fast, then too slow, then being too careless, and so forth.

If you have ever had the experience of having to deal with a crabby person who needs help, you know how frustrating, infuriating, and emotionally draining it can be to face such a situation every single day, with no end in sight. But by God’s grace, Therese conquered that temptation. And she shows us how to do the same.

First, Therese never named the elderly sister and never said a single unkind word about her even while she describes her experience. She never let that evil snake called gossip enter her heart or her words.

Second, Therese related a moment of grace she experienced while walking the sister down the hall one evening. She could hear the sounds of a party from a nearby house and was struck by the difference between the elegant event next door and the mundane, apparently tedious activity she was engaged in. And rather than being jealous or bitter, she was overwhelmed with gratitude to God for allowing her to be exactly where she was. Because she was exactly where God wanted her to be.

Saint Therese, help me to know the peace that comes from being
exactly where God wants me to be.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 5

Saint Therese as a novice, playing the part of Saint Joan of Arc
Wikimedia Commons

In the photo above, Saint Therese is shown in costume portraying the great French saint, Joan of Arc. Therese was a member of the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux at the time, and she not only starred as the great Saint Joan but wrote the play herself.

Saint Joan, the “Maid of Orleans”, was criticized for many things during her lifetime. Joan wore men’s clothes while leading the French army; though an unmarried woman, she lived among soldiers; she claimed to hear voices (of saints) who told her to lead the war against the English. While many complained about her failure to follow contemporary customs for Frenchwomen, the charge that Joan was a witch was the one that finally stuck. When captured, Joan was subjected to a trial that was clearly biased against her, and she was unsurprisingly condemned. It was clearly an unjust accusation, but Joan of Arc bore it like a saint.

Therese’s experience of unjust treatment were far less dramatic but are still very instructive for us because they are so utterly ordinary.

Therese was a very intelligent girl and also very sensitive due to the loss of her mother. Because of her intelligence, she was promoted to study with older girls, but the bullying she endured ultimately led her family to homeschool her. When Therese entered the Carmelite monastery, two of her older sisters were already professed nuns there, which caused resentment among some of the nuns, who expected Therese to think she would get special favors because of her blood relationship. For example, on one occasion, Therese was ordered by her superior to take a message to one of her older sisters. When she arrived at her sister’s door, another nun berated her and accused her of seeking special privileges to see her sister. Therese recognized that anything she said would be interpreted wrongly, so she said nothing. She accepted the correction—for something she hadn’t done wrong—and meekly returned to her duties, without complaint.

Although there is a world of difference between being burned at the stake and keeping your mouth shut when someone unjustly criticizes you, the latter is the sort of temptation every Christian could face any day of the week. Try it today, and see if you are up to Saint Therese’s level of holiness yet.

Saint Therese, show me how to accept criticism from others with charity.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 4

Saint Therese as a teenager
Wikimedia Commons

The late Father Benedict Groeschel was a Catholic priest, author, one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and a psychologist. He once commented that Saint Therese of Lisieux was “spiritually precocious”, and there’s plenty of evidence to back up his professional assessment of her character.

When Therese was at that delicate age of adolescence when she wanted to be treated like an adult but didn’t quite want to give up the charming things of childhood yet, an important event happened one Christmas Eve. Her father made the sort of comment that parents make all the time, wishing out loud that his baby (Therese) would finally grow up so that the childish gifts of Christmas could be set aside. (Truth be told, he was probably just tired, as happens to all of us as we get older, of staying up for a party after a late Mass.) Therese overheard his comment, and rather than having a typical teenage tantrum (breaking into tears, storming to her room in anger, or sulking for a week), she smiled. That is, she embraced the grace that the Lord gave her to sacrifice her sensitivity, put a smile on her face, and deal charitably with her family for the rest of the evening. She later called that her “conversion”, and her family was surely thankful that she no longer broke into tears at the drop of a hat. If you think this was a small grace, think of Saint Therese at your next Christmas party with extended family and see if everyone weathers the event with as much charity as did Saint Therese.

Another sign of Therese’s spiritual precocity occurred only a few years later. She discerned that God was calling her to religious life as a Carmelite nun though she was only fourteen years old. In the photo above, you can see her teenage attempt to show her seriousness about this; she put her hair up to appear older than she really was. How many fourteen-year-olds could make that decision, explain it convincingly to a bishop, and then break papal protocol by respectfully imploring the pope himself for help when brought before him during a trip to Italy? Only a spiritually precocious one.

Saint Therese, teach me how to be childlike, rather than childish.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 3

Saint Therese of Lisieux as a little girl
Wikimedia Commons

Therese Martin was blessed to grow up in a loving family which practiced its faith regularly and lived a middle class life in France. Surely it was a comfortable, pain-free childhood that led her to become such a saintly young woman, right?

Wrong. Therese’s family, like every family, knew tragedy first-hand.

Four of the nine Martin children died very young. Two sons died before reaching their first birthdays. One daughter lived only a few months, and another daughter died at the age of five. One can only imagine how painful each loss was for Louis and Zelie, Therese’s parents.

Therese’s mother Zelie died of breast cancer when Zelie was only forty-five years old. Although Therese was only four years old at the time, she remembered her mother’s passing so vividly that she was able to describe seeing her mother’s coffin in her autobiography. All the daughters were devastated at the loss of their mother, but Therese, as the youngest, was particularly affected and became a very sensitive child for many years.

Near the end of his life, Louis suffered strokes as well as some sort of mental breakdown. The five Martin sisters suffered great pain and grief at the sight of their beloved father being physically and mentally incapacitated.

Yet all of these sufferings, like every cross we choose to bear in union with our suffering Lord, bore spiritual fruit. In her autobiography, Therese describes praying for help from her little brothers and sisters who had already passed on to Heaven. They gave her hope when she too was facing her final illness. Although Therese lost her mother when she was very young, one of her older sisters became her second mother, caring for her with great tenderness and care. Zelie’s devout faith not only lived on in Therese’s memory but in the actions of the older sisters who raised her. Although watching a parent’s decline is always heartbreaking, all of the Martin sisters were comforted by the fact that Louis had recognized his oncoming illness and told them he was offering his suffering for others—before he lost his ability to communicate that fact during his final years.

Saint Therese, show me how to bear spiritual fruit in my suffering.