Joy and Hope
January 23, 2010
Saints’ lives fuse charity and worship
I have recently returned from a trip to Peru. While there, I visited the stunningly dramatic heights of Machu Picchu and other beautiful archeological sites of the ancient Inca Empire. I also spent a few days in the loud, crowded capital city of Lima, where I went to visit the tombs of St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres.
St. Martin and St. Rose were contemporaries. Both were third order Dominicans who lived lives devoted to the Lord Jesus and in service to the poor and sick of Lima during the colonial period of that city.
Both St. Rose and St. Martin are buried in the same colonial Dominican convent but in different places. I was very struck and initially perplexed by the setting of St. Martin’s tomb. The tombstone was set off on the side of small chapel in that ancient convent. It seemed an odd place. I expected him to be buried in the center or perhaps to see his tomb laid inside a majestic colonial altarpiece.
A guide at the sight explained it to me. St. Martin converted the chapel into an infirmary for the aged and sick, including poor people from the streets of Lima. The spot where his remains lay was where he slept, among the poor and sick for whom he cared. Because his body was laid to rest there and because of the ministry he performed there, that space is now a restored chapel. It is a chapel made sacred by the one whose remains lay there and the holy, charitable works he performed there.
Sitting in the chapel, I tried to imagine St. Martin busy among aching, anguished bodies pleading for care and comfort. As I sat there, there was a steady stream of people who came in with their own silent, anxious pleas hoping that St. Martin would still reach down from heaven to heal and console them. The ministry of St. Martin continued. The place still exuded the sacredness of charity and the reverence for life that inspired the manners of St. Martin.
St. Martin, along with St. Rose, cultivated a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Both of these noble Latin American saints confused, or better said, fused their devotion for the Eucharist with their devotion to the poor. The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, spoke of this sacramental fusion when he taught us in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” that “worship” itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is “intrinsically fragmented.” (DCE, No. 14)
Whenever a disciple of Jesus approaches someone with reverence, the encounter brings the charity of the Eucharist into the world. The devotion to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist compels the disciple to bring that same devotion to the presence of Christ in the poor, the sick and the vulnerable.
St. Martin’s devotion to the poor and the sick, made many of his Dominican brothers uncomfortable. True eucharistic devotion, in the spirit of St. Martin, will continue to do this. Devotion to the anxious mother and her unborn child, reverence for the disheveled and disoriented homeless man, hospitality toward the wearied immigrant — these concrete practices of eucharistic charity still make society uncomfortable and may do the same for us as well.
This is the prickly piety that has inspired so many saints and unsettled the times in which they lived: St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose of Lima, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Frances Cabrini, St. Catherine Drexel, in our own time Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and so many others. Their devotion to the Eucharist united them with their brothers and sisters most in need. Their love for Christ fused both charity and worship in every gesture of their lives.
Perhaps it is not these bold works of charity themselves that can make us uncomfortable. What may leave our Christian lives fragmented and unsettled is when the Eucharist “does not pass over into the concrete practice of love.” It is this spiritual brokenness that wounds us. When we see the fusion of charity and worship in the lives of Martin, Rose, Vincent, Teresa and others, we become painfully aware of what our own lives lack.
As our hands reverently received the sacred body of Christ in the Eucharist, let us pray those same hands might reverently care for the mother and her unborn child, courteously embrace the hands of the stranger, kindly hold the hands of the weak, and devoutly grasp the gift we are for one another through Christ, our Lord. Then the space between us, like the Dominican chapel in Lima, will become sacred, a place of reverence and grace.