When I was a boy my father had a bout of cancer, a tumor on the lower lip. To treat it, they simply cut out the tumor and stitched it all up. I don’t recall that he underwent any chemo, although there might have been some radiation to the site (it is a blur to me now). At the time it seemed like quite the scare, and he had a handsome lump on his lower lip for the rest of his life to show for it. Rather than quit smoking, the likely cause, he started using a stylish cigarette holder (not the FDR type, but a shorter version). This was the very early 1960s. (He had quit smoking by the early 70s.)
But I write not about cigarettes or smoking. The real development from that ordeal was a private devotion on my Dad’s part to a humble Peruvian saint, Martin de Porres. A family friend had just visited Rome, where Martin had been canonized by Pope John XXIII the year before. She brought back to my father beautiful reliquary of the saint, who was the patron saint of hairdressers, among other designees.. (My father owned and operated a group of hair salons back in the 50s and early 60s). Martin was of very humble origin, his mother either a slave or indigenous. His father, who it seems abandoned him, was Spanish. Due to his mother’s lineage, he lived on the margins even of the church. (His attribute, or symbol, is a lowly broom). Rather than grow embittered by the racism he encountered, Martin chose to be compassionate, helping people who had nothing, tending to the sick and dying. Among Martin’s many qualities also was a love for animals, and it was said that he communicate with them, much as St. Francis had with the birds.
After Dad died I found the reliquary in his upper bureau drawer. It is a small box, about 2½ inches by 3½ inches, covered in blue silk with a small clasp on the front. Unlatching the clasp, the box opens to reveal a small gold monstrance, inside the center glass of which sits the tiny relic—probably from something that belonged to Martin in his lifetime—although he was very poor and owned virtually nothing. Folded up with the relic is an official paper from the Vatican printed on heavy paper, attesting to the relic’s authenticity—all written in Latin. Later, going through Dad’s wallet (only very recently, after my mother died), I discovered that, along with some Irish Sweepstakes tickets, Dad had been carrying all those years a pocket-sized card with Martin’s image and another relic.
My father was neither an overtly pious man nor one who would go out of his way to feign a disregard for God, either. It was all woven into him somehow. I recall once looking over at him in church a year or so before his death, his head bowed in silent prayer, an image that stays with me. A gentle man of spiritual depth, he rarely spoke of his faith beyond referring to “the good Lord” who would take care of all and everything in the end; we had merely to trust in his ways. Dad’s faith was not adorned with theology, but with a pre-theological sense of God. He was even just a little bit superstitious. I think he and Martin would have hit it off. Much of his faith was expressed through beauty—a talented gardener, musician, good eye—and, of course, his incredible love for each of us, his three children. He also had great a gift for friendship and a wonderful sense of humor.
Now that I am dealing with cancer, I have that reliquary on top of my dresser. It connects me not only with my father, but also with Martin. I have grown to love this saint and have been trying to read up on him. Among the marvelous “medieval” stories about him were that he could walk through walls in order to get to people who needed help. There is something about walking through walls that is very appealing to me. There is also something about the physical—the touch, the connection with a real saint who lived over four hundred years ago walking through the walls of historical distance and reaching into the present moment—that is a source of real consolation. I don’t expect Martin to be able to pull off a miracle, beyond the miracle that is already happening each time I touch that blue box. I’ve added to it an image of Pedro Arrupe, the saintly Jesuit superior general; and of Michael Buckley, my Jesuit friend and mentor who died a couple of weeks ago. These three intercessors become in some way present when I simply see that blue box, and, I like to think, are gently easing the way along the pathway to God.