My patron saint is Martin de Porres. Wikipedia describes him as “the patron saint of mixed-race people, barbers, innkeepers, public health workers, and all those seeking racial harmony,” all of which is news to me. I had always known Saint Martin as just some black guy, which is curious enough. What was my father thinking?
Born a bastard in 1579 in Lima, Peru, Saint Martin was half Spanish, half black. Barred from entering a religious order because of his African blood, Saint Martin was only allowed to dwell with the Dominicans as a servant. He was so conscientious with his menial duties, the friars nicknamed him “the saint of the broom.” Less charitably, a novice dubbed the dark man “a mulatto dog.” Saint Martin could levitate, be in two places at the same time and miraculously heal the sick, often with just a glass of water. Duly impressed, the prior finally permitted him to become a brother. Always drawn towards the most shunned, Saint Martin assisted the poorest and sickest, comforted slaves and sheltered stray animals. In paintings, he is routinely depicted with a broom and a plate of food for a dog, cat, mouse and bird. To lift the convent from debts, Saint Martin even offered to be sold as a slave.
At the time of Saint Martin’s death, the pope was Urban VIII. A vain, greedy man, Urban VIII enriched his entire clan and fought wars to expand his power. He commissioned Bernini to sculpt marble busts of himself, one of which was destroyed by a mob at his death. Urban VIII is best remembered for his persecution of Galileo for saying the earth rotates around the sun.
Giving lie to the dogma that each pope is infallible, there were many grasping, horny or outright evil “holy fathers.” Innocent VIII pistoned out as many as 16 (free) love children, accepted 100 Moorish slaves from Ferdinand of Aragon and sanctioned the slave trade since it lassoed Africans into Christendom. Alexander VI had kids with his mistresses openly. As homosexuals were being castrated or burnt alive for sodomy, Paul II freely enjoyed plenty of Greek loving in Rome and is said to have met his maker while being rear ended by some page boy. Another gay pope, Leo X, was hounded by a contemporary ditty, “Florentine, hustler, blind and a passive homo” [“fiorentin, baro, cieco e paticone”]. Pope Benedict IX was accused by Saint Peter Damian of sodomy, staging orgies and even bestiality, and he was charged by Pope Victor III of murders and rapes. Which pope is lying? Stand-ins for God, they can’t say or do anything wrong, one must remember. For the right fee, several of these creeps could even hoist your loved one out of purgatory.
Three hundred twenty-two years after his death, Martin de Porres was canonized in 1962, the year before I was born, so it’s likely my father got the idea from the news. In any case, it hasn’t been an inappropriate choice, considering how much time I’ve spent in “inns,” and though no saint with a Hoover, I cleaned houses for several years. In my own way, I’m also a bastard, a bastard of Western civilization.
In Saigon, I went to La San Taberd. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651–1719) was a rich man who housed and fed poor teachers, gave his inherited fortune away and saw his life mission as making education useful and available to all. His influence has spread worldwide. Founded in 1874, my Lasallian school was shut down by the Communists in 1975, so I was among its last students.
In 2000, I returned to find its playground comically much smaller than in memory. Ignoring its basketball hoops and ping pong tables, I had spent most recesses testing my kung fu and judo techniques, for nothing made me happier than to knock some serious sense into someone. Quite often, though, it was me who got the pounding end of an inarguable truth. The body teaches nonstop and limits sober.
Thanks to the chopsockies and, well, soldiers and tanks on the streets, helicopters overhead, martial music on radio and TV, and body counts in each newspaper, each morning, violence was always in the air, so it’s no wonder we kids just wanted to kill each other. Between punches, kicks, knees, elbows and throw downs, I did manage to gain a solid academic foundation from the friars, however, for years after the airlift, I would score in the top percentile in math for my SAT, this despite being completely indifferent to numbers by then. Living in a DC suburb, I was engrossed by painting and jazz.
In college, I became quite enamored with myself, a most pervasive sin in any culture, though increasingly more pronounced here, I must say, and to a grotesque degree. The inevitable result was a dark night of the soul lasting a couple of years, and I certainly deserved that roundhouse kick to the head. The very definition of madness, self-infatuation won’t just make one blind but hostile to the rest of the world. Self-worship is the worst idolatry. Swedenborg:
The evils of those who are in the love of self are, in general, contempt of others, envy, enmity against all who do not favor them, and consequent hostility, hatred of various kinds, revenge, cunning, deceit, unmercifulness, and cruelty.
All of the above are plentiful here, for this strutting and bombastic culture abets the crassest vanities. According to Swedenborg, each man crafts, with his thoughts and actions, his own inferno or paradise, thus becoming a unique demon or angel. Very often, a man will mistake his most elaborately-built hell for heaven, but never vice versa. Obviously, an entire society can also suffer this delusion.