Both Saint Martin and Saint Nicholas are remembered for their heroic charity, both became famed wonder-working bishops, and both saved sailors from shipwreck. As we celebrate the feast day of Martin, November 11, we focus here on this saint whose fabled life notably started with the pity he showed a poor beggar by cutting his cloak in two, making him in one stroke the patron of both soldiers and tailors!
A Military Man
Born into a pagan military family around 316, Martin’s father was a tribune, subject to constant reassignment. Martin was born in modern day Hungary but grew up in Pavia, Italy, where his father was stationed. In those formative years he was attracted to Christianity. At age ten he went to church and begged to become a catechumen. At age twelve he wanted to become a hermit. But at fifteen, he was drafted into the Roman army due to a law issued by the emperor demanding that sons of retired veterans should take their fathers’ places. Soon he was stationed in Reims and later in Amiens, where the signature event in his life occurred. As he was passing through the city gates one bitterly cold winter, he spied a forlorn and tattered beggar pleading for alms. Having nothing to give him but a share in his own clothing, Martin drew his sword and cut his cloak in two. In a painting by an unknown German master the beggar is depicted as a crippled invalid missing a foot. This is common to German illustrations of the legend, and it contrasts strikingly with Martin, who is depicted standing in bright red leggings rather than in his usual pose, armored and riding a horse. Here the enabled one extends charity to the disabled and a Gospel mandate is fulfilled: “I was naked and you clothed me…inasmuch as you did it to the least of my brethren you did it to me” (cf. Mt 25:36, 40). That night in a dream, Martin saw Christ wearing that portion of cloak that he had given the beggar, and heard him saying to the angels that surrounded him, “Martin the catechumen has clothed me with this garment.” Thereupon Martin had himself baptized. More than ever he wanted to renounce the world and live entirely for Christ, but he lived up to his military contract for two more years, envisioning himself more and more as a soldier for Christ rather than for the emperor.
After his release from the army, Martin presented himself to Hilary, the bishop of Poitiers, who made him an acolyte. In a dream he was told to visit his parents and convert them. His mother embraced the faith, but his father would not. On this journey, he preached against the Arian heresy, and suffered a public scourging for it when he fell into the hands of the enemy. Managing to return to Poitiers, the bishop gave him a plot of land on which to build a hut. It was two miles outside the city in a place now called Ligugé. This became the core of Martin’s spirituality: prayer, solitude, and sacrifice. Adopting a hair shirt and animal skins for his habit (a far cry from the fancy uniform depicted in the painting) Martin lived the life of a hermit in his wooden hut. In time, he attracted more and more men who wanted to follow his example. From this primitive beginning, Martin established the first monastic community in Gaul. The discipline he received in the military provided the fertile ground in which his monastic system could flower. But the Lord had further plans for Martin, and called him from his spiritual oasis when the bishop of Tours died in 371.
A Beloved Bishop
Martin had no desire to become a bishop (the first sign that he would make a good one). But supporters tricked him into coming to Tours, where he was persuaded to stay and assume the episcopacy. He did not occupy the bishop’s residence and he refused to sit on the bishop’s throne. He sat on a three-legged stool instead. He also abhorred the tumult of the city, and established another monastery as his home, this time in a series of caves carved out of the cliffs of nearby Marmoutier. As many as eighty men joined him, and from among this ascetic group many cities chose their bishops.
As bishop of Tours, Martin preached around the countryside, performing many wonders, from communication with animals to raisings from the dead. Nearly a thousand years before Saint Francis, Martin was known to kiss a poor leper and cure him. The saint’s biographer, Sulpicius Severus, compared Martin to the Apostles, and attributed to him amazing miracles that included healings, exorcisms, visions of angels, and temptations by devils. In 397, as he saw death approaching, he donned sackcloth and ashes. When he finally expired, those around him heard choirs of angels singing. The people of both Poitiers and Tours fought over his body. Saint Ambrose of Milan claimed to have telepathically attended his funeral. Later, the kings of France would carry Martin’s cloak into battle as a talisman for victory. But the triumph worth winning, as Martin’s life attested, was in the victory over self and the allurements of the world. And this insight came from a man who was a bishop, who remained a monk, who remained a soldier for Christ to the end.