For this day’s Memorial of Saint Martin of Tours, here’s an excerpt from “The Life of Saint Martin” by the ancient Christian writer, Sulpicius Severus. In this particular excerpt, Saint Martin’s compassion is evident. Also very evident is Martin’s monastic/eremitic spirit: living in a cell, his mind always focused on heaven, his fasting and abstinence, and an interior life that has him always engaged in the service of God. This is a very inspiring piece for anyone who is serious about their Christian journey.
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Martin was born at Sabaria in Hungary but was educated at Pavia in Italy. His pagan parents were of no mean rank: his father was at first simply a soldier but became a military tribune. The youthful Martin followed a military career, serving on horseback in the Imperial Guard under the Emperor Constantine, and then under Julius. This, however, was not done of his own free will, because since his earliest years, this noble youth aspired to serve God; in fact, when he was ten years old, despite family resistance, he sought refuge in the Church and asked to become a catechumen. Soon afterwards, he wanted to devote himself entirely to God’s work and wished to live in the desert; and he would have followed up on that burning desire if the weakness of his twelve years of age had not prevented him. His heart, however, being always engaged in matters of hermitages or the Church, always meditated on in his boyish years what he afterwards accomplished.
One winter’s day, more severe than usual, so much that people were dying from the extreme cold, Martin, who was wearing only a cloak and military arms, happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens, a half-naked beggar. The poor fellow was begging those who passed by to take pity upon his misery, but all passed by him without notice. The man of God recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar good works. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Some of the bystanders mocked him, finding it ridiculous that he stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar; they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness. The next night, when Martin was asleep, Christ appeared to him dressed in that part of his cloak with which he had dressed the poor man. As he contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, the saint recognized the clothes Jesus was wearing. Then he heard Him cry out loudly to the multitude of angels standing round: “Martin, a simple catechumen, clothed Me with this robe.”
After leaving the military, Martin went to Saint Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, who even then was a recognized authority in theology, and spent some time with him. Now, this same Hilary, having instituted him in the office of the diaconate, endeavored still more closely to attach him to himself, and to bind him by leading him to take part in the service of God, but Martin repeatedly refused, declaring that he was unworthy. The wise bishop felt that the only way to engage him would be to give him functions that were quite humiliating. He therefore appointed him to be an exorcist. The young man did not dare refuse this appointment, for fear that he might seem to have looked down upon it as somewhat humble.
Later, Martin was called upon to be the bishop of Tours. With perfect firmness, he remained the same as he had been before: the same humility of heart, and the same homeliness in his garments. He performed the duties of bishop with prestige and authority, without betraying the objects and virtues of a monk. For a time he lived in a cell adjacent to the church. Then, no longer able to bear the disturbance of so many visitors, he moved to a hermitage just outside of town. This was a retreat so remote that he enjoyed in it the solitude of a hermit. On one side, it was surrounded by a precipitous rock of a lofty mountain, while the river Loire had shut in the rest of the plain by a bay extending back for a little distance; and the place could be approached only by one, and that a very narrow passage. Martin occupied a cell constructed of wood, and also several brothers in the same manner. But the majority preferred to dig a shelter into the rock from the mountain above. There were altogether eighty disciples, who were being disciplined after the example of the saintly master.
The interior life of Martin, his daily conduct and his mind always bent upon the things of heaven, no discourse could adequately express. Mentioned would be his perseverance and self-mastery in abstinence and fasting, and his power in vigilance and prayer, along with the nights, as well as days, which were spent by him, while not a moment was separated from the service of God, either for indulging in ease, or engaging in business. In fact, he did not indulge either in food or sleep, except in so far as the necessities of nature required. Never did a single hour or moment pass in which he was not either actually engaged in prayer; or, if it happened that he was occupied with something else, still he never let his mind loose from prayer. In truth, just as it is the custom of blacksmiths, in the midst of their work to beat their own anvil as a sort of relief to the laborer, so Martin even when he appeared to be doing something else, was still engaged in prayer.
Blessed is the man in whom there was no guile - judging no man, condemning no man, returning evil for evil to no man! His patience was such a strong armor against any offense. Even when he was chief priest, he allowed himself to be wronged by the lowest clerics with impunity; nor did he either remove them from the office on account of such conduct, or, as far as in him lay, repel them from a place in his affection. No one ever saw Martin angry, upset, distressed, or in the throes of laughter. He was always one and the same, his face radiant with the joy of heaven, seeming to belong to another world. Never was there any word on his lips but Christ, and never was there a feeling in his heart except piety, peace, and tender mercy. Frequently, too, he used to weep for the sins of those who showed themselves his revilers -- those who, as he led his retired and tranquil life, slandered him with poisoned tongue and a viper's mouth.
Martin had predicted long before the day in which he would die. When he suddenly felt the forces of the body leave him, he summoned the brothers and warned them of his impending death. Everyone was very much saddened and in tears, as if becoming one and saying: “Why do you abandon us Father? Why do you leave us desolate? If ravenous wolves attack the flock, who will defend us from their bites? To whom will you entrust the care of your disconsolate children?” Deeply moved, Martin turned to God: “Lord, if I am still necessary for Your people, I will not refuse the labor. Your will be done!”
O great man beyond words, not defeated by troubles, invincible in the face of death! He had no fear of dying. When the bystanders saw that, despite his great fever, he remained lying on his back, they besought him to change position to alleviate somewhat the pain. But Martin answered, “Brothers, rather let me look toward heaven than to earth so that my soul in its journey home may take a direct flight to the Lord.” Shortly before death he saw the evil spirit. “What do you want, horrible beast? You will find nothing in me that is yours!” With those words, he gave his soul to God.
Sancte Martine, ora pro nobis!