November 11th is "Martinmas Day" – the feast of St. Martin of Tours.
It's a day full of old traditions, fun, and superstition. One belief was that if one stood in the back of the parish church on this day, one could see an aura around the heads of those who would be gone before the next Martinmas.
Another story had it that once when St. Martin was on his way to Rome, he met up with Satan. He promptly changed the devil into a donkey, and rode him into the City. The donkey spoke to him, and in palindromes, no less: "Signa te signa. Temere me tangis et agnis," he said; and "Roma tibi subito motibus ibit amor." ["Cross thyself, you plague and vex me without need; for by my efforts you are about to reach Rome, the object of your travel."]
So who was this Martin?
He was a real paragon; and he could be called a "conscientious objector for the centuries."
He prayed, "O Lord, if I am still necessary to my people, I do not refuse the labor: Thy will be done." But what he did refuse to do, finally, was to fight.
This seemed out of character, given his family situation. Martin was born in a Roman province (Pannonia, now part of Hungary) in or about the year 315. His father was a military man, an officer in the Roman army who had risen from the ranks; and, with his wife, a worshiper of the old Roman gods. Many were at this time, although the persecutions of Christians had finally come to an end.
But young Martin yearned to learn the lessons of Christianity, and to be baptized. So, when he was barely ten years old, he secretly went to the house of a priest and begged for instruction.
Within a few years, while still a catechumen, Martin was "drafted." All he wanted was to be a soldier for Christ, but the Romans apparently had a law that any son of a soldier would become a soldier himself. This soldier-to-be was so reluctant that he had to be held in chains until the induction; after that, he believed it his duty to serve. At the same time, he lived insofar as possible the life of a monk–even after he, too, was raised to officer's rank; and even though he was made part of an elite ceremonial unit, whose members wore gorgeous uniforms and had light duty.
It was his warm uniform–and what he did with it–that first got him noticed. When he was about twenty, he was riding home one bitterly cold night (and the stories say he had already given away most of what he was wearing to people who, he thought, needed it more than he did), when he saw an exceedingly old and poor man, who was almost without any clothes at all, and about to freeze to death. Martin immediately jumped from his horse, took off his luxurious cloak, and cut it in two with his sword. Wrapping one half around the starving beggar, he returned the other half to his own shoulders, and rode off.
Years later, a friend, admirer, and disciple named Sulpicius Severus told this story, and many others no less wonderful, in what he called "a little treatise" on Martin's life.
The climax to the story of the beggar and the cloak doesn't come where people laugh at the young man on the horse and he isn't fazed by it (although some realize they're in the presence of Christian goodness). It ends later that night, when Martin has a dream. In his dream, he sees Jesus, dressed in the half-of-a-cloak he had given the beggar, and hears Him saying, "Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe" and reiterating, as in the Scripture, "Inasmuch as ye have done these things to one of the least of these, ye have done them unto me."
At that point, he did become a baptized Communicant. But he had to continue serving in the army.
Before a battle, when the troops were being handed money as an incentive, he protested that now he was "a soldier of Christ," so could not fight. "Put me in the forefront, though," he offered. The commander was so livid that he promised he would do exactly that, and had Martin thrown in jail until time to take the field.
Imagine his surprise when the enemy surrendered before the battle began. Well, Martin's life continued like that. Finally demobilized, he sought out St. Hilary, and begged to serve and learn from him. Set upon by robbers, he quietly and lovingly told them about God, so that at least one of them converted on the spot–and years later, told his story to Sulpicius Severus, who wrote it down. Saintly act followed on saintly act. It's no wonder God had called Martin out of paganism at such an early age: This was a man who was truly, unselfishly, loving.
Of course his fame spread. The people of Tours decided as one that he must be their next bishop. At the same time, they knew very well that he was so humble, he would never accept the offer unless he was tricked into it.
And so they tricked him. Someone begged him to come minister to "his sick wife"; and when Martin–who came immediately, of course– got to Tours, people came out of every hiding place, just as though at a surprise party, and welcomed him as their new spiritual leader.
It was really impossible for him to refuse (even though the church officials who had come to induct him thought he was a terrible choice, given his monkish ways and terrible haircut, etc.)
So Martin did serve as bishop, but again, in his own inimitable way. He took up residence in a cell; and, although dozens of disciples clustered around him, his ministry was mainly one-on-one evangelism: He would go into his people's homes as a real pastor.
There are lovely stories of how he thwarted paganism with that same quiet love. Once, when he asked that a tree be cut down because the people were worshiping it, he was told that he would have to sit under where it would fall. He agreed; and just as it was felled, he made the sign of the Cross, and it fell the other way! (But slowly, so everybody else had plenty of time to get out from under it!)
He became widely known for begging the lives of those who would otherwise be tortured and killed. It got to the place where those in authority, seeing him coming, just gave up and pardoned their prisoners.
He had some trouble with heretics, but mainly managed to live a godly, spiritual life, at peace with just about everybody.
And so he died, at or about the age of 80, on November 8 in or about the year 397, and was buried November 11. He begged to be buried in the Cemetery of the Poor, and so he was; but later, a chapel was built over his grave; and still later, it was replaced by a beautiful basilica.
From Saints and Sinners
©1998 by The Big Network. All rights reserved.
Lord, if Your people still have need of my services I will not avoid the toil. Your will be done. I have fought the good fight long enough. Yet if You bid me continue to hold the battle line in defense of Your camp, I will never beg to be excused from failing strength. I will do the work You entrust to me. While You command, I will fight beneath Your banner. (Traditional prayer attributed to St. Martin of Tours)