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
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
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
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,
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
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.
Saints and Sinners
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