Martin desperately wanted to continue to live his monastic lifestyle and was unsuccessful staying in a small cell attached to a church in town (unlike in a palace as was standard for bishops) so he moved outside of town into the wilderness where he lived in a cabin made of branches. Once again disciples followed him out there so he started a monastery for them. He fulfilled his duties as bishop of Tours by sending priests to deliver his correspondence, but would often visit town himself.
In life at the monastery Martin was visited by the devil who disguised himself as Jesus and was completely decked out in royal robes and gem encrusted golden crown and rings and ordered Martin to adore him. Martin saw right through it and pointed out the devil’s mistake, “Where are the marks of the nails? Where the piercing of the spear? Where the crown of thorns? When I see the marks of the Passion I shall adore my Lord.”
Martin also considered it his duty to convert non-Christians. He did this by personally going out to the other towns and talked with people, not a very safe thing to do. If you have heard of the St. Boniface story about the Tree of Thor, then you need to also know the St. Martin one. In one town where the people were worshipping their sacred tree, Martin told them they need to cut it down because trees aren’t gods and aren’t sacred in that way. They said, “only if you sit under where it falls,” to which Martin replied, “K.” As the tree started to tip towards Martin, he made the sign of the cross, and it began to fall in the other direction towards the people, but slow enough that they could run to safety. They were pretty convinced after that. In another episode, when people refused to finish tearing down the tower of a former temple, Martin prayed and a bolt of lightening nailed it.
Those stories are cool, but they’re not even the best part of St. Martin. He was known all around for convincing people to show mercy, especially towards prisoners. When Martin showed up they knew there wasn’t a chance to hold up against his pleading. One day General Avitianus brought loads of prisoners to torture and execute the next day. Martin went straight to town and beat on the general’s door in the middle of the night begging for mercy. Avitianus himself sayid that an angel woke him up to let him know that Martin was at the door, but his servants told him to go back to sleep. A second time the angel woke him up and he went outside himself to tell Martin, “don’t even say a word. I know what your request is. Every prisoner shall be spared.”
When Martin heard what happened he hurried back to try to stop further executions. He refused communion with the bishops who murdered the Priscillianists, which is a big statement to say that they don’t belong to the communion of the church, the mystical body of Christ. They manipulated Martin, though, by telling him if he did, they would spare the lives of the prisoners who supported the former emperor Gratian (remember at this time in the empire they went through quite a few emperors.) Martin caved and celebrated communion with the guilty bishops, but was so ashamed he never went to another assembly of bishops again.
On his way back to Tours an angel appeared to him saying, “you saw no way out. Take courage again: recover your ordinary firmness; otherwise you will be imperiling not your glory but your salvation.” Remember, Martin was a human like me and you, he wasn’t impervious to making mistakes, but the angel’s words are the most important to take in, return to your ordinary firmness. When we make a mess of things the best thing is to take a step back and reground ourselves, go to our foundation and find our solid footing. That foundation is found in a life lived in Christ, he’s the cornerstone that we build on.
Another thing to keep in mind is the names of the Priscillianist episode. There’s St. Martin and St. Ambrose of Milan, but Ithacius does not have that nice “St.” in front of his name. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because he didn’t actually live according to Christ’s law of love the way St. Martin and St. Ambrose did. That’s one of the major problems we encounter in the modern world when looking at Church history. It’s easy to forget that the Catholic Church is made of saints and sinners, we all are in need to Christ’s redemption, but it’s the saints who truly receive it and then act on it. In the vast majority of my classes nasty examples of Catholics will be used to show how terrible Catholicism is, but not once is a saint mentioned. The truth is, in most (if not all) of these bad events, there was probably a saint of some sort trying to bring an end to the evil that crops up. In the end, it is the saints who have the final say, they are the examples that lead the Church forward. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out:
“The Saints are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way. Only from the Saints, only from God, does true revolution come – the definitive way to change the World. In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common programme. Expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for care of the World in order to change it. And this, as we saw meant that a human and partial view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutising what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the World, but only a return of the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true. True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who is at the same time everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?”
After his last visit to Rome and on his return trip, Martin became sick, which would end up killing him. He was taken to Candes, a religious center that he had created, and finished out his days in the year 397ad. He left us this great prayer, the true prayer of a mighty warrior, whose greatest weapon is love, which endures even when faith and hope fade.
“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. Amen”