When I went up to the bishop in my red robe and he looked me in the eye and asked what name I had chosen, I told him “Martin” and he paused and said, “Martin was very good to the poor, I hope you’ll do the same,” and then anointed my forehead with the oil and sealed me with the Holy Spirit.
I wasn’t expecting the bishop to say anything about the name I had chosen, let alone the saint who bore that name. I didn’t know it at the time, but this planted in me the idea that the saints did real-life things and had personalities and stuff, almost as if they were real people like me and you! (which has proven to be true) It took several more years, but I finally decided to try to read something about my patron saint. Luckily you can google any saint’s name and the Catholic Encyclopedia will have something for you to read, and so began my conscious relationship with St. Martin of Tours.
I say conscious because this saint has worked with me to lead me to God all the way back to when my mom named me Martin. She wasn’t thinking of St. Martin, she just liked the name. Most like to think that a name must fit the person, but I like to see it the other way, the person must fit the name. The more I think back on my childhood, the more I realize how St. Martin has been guiding me to fit the saintly name.
St. Martin was born in 315/16a.d. in what is now modern day Hungary. By law he was conscripted into the Roman army when he was of age. Thinking back to my old 4th grade love of the military, I know I would’ve loved that he was a soldier. Think about it, the name means mighty warrior and he’s a saint, which is a good thing to be, and he got to fight! How much better does it get?!
At that time Christianity had just recently been accepted as a legal religion around the empire since the emperor Constantine had converted. Keep in mind though, that just like today, Christianity throughout history has mostly been viewed merely as a religion with a lot of rules rather than a way of life.
This next stage in Martin’s life is where he sorely betrays my childhood love of F-14 Tomcats and missiles and guns. Martin’s mother and father stayed with the old religion, but Martin liked Christianity at an early age (about 10 years old) and secretly became a catechumen, which means that he was learning about the Christian faith and preparing himself to be baptized into the Church. Because of his newfound faith, he didn’t want to join the military and had to be held by chains before making him swear the military oath. He was made an officer because his father was a high-ranking military official and he fulfilled his duties since he was under oath, but he still attempted to live a monastic Christian lifestyle. I can only imagine how funny that would have looked:
Servant: “What shall I do for you, my lord?”
Martin: “Take your boots off.”
Servant: “Why sir?”
Martin: “So that I can clean them for you.”
One thing I would like to point out about this scene that I think is easily overlooked is that this wasn’t something that just happened out of the blue. Martin wasn’t just going along making his way in the army, when one day, BOOM, he’s all of a sudden charitable. Yes, this scene does show a particularly charitable act, but Martin actively lived and grew in his faith all the way leading up to this point. In doing small acts of love, compassion, and self-sacrifice and praying to God and contemplating God, he prepared himself for when it would require a much stronger moving of compassion in his heart, a much bigger act of love, a much greater self-sacrifice to serve God.
Martin felt compassion because he had come to know the love of God in prayer, and a person who feels compassion is compelled to act on it. The praying Christian prepares him/herself to be compelled to action by compassion; the complacent person is stuck on hopeless pity.
Martin acted with love towards the beggar, who he knew to be Christ in disguise, so his gift was much greater than a coat; it was love for Jesus. The Christian who acts with love towards the poor, acts with love towards Christ, so their gift is much greater than any material help they give no matter how big or small. The secular aid given to the poor is exactly what it looks like: food, water, clothing, medicine, etc.; but it is not love. And the poor are exactly what they look like, poor, not Christ.
Martin sacrificed his mantel, but he also sacrificed his reputation among the other soldiers for the sake of the poor beggar; he took up his cross with Jesus and followed him to Calvary, so that he might die to this world in order to find his true life. The Christian who answers Jesus’ call to self sacrifice takes up their cross like Martin did and follows Christ to Calvary where they find their life; the taunters and jeerers cling to their reputations, their egos, their pride, their status, and their possessions as the summation of their life and their worth, and one day they die, and with the blink of an eye they are forgotten. I find it no coincidence that we still remember Martin’s act, but don’t know anything about what the others around him did in their lives.
Back to my 4th grade Navy fighter pilot self. St. Martin is a huge letdown as a military man, I have to admit. He didn’t do anything cool like chop heads and arms off or lead any big charges or even fight for that matter. As I began to take my faith more seriously I realized that I had to die to my former self in a similar way in order to fit my saintly name. I wanted to be a mighty warrior, but how do you be a mighty warrior for God? You’re supposed to be peaceful. St. Martin helped me realize that you can still have that intensity of the warrior, but now it’s aimed at winning love using the means of love as your weapon. In Martin’s example I can see that to be a mighty warrior of God it takes a lot more courage, resolve, and intensity than any earthly soldier can have on the battle field, because the battle field for God’s mighty warrior is raging at all times, in all places, and with all peoples, and he must be ready to meet it and to win it.
This is the end of my introduction to St. Martin of Tours. This will be a multi-part series since he is such a presence in my life. Stay tuned for the next part, there’s a lot more to learn about this incredible saint!