St Martin of Tours & the beggar
The great turning point in Martin of Tour’s life occurred about 336. It is a scene portrayed over and over again in icons and other images of Martin. One winter day, while stationed in Amiens, Gaul (modern-day France), as Martin approached the city gate, he saw a half-naked man shivering with cold and begging alms from indifferent passers-by. Having nothing but his cloak, Martin drew his sword, cut the cloak in two, and gave half to the beggar. That night, in a dream, Martin saw Jesus wearing the cloak he had given the beggar man and heard him say, "Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with this garment." Martin’s baptism quickly followed this experience.
Martin’s situation as a newly baptized Christian and a soldier came to a crisis point following a barbarian invasion of Gaul. On the eve of battle, his company was called to appear before Caesar Julian receive a war-bounty. Refusing to accept such a reward, Martin told Julian: "Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others-they are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight."
The emperor accused Martin of cowardice, to which he replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy on the following day, alone and unarmed. He was thrown into prison, but a swift end to the hostilities meant that no further action was taken against him, and he was discharged.
Martin’s next move was to go to Poitiers, where the local bishop, Saint Hilary, welcomed the young man among his disciples.
After ten years he was called to become bishop of Tours, an office he accepted with profound reluctance but served for over twenty-five years until his death in 397. His biography recounts the many ways Martin brought a commitment to Christian peacemaking to his ministry as bishop. In particular, he opposed the use of violence against heretics, even when this left him susceptible to the charge of heretical sympathies. Thanks to the missionary activity of Martin and his monks, Christianity increasingly took root in the region surrounding Tours.
As Martin lay dying in 397, it is said that a devil appeared to tempt him one last time. Martin said, "You will find nothing in me that belongs to you. Abraham's bosom is about to receive me." With these words he gave up his soul to God.
Martin was the first confessor who was not a martyr whose name was added to the church calendar in the West. His biographer, Sulpitius Severus, wrote of him: "Martin never let an hour or a moment go by without giving himself to prayer or to reading and, even as he read or was otherwise occupied, he never ceased from prayer to God. His face shined with heavenly joy. In his mouth was nothing but the name of Christ and in his soul nothing but love, peace and mercy."
The story of Martin's conversion is striking for linking two themes, on the one hand an encounter with Christ hidden in the poor and, on the other, his realization that to follow Christ is to embrace a merciful life in which one is obliged to protect the lives of others, even one’s enemies.
This was painted about 1320 by Simone Martini for the chapel of St Martin in Assisi.