Whenever I first think of this lovely saint, one of my very favourites, it is not the image of giving away half his cloak to a pauper but his sitting on a stool meditating on the Scriptures and in harmony with the Trinitarian God. There he sat for many hours of each day of each week of every month for years in his hermitage on the outskirts of Tours when he had been appointed bishop of this region in Gaul in 371, much against his will. He was a soul in tune with the mind of Christ. No wonder he is referred to as "the glory of Gaul".
Born into a military family, where his father served in the Roman army, his life always had discipline. That discipline, which Martin especially knew when he had to serve as a soldier in the Roman army, was quickly applied to the Christian life after he baptised.
Born after the persecution against Christians had ceased in c.316 in modern day Hungary, his parents were both pagans. While Martin was still a child, his father was transferred to a new station in Pavia, north Italy. It was here that Martin first learned of the Christian faith, and soon became a catechumen. When he reached the age of fifteen, still unbaptised, he had to follow in his father's footsteps and join the army. This he accepted willingly, but during those years as a member of the imperial forces he lived more like a monk than a soldier.
The young Martin was stationed at Amiens, in Gaul, when the incident occurred which tradition and art have rendered so famous. As he rode towards the town one winter day, he noticed near the gates a poor man, thinly clad, shivering with cold, and begging alms. Martin saw that none who passed stopped to help the poor man. He had nothing with him but the clothes he wore, and so drawing his sword from its scabbard, he cut his woollen cloak in two pieces, gave one half to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other. The following night Martin in his sleep saw Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels, and dressed in the half of the cloak he had given away. A voice bade him look at it well and say whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say to the angels, "Martin, as yet only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak." Sulpicius Severus, the saint's biographer, says that as a consequence of this vision Martin "flew to be baptized" at the age of eighteen.
It is indeed fortunate for us that Sulpicius Severus visited Martin in his simple cell as otherwise the world would not have known what a gift Martin was to the Church with his deep spirituality and compassion for his fellow man. Sulpicius tells us how he was overwhelmed with Martin's hospitality on his first visit to his cell when he washed his hands before dinner and his feet in the evening. From that moment he became not only a great friend of Martin, but also his biographer.
Two years after his baptism his district was threatened by Teutonic tribes. The custom then was a soldier was pre-paid for services. When his turn came, Martin refused, as he stated he could not take the pay when he was going to retire from the army as he was now a Christian and thus forbidden to fight. The emperor, Julian was angered by Martin's refusal and accused him of cowardice. To this Martin replied that he was ready to go into battle the next day unarmed in the front line in the name of Christ. He was taken off to prison to make sure he would make good his promise. Amazingly the next morning, the enemy sought a truce.
Martin was discharged and headed for Poitiers, where the renowned Hilary had been bishop for many years. Hilary gladly received this early "conscientious objector" and ordained him deacon.
Shortly afterwards a dream prompted Martin to visit his home in Pannonia. After crossing the Alps he headed for Milan and thence the rest of the journey to his home. He was able to convert his mother and some friends but not his father. Whilst back home the Arians were in the ascendancy and he was forced to leave as he supported the Orthodox faith. On his way back to Gaul, he learned that the Gallic Church was also under attack by the Arians, and that his good friend Hilary had been banished. So he remained at Milan, but soon the orthodox bishop here to was deposed and an Arian bishop, Auxentius was appointed who drove him away. Martin took refuge with a priest on the island of Gallinaria, in the gulf of Genoa, and stayed there until Hilary returned to Poitiers in 360. As Martin wanted to live the life of solitude more than anything else Hilary gave him a small piece of land in central France, now called Liguge. He was joined by other hermits and holy men, and the community grew into a monastery, the first, it is said, to be founded in Gaul. It survived until 1607, and in 1852 it was rebuilt by the Benedictines of Solesmes.
Here Martin spent ten very happy years where he built up a monastic style of living for those who joined him and directed them. From Liguge they went out constantly and preached in the surrounding areas. Many miracles were also attributed to Martin. About the year 371, Lidorius, bishop of Tours, died, and by popular acclaim Martin was declared the new bishop. Martin was so reluctant to accept the office that they resorted to stratagem and called him to the city to give his blessing to a sick person, and then forcibly conveyed him to the church. However the bishops there to consecrate the new bishop were not so impressed by this dirty, ragged, dishevelled monk. The people replied that they did not choose Martin for his appearance but for his holiness and poverty, that only charity and grace could bring. Overwhelmed by the will of the crowd the bishops had no choice but to consecrate Martin.
Now a bishop Martin instead of living in a palace, made his first home in a cell attached to a church in hopes of being able to maintain his lifestyle as a monk. However he found himself being sort out as an administrator of the town as well as on spiritual concerns. Thus people constantly came to him with all kinds of questions, disputes and concerned.
Unable to endure the constant interruptions, he retired from Tours to a retreat that was later to become the famous abbey of Marmoutier. The site was enclosed by a steep cliff on one side and by a tributary of the Loire River on the other. Here Martin and some of the monks who followed him built cells of wood; others lived in caves dug out of the rock. In a short time their number grew, with many men of high rank among them.
He kept in touch with Tours through priest representatives who reported to him and carried out his instructions and duties with the people. Martin was deeply committed to his responsibilities. One of those responsibilities was missionary work. His method was to travel from house to house and speak to people about God. Then he would organize the converts into a community under the direction of a priest of monk. In order to let them know of his continued love and to keep them following the faith, he would then visit these new communities regularly. In the process of his missionary endeavours, Martin tore down many non-Christian temples and built Christian churches in their places.
Once a year the bishop visited each of his parishes, travelling on foot, or by donkey or boat. He continued to set up monastic communities, and extended the bounds of his episcopate from Touraine to such distant points as Chartres, Paris, Autun, and Vienne. At Vienne, according to his biographer, he cured Paulinus of Nola of a disease of the eyes.
Martin was also dedicated to freeing of prisoners, so much so that when authorities, even the emperors, heard he was coming, they refused to see him because they knew he would request mercy for someone and they would be unable to refuse. One who did not fall for this was a general named Avitianus who arrived at Tours with ranks of prisoners he intended to torture and execute the next day. As soon as Martin heard of this cruel plan, he left his monastery for the city. Although he arrived there after midnight, he went straight to the house where Avitianus was staying and threw himself on the threshold crying out in a loud voice. An angel awakened the general and told him that Martin was outside. The servants, certain Avitianus was dreaming, reassured him there was no one out there (without looking themselves). But after the angel woke him up the second time, Avitianus went outside himself and told Martin, "Don't even say a word. I know what your request it. Every prisoner shall be spared." His biographer was told this amazing account from Avitianus himself, who loved to tell it.
Martin was a very compassionate man, In just one case out of many a father came to him grief stricken that his daughter had never spoken. Martin healed her by asking her to say her father's name -- which she did.
His compassion was truly seen in the Priscillian trial. Ithacius and other bishops from Spain had gone to the emperor soliciting his help in destroying a new heresy taught by a man named Priscillian. Martin agreed completely that Priscillian was teaching heresy (among other things, he rejected marriage, and said that the world was created by the devil) and that he should be excommunicated. But he was horrified that Ithacius had appealed to a secular authority for help and even more upset that Ithacius was demanding the execution of Priscillian and his followers. Martin hurried to intervene with emperor Maximus, as did Ambrose of Milan. Martin stated his case that this was a church matter and that secular authority had no power to intervene and that excommunication of the heretics was punishment enough. He left believing he had won the argument and saved the heretics but after he left Ithacius began his manipulation again and Priscillian and the other prisoners were tortured and executed. This was the first time Christians killed fellow Christians and Martin was devastated.
Yet Martin had to face more. He hurried back in order to forestall a massacre of the Priscillianists. Once there he absolutely refused communion with the bishops who had murdered the people. This was a strong statement that rejected the persecuting bishops as part of the communion of the Church.
Unfortunately, the emperor Maximus knew the key to Martin's heart. He had prisoners that supported the former emperor Gratian in captivity and knew Martin wanted mercy for them. Maximus said that he would free these prisoners if Martin would share communion with Ithacius. Martin agreed to do so, but afterwards was so overcome with shame and guilt for giving in to such evil that he never went to any more assemblies of bishops.
Martin had premonitions of his approaching death and predicted it to his disciples, who besought him not to leave them. So he prayed, "Lord, if Thy people still need me, I will not draw back from the work. Thy will be done." When his final sickness came upon him, he was at Candes, in a remote part of his diocese. The monks entreated him to allow them at least to put a sheet under him and make his last hours comfortable. "It becomes not a Christian," said Martin, "to die otherwise than upon ashes. I shall have sinned if I leave you any other example." He lay with eyes and hands raised to Heaven, until the brothers begged him to turn on one side to rest his body a little. He retorted, "Allow me, my brethren to look towards Heaven rather than to earth, that my soul may be ready to take its flight to the Lord."
Martin died on the 8th November, 397, and three days later he was buried at Tours. Two thousand monks and nuns gathered for his funeral. His successor built a chapel over his grave, which was replaced by a fine basilica. A still later church on this site was destroyed during the French Revolution, but a modern one has since been built there. He has been of the most venerated saints since his death and his tomb has always been one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Europe. During the Middle ages with one of its emphasis being chivalry, the knightly Martin, who shared his cloak with a beggar, was the subject of innumerable anecdotes. He still lives on in the hearts of many Christians who are continually inspired by his example to combine the contemplative life with his zeal and love for all souls. "By your fruits you shall know that they are my disciples."