Most of us have heard the well-known story about St. Martin of Tours (c. 316 - 397) and the beggar. In that story, we see a beautiful example of true charity towards those who are in need. Martin, who was a soldier in the Roman army stationed in Gaul at the time, came upon a beggar. His fellow soldiers scoffed at his concern for the man who was clothed in rags against the bitter cold air. Telling his colleagues to go on without him, Martin stopped and gave half of his army-issued red cloak and wrapped it around the old man. Later, he had a dream in which he saw the beggar again. The beggar was wrapped in the cloak, yet the face of the beggar was the face of Christ. He was surrounded by angels. Then Jesus said to the angels, "Do you know who wrapped Me with the cloak? It was Martin, who has not yet been baptized."
At the time, Martin was not a Christian. However, as a youth, he had been influenced by Christians which helped shape his character. Here is more of his story.
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Martin's story begins in the area of modern-day Hungary. Around the year 316, Martin was born to his pagan parents in the town of Sabaria. As his father was a Roman tribune, the family enjoyed some prestige. More importantly for Martin's story, his family was well off enough to have servants. Some of the servants were Christians, and Martin was exposed to the Faith through the servants' children.
It was clear to young Martin that there was a difference between the Christian children and the other children. The Christians told the truth no matter what. Even if meant getting punished, they would not tell a lie which was different than the other children. The Christians were not greedy or overly desirous of things. They would not argue or plot mischief. Instead, they were good and loyal friends and they were always showing kindness to others.
When he grew older, Martin asked the father of the Christian children why they were so kind and happy. The servant answered that the Christian religion teaches each person to be kind and honest because the Lord is good and wants his followers to be good, as well.
Martin used to like to listen to the servants tell stories about the life of Christ. Once, when he was about 15 years of age, they were telling him about how Jesus died on the cross. Martin was moved to exclaim that he would like to be a soldier who would fight for this great and good Christ. He even imitated the servants in making the sign of the cross. At that moment his father overheard him and told Martin to put away this Christian foolishness.
A Soldier's Life
However, it was true that Martin would become a soldier. Not long after this incident, his father had him enlisted in the Roman cavalry. Young Martin was eager to be a good soldier, and indeed, he faithfully served in the emperor's army. However, he was a strange combination for many of his fellow soldiers. On the one hand, he was brave, strong, and dutiful. On the other hand, he displayed virtues that were not often seen in the military such as gentleness and kindness. Although he would be mocked by some of the soldiers because he would not join in their cursing and cruelty, Martin was often admired for his courage and loyalty.
Martin was promoted and soon became in charge of troops who were sent to fight against the barbarians who were threatening the province of Gaul. Martin and his troops fought many skirmishes against the barbarians as they patrolled the borders of the Roman province. It was while he was returning to camp from one of these skirmishes that Martin encountered the beggar.
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Joining the King's Army
By the time Martin had turned eighteen, he was ready to be a soldier for Christ. Despite the proud pagan heritage of his family, his strong resolve to become a Christian led him to receive instruction and to be baptized by the bishop St. Hilary of Poitiers. Not long after that, he resigned from the army. Martin began to travel from town to town and tell his conversion story in order to spread the Gospel.
Martin would later go on to be ordained a priest. He then tried to live as a hermit on some land provided to him by St. Hilary. However, like many saints who tried to live as hermits, he began to attract followers who wanted to join him. They decided to live a type of common life that proved to be the forerunner of Western monastic life.
Later the people of the region would select him to be bishop, and he dutifully accepted this calling to serve the faithful of Tours. However, he continued to live as a monk in his monastery rather than reside in the town. Martin would make the rounds of visiting the village churches, and he also set up additional monasteries to provide places for young men to be trained in the Faith.
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Fearless Faith Helps Bring Conversion
Here is one final story about Martin that took place not too long after his baptism when he was traveling around and sharing about the Faith.
During his solitary travels, he entered into a dangerous area that was known for being the home of thieves who lived in the nearby caves. Martin, however, did not fear for himself, but was focused on God's beautiful creation when he was accosted by a group of robbers. Some of them held him tightly while one raised an ax preparing to kill Martin.
Before the ax could be swung, one of the group cried out to stop because he was that robber's prisoner. Apparently, the others agreed and helped tie Martin's hands and feet. Then, the robbers began to argue what should be done with Martin.
One thought that he should be killed immediately to prevent his escape. Another was concerned that he might be a person of importance because of his noble appearance. Yet another discounted that notion because of his rough clothes. All agreed that he probably did not have much worth stealing.
All the while, Martin, although completely secured and able to hear the debate about his fate, remained calm.
The man who had claimed him as his prisoner had Martin brought over to him and asked him his name.
"I am a Christian," Martin replied.
The thief was not used to seeing such lack of fear in one of his victims and asked Martin, "Why are you not afraid? Don't you fear to die?"
"You are not able to do anything that could hurt me," Martin answered. "I serve the one true King who will protect me. However, my brother, I do have pity for you because as one who lives through stealing and killing, you cannot receive God's forgiveness."
The robber was astounded by these words. "You call me brother? Who is this King? How do you serve Him?"
Martin then proceeded to share the Good News that Jesus had come to save men from their sins. He told of His life, suffering, and death. Then he told of his resurrection and the offering of forgiveness of any sin no matter how great.
The words that Martin shared were unlike anything the thief had ever heard. Everything he heard was amazing to him because of its pure goodness. His heart was touched.
The robber then took his knife and sliced through the ropes that bound Martin. As his amazed compatriots watched, he offered to escort Martin on the trail until they would reach a place where there would be no more danger of thieves.
After traveling some distance, they came to a grassy plain where the man knew it was time to say farewell. Martin told the man what he should do to receive further instruction in order to be baptized. Before Martin left, the man fell to his knees and begged Martin to pray for him that he would remain faithful to his new life. Of course, Martin agreed. He then prayed with him, promised to continue to pray for him, and then continued on his journey.
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