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He Trains My Fingers for Peace

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

"Little War-god," said the servant, resting after the long march, "why are you scrubbing my boots?"


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toursmThe boy looked up and smiled.  He was a strapping lad of fifteen, tall, with muscles like cords from the military life he had always known.  "The Lord I serve once washed the feet of his disciples, and told them they should go and do the same," he said.

"The Lord you serve," said the servant, considering.  The emperor Constantine served that Lord.  So did many of the soldiers.  It was strange.  A soldier's life was rough.  It wasn't just the bloodshed, another man's very life staining your hands.  There was the filth of pitching camp, digging trenches in a square, and throwing up the earth as bulwarks; the hard fare, often wrested from farms they passed through; women hanging about the camps, trading favors for favors; rough talk, superstitions; but this boy was pure.  Even the old pagan veterans loved him.  So did the servant.

"I remember when you first went to the church, Little War-god," he said.  "Your father was in a rage all day.  I have the scars on my back to show it."

Martin set down the boots and lighted a fire for their meal.  "I know," he said.  "I pray for my father, just as I pray for you."  They ate together, as always.

"He couldn't say it wasn't Roman," said the servant, thinking of the emperor.

"It will be more Roman than Rome," said the boy.

The beggar on the road

Ambianum — we call it Amiens — wasn't as frigid as the Alps in the winter, but it could be more miserable, with its snow and slush and long cold rains.  This winter was especially bad, and many did not survive it.

The young Martin had been sent to this place in northern Gaul with his regiment.  That was no surprise.  Constantine had come from Britain, the empire's frontier in the northwest.  Rome had fallen into the middle of nowhere, as far as governing was concerned.  The emperor was in his new city in the east.  It was the soldier's lot to shore up the thousands of miles of frontier open to invaders.  And there were enemies from within, too, as Martin was aware.

He was riding out of the city, wearing only his armor and his soldier's cloak, when he met a naked beggar at the gates, crying out to all who passed by.  They were cold too, so they looked the other way.

"Have mercy on me, young master," said the beggar.

Martin pulled his horse to a halt.  He took his cloak and his sword, and he did what probably no Roman soldier had ever done.  He cut the cloak in two and gave half of it to the beggar.  The other half he draped about himself.  It did not cover him.

"Little War-god," some of his fellows laughed, "we should call you Cupid now, the naked boy!"

But others looked on and sighed.  They had more to clothe the beggar with, but they did not do what Martin did.

That night Martin fell into a deep sleep, and in a dream he saw Christ surrounded by an army of angels.  "Martin, a catechumen until now, has clothed me in this robe," said the Lord, recalling his words that what we do for the least of these his little brothers, that we do for him.

Martin then knew that he would lead a life of apostolic poverty.  A few years later he left the army and traveled to Milan to see his parents one last time.  On the way the devil confronted him, saying, "Wherever you go and whatever you try to do, I will fight against you!" But Martin replied with the Psalmist, "God is my help; what shall I fear that man can do to me?" And the devil vanished.

On the road

Martin then went to Poitiers to become a disciple of the great bishop, Saint Hilary.  Those were years of terrible controversy in the Church, when the faith was locked in mortal combat with the Arian heresy.  Had the Arians triumphed, the Church would have degenerated into a unitarian benevolent society, doomed to wither and die.  There's all the difference in the world between believing that God sent a man named Jesus to speak in his name, and then "adopted" him as first of all creatures, and that God himself became man to save man.  That was God battering down the walls of a sinful world, to build it new again.

Hilary was a tireless fighter for the orthodox faith.  But some opposed him and drove him into exile.  At that, Martin withdrew into the solitude he had longed for, on the island of Gallinaria, off the Ligurian coast.  But that was just the beginning.  Martin's life is a drama of self-giving, from the desert-dweller — that is what hermit means — to the solitary — that is what monk means — to the humble overseer — that is what bishop means.  He was made strong by the military drill — that is what ascetic means — of the Christian soldier.  When Hilary was given leave to return to Poitiers, Martin joined him, and in a solitary plain several miles away he and his fellows built a monastery, each monk dwelling in his own cell.

But military drill is for military action.  Many a road of the Roman Empire, laid down by soldiers, has lasted these two thousand years.  Martin often left his cell to hit those roads, preaching the faith in central and western Gaul.  He was so beloved as a preacher and a wonder-worker that when the Bishop of Tours died in 371, the priests cried out for Martin to take his place.

That wasn't easy.  Martin was devoted to his solitary life.  "Martinus," cried the man on his knees, begging, "my wife is near death.  Please come and lay your hands upon her!" For Martin had once raised a dead man to life, a slave who had hanged himself.  Martin drove the crowd of mourners away, and he lay upon the body and prayed, whence life returned to the man.

So Martin set forth on the road to Tours.  But suddenly he saw great throngs of people, not just from Tours but from all the towns around, to lead him into the city — that is, to keep him from getting away.  There had been no sick wife.  It was a ruse to make Martin bishop.

The last shall be first

"This, for a bishop?" cried the more worldly and ambitious men of the clergy.  "Look at his face, his filthy clothes, his shaggy hair!" But others said that those men were quite mad, as Martin was a mighty defender of the faith.  The common people agreed.  The controversy was settled in a striking way.  The regular lector couldn't get through because of the crowds, so someone was chosen at random to come up and read the first passage his eyes might light upon as he opened the scriptures.

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have fashioned praise, he read from the eighth psalm, on account of your enemies.  Martin's election followed forthwith, on July 4.

He did not give up his simple ways.  He wore a shirt of camel's hair, nothing softer.  He retired to a cell sometimes to be in solitary prayer.  Others gathered round him, and they established the monastery of Marmoutier.  He was filled with zeal for the truth, preaching tirelessly, attracting souls by his humble life and his uncompromising and stalwart orthodoxy.  It must have been a sacrifice for him to travel so much, but that is what he did, both to battle the heretics and to protect them against fiery bishops and statesmen who wanted to put their leaders to death.  In this regard he was like Saint Ambrose, who threatened the emperor Theodosius with excommunication unless he repented of his massacre of civilians at Thessalonica.

Martin of Tours was one of the best-loved saints whom God has given to the Church.  Many were the miracles he performed, and great was his devotion to the poor.  He helped to make Gaul firm in the faith — or, we may say, his sowing the seeds of truth would one day come to blossom in the nation called France.  He died on November 8, three days before his feast day.

War and peace

I will end with two more scenes.  It is 1793.  The revolutionists, heeding the call of the ingrate Voltaire to "tear down the infamous thing," have smashed the church in Tours that housed the bones of Saint Martin.  They leave standing two towers, but lay down roads on either side so that the basilica might never be built again.  They did not get their way entirely.  The atheistic furor passed, and Martin's tomb was dug out many years later, and a new basilica was built to house them.

It is early morning on the Feast of Saint Martin, 1918.  Marshal Ferdinand Foch and his aide stand outside a railway car in the forest of Compiègne.  Near him is the British legate, and representatives of Germany and Austria-Hungary.  They have signed an armistice ending World War One.  It will go into effect, by Foch's order, at 11 am, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  Foch, whose brother was a priest, had in mind Saint Martin, that soldier for peace.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: He Trains My Fingers for Peace." Magnificat (November, 2021).

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To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit www.magnificat.com to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy. 

The Author

esolen54smAnthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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