From: Pilgrim Road
I’m speeding across the fertile farmland of France’s Poitou region on the train from Paris to Bordeaux. We’re about five minutes south of Poitiers when I look out the window to my left. The narrow, tree-lined canal that lies lazily alongside the tracks was built by the Romans when this was the province of Gallia. I look out the other side of the train just in time to glimpse a collection of stone buildings huddling around a church tower. This is the Benedictine Abbey of Ligugé, said to be the oldest monastery in the Western Christian world. Its story takes me on a trip back in time.
About the year AD 361, a strange young man in his late twenties took up residence in the ruins of an ancient Gallo-Roman villa on the site of the present monastery. He was born in Pannonia (present-day Hungary) but was raised in Italy. At the age of fifteen, he had been forced by law to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was an officer in the Roman army. Three years later, he was baptized a Christian and soon became a disciple of Hilary, the saintly bishop of nearby Poitiers. Well-known for his holiness of life even before his baptism, over time the young man would become more and more famous for the countless miraculous cures he performed. As so often happened to holy men in the fourth century, he would eventually be drafted by the people to become bishop of their town.
As Bishop of Tours, he became an energetic foe of the pagan cults that still flourished in the Roman Empire at the time. His fame as a miracle worker spread across Gaul, and by the time of his death he was already being honored as “Saint Martin of Tours.” Many paintings and statues recall the famous story of his cutting his soldier’s cloak down the middle in order to give half of it to a beggar. The next night, the story goes, Jesus appeared to Martin clothed in the cloak the saint had given to the poor man.
In the earliest biography of Saint Martin, Sulpicius Severus gives a long and impressive list of the monk-bishop’s wonderful deeds to prove that Martin was a perfect saint whom God protected from all harm. After the Life of St. Martin was published, however, Sulpicius felt he had to write a letter to a certain Eusebius to defend Martin from slander: there was a story going around alleging that the supposedly invulnerable Martin had once been burned in a fire. Here is the story that Sulpicius retells.
Martin is making the rounds of the parishes in his diocese and decides to sleep in a little room attached to the church he is visiting. He is uncomfortable with the luxury of the straw mattress that has been made up for him and so pushes the straw aside and sleeps on the wooden floor. During the night, a defective stove used for heating the room sets fire to the straw and Martin is awakened around midnight by a cloud of thick, choking smoke. He gropes his way quickly to the door and begins pulling frantically on the bolt to unlock it. The bolt won’t budge! Within a few moments, flames fill the room and engulf the bishop, singeing the hem of his robe. Weak with fear, he struggles again with the stubborn bolt. Still no luck! I’ll let Sulpicius finish the story in his own flowery style:
At length, recovering his habitual conviction that safety lay not in flight but in the Lord, and seizing the shield of faith and prayer, committing himself entirely to the Lord, he lay down in the midst of the flames. Then, indeed, the fire having been removed by divine intervention, he continued to pray amid a circle of flames that did him no harm.
By Martin’s own admission, he had taken longer than he should have to turn to the power of prayer. He’d been startled out of a sound sleep to find himself in terrible danger. The saint later spoke of this incident as a snare that the devil had laid for him, a snare that, for a moment, had worked.
Sulpicius is truly indignant when people imply that this scene shows some imperfection in Martin. “This event which is ascribed to the infirmity of Martin,” he argues, “is, in reality, full of dignity and glory, since indeed, being tried by a most dangerous calamity, he came forth a conqueror.”
The story certainly does end in dignity and glory, but maybe Christians would be better served by meditating on what the good bishop did for the first half-minute after he smelled smoke. I keep hoping to find a painting of this scene: Saint Martin, eyes wide with fright, desperately tugging with both hands at the rusty bolt as flames lick at his robe. That is a saint I could identify with.
I’ve experienced that minute of panic often enough, when I’ve forgotten that God is there with me. In the flames of difficult situations, when everything seems to be coming apart, I take too long to hand things over to the Lord. I, like Saint Martin, the great Bishop of Tours, have wasted time tugging at the rusty bolt and only later remembered to stop trying to control things and turn confidently to the power of prayer.
Maybe I could settle for a picture of the saint lying in prayer on the burning floor, untouched by the flames all around him. In any case, Martin of Tours is the one I pray to for the grace to keep my cool when I’m starting to panic. He knows what that feeling is like.
The blur of gray buildings is well behind us now, and the train continues rattling southwest toward the sea. No one else is looking out the window.
One of the elder monks in the Egyptian desert once said, “It isn’t because evil thoughts come to us that we are condemned, but only because we make use of evil thoughts. Of course, it can happen that we suffer shipwreck because of these thoughts, but it can also happen that because of them we are crowned.” The lesson of Saint Martin’s fire is that God sometimes asks us to pass through temptations or trying times for reasons we can’t understand. Can you think of a time when you were beginning to panic, and then remembered to turn everything over to the Lord? Is there some trial in your life right now that may be an opportunity to turn to God in trusting prayer?
Sacred Scripture (Daniel 3:21-25)
Then these men were bound in their mantles, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were cast into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king’s order was strict and the furnace very hot the flame of the fire slew those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He said to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O King.” He answered, “But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”
Rule of Benedict (Chapter 7, “Humility,” vv. 36-40)
Scripture has it, “Anyone who perseveres to the end will be saved,” and again, “Be brave of heart and rely on the Lord.” The faithful are so confident in their expectation of reward from God that they continue joyfully and say, “But in all this we overcome because of him who so greatly loved us.” Elsewhere scripture says, “O God, you have tested us, you have tried us as silver is tried by fire.”