Saints of Italy – San Martino

[Saint Martin of Tours]The Soldier of God

There was a certain count who had been a valiant captain in his youth, and was held in much honour by the Emperor. He had one son, named Martino, and being of a proud and ambitious spirit, he was resolved that the boy should become a soldier like himself, and seek after the wealth and glory of this world. But Martino’s nurse was a pious woman, and talked to the child often in secret of Christ and the holy martyrs who had given their lives for His sake, till Martino was inflamed with longing to serve God and fight, like them, against the powers of darkness. When he was fifteen years of age the Emperor sent messengers to the count, bidding him bring his son to the Imperial Court, that he might be enrolled in the army. The count commanded the boy to make ready for the journey. Then Martino fell at his father’s feet, and with sighs and tears earnestly imploring forgiveness, he declared that he could not be a soldier, but desired to renounce the world and become a hermit. The count was mightily vexed and enraged, and when Martino persisted in his refusal, he caused him to be bound in chains and set upon a horse, and in this manner, heedless of his prayers and protests, carried him by force to the Court. Here the boy was unbound, and led by his father into a splendid hall, where, upon a throne, sat the Emperor Constantine, clothed in purple robes, with a wreath of laurel on his brow, and surrounded by the nobles and minstrels of the palace. Because of the love which he bore to the count, the monarch received them with much kindness. He looked very favourably on the fair and noble countenance of the youth, who prostrated himself at his feet. Bidding him rise up, he called to the attendants to bring sword and spurs, and graciously deigned to descend from his seat, and with his own hands gird the sword about the loins of the young soldier, whilst a page fastened the spurs to Martino’s feet. The youth, in no wise dazzled by this worldly honour, lifted his hands to heaven, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, called aloud upon the Lord to suffer him still to serve Christ, even though he must unwillingly follow an earthly master.

And the Lord was merciful to Martino, so that his soul suffered no harm from the soldier’s calling. He could not be persuaded to live after the evil manner of his companions, but kept himself from pride and bloodthirstiness and luxury. Instead of a train of idle riotous attendants, he would have but one servant, choosing an honest, faithful fellow named Giacomo. On the first day, when Martino returned from his duties, Giacomo knelt, according to custom, to take off his master’s boots, but, to his great wonder, he was lifted up and placed upon a stool, and lo! the master himself upon his knees removed the servant’s boots, and carrying them away, cleaned them together with his own. Then he bade Giacomo sit down to meat with him, and ever after they took their meals together, and any good thing which the young lord had he shared with the servant. In like manner he bore himself with kindness and humility towards all men. His comrades laughed at him, but loved him, nevertheless, for his gentleness. He was very compassionate, and gave away everything that he possessed to the needy, not even keeping back his own raiment, till at last there was nothing left to him except his simple soldier’s dress and cloak.

Martino had been sent with one of the Emperor’s armies to guard a city in a far-away country of the North, and it being now winter-time, the snow lay deep on the ground. He rode out one day, wrapped closely in his cloak, yet shivering for the exceeding bitterness of the cold, and coming to the gate of the city, beheld a poor man standing there, wholly destitute of clothing, and imploring the aid of the passers-by. But they all hurried on without heeding him, save only Martino, whose heart swelled with pity for the beggar’s woeful condition. He knew not at first how to succour the poor man, seeing he had himself nothing but the garments on his body. Then, without thought for his own needs, he took his sword and, slitting his cloak into two halves, gave one to the naked man, and wrapped himself as best he might in the other. Proceeding on his way, he was pursued by the derision of all who saw him thus strangely attired; yet were there a few who, marking his joyful countenance, were abashed and smitten with shame for the meanness of their own souls. Martino, caring nothing for the gibes and jests, gathered the remains of his cloak about him, and felt less cold than before, for the kindliness of his heart warmed his blood with a pleasant glow.

That same night he lay sleeping on his narrow bed, and there came to him a wondrous dream. He thought the chamber was full of a great multitude of angels in white raiment, with garlands on their heads and holding harps of gold, and that beside his bed, clothed in the remnant of a cloak, stood One more beautiful than the mind of waking man could conceive or his tongue tell. And He looked upon Martino. The young soldier was filled with awe, and, covering his face with his hands, wept for the gladness of his heart. And presently he heard a voice, sweeter than all music, say, “Martino, this robe which I wear is thine.” Again it spoke to the company of angels, saying, “Behold my servant Martino, who hath clothed Me with this robe.” For the Lord was mindful of His words which He had said on earth, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto Me.” Then all vanished, and the chamber was again dark and solitary. Martino, awaking, pondered long on this vision, and rendered up praise to God upon his knees. He was in no wise puffed up by the grace which had been shown him, but continued thenceforth to live in the same humility, only he desired more and more to give his life to Christ. But this might not be as yet, and for two more years he served as a soldier. At the end of that time it came to pass that the Emperor Julian, who had succeeded to the throne, drew together all his hosts from the four corners of the Empire, and was about to lead them himself against the barbarians. Before setting out he assembled the soldiers, and distributed gifts among them. When Martino was called up to receive a gift, he stood forth and spoke, saying, “Hitherto, O Caesar, have I served thee faithfully, but now I am become the soldier of God, and it is no longer lawful for me to take thy gifts or to fight earthly battles.” Then the Emperor was very wroth, and declared that Martino was a coward, and wished to shirk the battle; but the young man lifted his head proudly, and cried out, ” Dost thou accuse me of fear? Nay, then, to prove my faith and my truth I will stand unarmed in front of the battle line to-morrow, and, with the sign of Christ’s Cross for my sword and shield, I will rush upon the enemy.” The Emperor bade the officers keep him fast bound till the next day, and see that he then fulfilled his bold vow. But very early in the morning the barbarians sent ambassadors to sue for peace, and thus did the Lord prevent the battle, and deliver His servant out of peril, giving the Romans a bloodless victory for his sake.

The Emperor, having made peace, loosed Martino, and suffered him to depart from his service. The youth, joyfully putting off his military habit, went straightway to a very holy bishop to seek instruction, and shortly after became a priest. Now, his father and mother were still held in the bonds of heathenism. Martino was warned in a dream that he should go and save their souls, and immediately set forth to visit them. His way lay across the mountains, by rough and solitary paths, and as he paced tranquilly along, reading his book of devotions, he suddenly heard a great noise, and lo! a band of robbers came plunging down the rocks, and laid hold upon him. One of them raised his axe to smite him, but another, who seemed to be in authority over them, seized the murderer’s arm, and hindered the blow as it fell, crying angrily, ” Hold, thou fool; seest thou that this is no common wayfarer?” And he led Martino to a place apart, on pretence of searching him, and there began to inquire privily who and what he might be. Martino answered, “I am a Christian.” The robber then asked him, “Art thou not afraid?” Martino answered mildly, “Why should I fear? I know I am safe, for the Lord is with me in this tribulation. I grieve only for thy peril, lest, by continuing in thy crimes, thou forfeit the mercy of Christ.” Then he preached the word of God to the robber, who, penitent and ashamed, fell on his knees and besought Martino to pray for him. The holy man gave him comfort and good counsel, and after they had talked long together he was conducted by the robber along a hidden path through those difficult regions, and brought in safety to a secure and frequented road, where the repentant man, prostrating himself to the earth, kissed Martino’s feet, and bade him farewell with tears of thankfulness. The traveller accomplished the rest of his journey without adventure, and, reaching the home of his parents, succeeded in opening his mother’s eyes to the truth, but his father continued to abide in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Martino remained a while in his father’s home, till one day, as he was praying in his quiet chamber, there came a noise and violent knocking at the door, and without stood messengers sent by the people of a certain city to entreat him to be their bishop. The young man, greatly astonished, would have refused the honour, but they led him to a window and showed him a great multitude who had accompanied them from the city, and who, when they beheld Martino, immediately fell on their knees and clamorously besought him to grant their desire. Thereupon going forth, he suffered himself to be set upon a white mule richly caparisoned and garlanded, and they conducted him in a triumphal procession amid the joyous singing of hymns to the chief church of the city, where he was consecrated bishop.

From that time forth Martino ruled his flock with so much wisdom that his name was lauded far and wide, and many came from distant parts to visit him, thinking to see a grand and stately prelate, clothed in magnificent vestments and attended by a train of followers. But they found instead a man of lowly aspect, wrapped in a garment of camel’s hair, and over it a shabby black mantle, who went through the streets quite alone or accompanied by one or two simple monks. Yet his countenance shone with so much grace and loving-kindness that the visitors were compelled to fall down and hide their faces, ashamed, feeling themselves to be in the presence of an angel of paradise.

It came to pass about this time that many false prophets arose, and the devil went about the world in various guises, seeking to deceive the unwary. On a certain day Martino was rapt in prayer, when suddenly a purple light filled the cell, and in the midst stood one clothed in a royal robe, wearing a crown of gold and precious stones on his head, and on his feet shoes adorned with needlework of fine gold. His countenance was wreathed in smiles. Martino, astonished and dazzled, gazed at him long in silence. At length the stranger spoke, saying, ” Martino, testify who it is that hath visited thee. I am Christ, come again on earth, and have manifested myself to thee first of all.” But the holy man still regarded him, and spoke no word. Then he insisted, saying, ” Dost thou not believe the witness of thine eyes? Behold thy Lord.” Thereupon Martino, filled with the spirit of truth, said, ” My Lord cometh not clothed in purple and with a crown of jewels on his head, but meek and lowly, with brow wounded by the thorns, and with the marks of the nails in His hands and feet. So only shall we know Him.” And he returned calmly to his prayers, and the stranger, uttering a hideous shriek, vanished in pestilent fumes, being none other than the Evil One himself.

After this the devil sought no more to deceive the saint, and Martino continued to grow in the grace of God and the love and veneration of men. He spent much time in visiting the sick and comforting the sorrowful, and, because he loved all living creatures, he frequently succoured beasts and birds that had need of his help. Once, as he was returning from a distant part, there met him a cow with a demon seated upon her back, goading her to madness. She ran violently upon the holy man, desiring to gore him with her horns, but he lifted up his hand and immediately she stood stock still. Then the saint cried out to the demon, ” Begone, thou horrible being, and cease to torment this innocent creature.” Immediately the evil spirit left her, and she came and licked the hands and feet of the holy man, as if to thank him. He gently bade her return to the herd, and she obeyed and trotted off with the meekness of a lamb. Going on a little farther he met a company of hunters with their hounds pursuing a hare, which, panting and exhausted, was fleeing before them. It seemed every minute that she would be seized and devoured by her bloodthirsty pursuers. She darted backwards and forwards many times, and at length, perceiving no shelter in the wide plain around, she ran and laid herself trembling at the feet of the saint. He lifted his finger, and immediately the hounds stopped short, with their cruel red tongues almost upon their prey, and dared not touch her. Martino bade the little creature rise up and flee, and he held the hounds still spell-bound till she had sped far away and hidden herself in a safe place.

Again, on another day he came with his followers to a river, and beheld a large flock of birds hovering over the water and diving down to catch the fishes that were sporting in it. Their cruel greed vexed Martino, and he cried out to them, ” Wherefore are ye so gluttonous, O hard-hearted creatures? Leave the fishes in peace, and betake yourselves to yonder desert region,” And lo! to the astonishment of all, the birds rose up like a dark cloud, and flew far away in a long string, uttering wild cries as they went, and the little fishes danced joyfully in the sunny pool, as if desiring to give thanks to their deliverer.

In this manner, by his kindness towards man and beast, his patience, his exceeding love and wisdom, Martino made himself so beloved that when, in the fullness of time, God gathered His servant to Himself, the whole city was filled with lamentation and woe. Great multitudes of men, women, and children, weeping bitterly and casting dust and ashes on their heads, accompanied his body to the burial-place, and prostrated themselves around while the monks sang solemn chant and dirge over the sepulchre. For many hours the rites endured, and when at last all were fully accomplished the people rose up and went sorrowfully to their own homes, and ever afterwards they and their children and children’s children cherished with the utmost love and veneration the memory of the holy Martino.

The Saint and the Tyrant

It came to pass in the days of the holy San Martino that the Emperor set up over the city a governor named Avitiano, who was a cruel and bloodthirsty man, and ruled the people harshly. One day, after a victory over the barbarians at a great distance, he returned home in triumph, dragging after him a long train of captives, loaded with chains and sorely wounded by the blows of the soldiers who drove them along. Avitiano gave orders to the officers to slay them every one on the morrow. The prisoners stood round in the market-place, with cast-down looks, many weeping piteously, when Martino happened to pass by, and was filled with compassion for them. He hastened to the palace of the Governor, where, night being now come, all were asleep and the doors fast barred and bolted. When, therefore, he might not enter, Martino stretched himself upon the threshold; and as the horrid tyrant lay on his bed in a deep sleep, suddenly an angel stood beside him and smote him, crying out, “Sleepest thou, presumptuous man, while the servant of God lieth at thy threshold?” Avitiano awoke, and called, terrified, to the guards, “Martino is at the gate, and I fear he may suffer harm. Go quickly and undo the bars.” But the servants would not go, confidently affirming that no one was there, for they supposed their master to have been mocked by a dream. Avitiano returned to his slumbers, but again the angel smote him with greater violence, and he sprang up, trembling with fear, and declared that certainly Martino stood at the door. The servants being still unwilling, Avitiano himself went forward to the outer gate, and, throwing it open, found Martino lying there stiff with cold. The saint looked at the tyrant without speaking, but his countenance was so full of reproach and sorrow that the miserable man was overcome by remorse, and fell at his feet, crying out, “Why hast thou so dealt with me, O my lord? I know what thou requirest of me. Depart, therefore, quickly to thy bed, I beseech thee, lest thou die, and the wrath of God consume me on thy account, and I will perform all that thou dost desire.” Then, Martino being gone, he summoned his officers, and commanded them to set the prisoners free in the morning, and suffer them to go to their own homes. And this thing being noised abroad in the city, the people rejoiced greatly and praised God.

From thenceforth Avitiano dealt more mercifully with his subjects, fearing to be again rebuked of the holy man. Yet he could not wholly overcome the hardness of his heart, and many times fell back into sin, and spilt innocent blood. One day he sat in his hall meditating a terrible revenge on a certain person who had offended him, when Martino chanced to enter, and began to blow with his mouth very vehemently, so that the wind reached the tyrant, who cried out, amazed and angry, ” Why doest thou thus, thou holy man? ” thinking that the saint wished to insult him. Martino answered, ” I blow not at thee, but at him of horrible aspect who leans over thy shoulder.” Avitiano glanced behind him, greatly alarmed, and lo! an enormous demon, which had been seated at his back unseen by any save the saint, made itself apparent to all present, and flying up with a screech, vanished. The evil spirit being thus gone out of him, the tyrant was entirely changed; his soul melted with compassion for the offender, whom he immediately forgave, and from that time forth he ruled the people righteously, defending the good and punishing the evil with justice and mercy.

The Journey of San Martino

San Martino, seeing his flock grievously oppressed by a heavy tax, resolved one day to go to the Imperial Court at Rome and persuade the Emperor to remove the burden from their shoulders. Now, it was many days’ journey to Rome, and the saint was become old and feeble. Nevertheless, grasping his staff, he set forth alone and on foot. After he was gone a little way, there met him a waggon full of soldiers, drawn by a long string of mules. The beasts, beholding this strange old man in his hairy garment, swerved aside in fear, and entangling the reins, they began to stumble and kick, and fell into great confusion. The enraged soldiers leapt down and threw themselves upon Martino, and in their blind fury set to belabour him cruelly with whips and staves. The saint endured their vengeance with such meekness that, deeming him to despise it, they redoubled their blows, till he fell well-nigh lifeless to the ground. Then they left him, and some monks, who had followed Martino at a distance, came running hastily, and lifted the bleeding man upon an ass, and, supporting him in their arms, led him speedily away. Meanwhile the soldiers returned laughing and singing to the waggon, and the drivers called to the mules to start. But the animals remained stock still, as stiff as brazen images. The drivers shouted and yelled; the rocks rang with the sound of their whips. The soldiers ran into the woods, and cutting great cudgels from the trees, beat the mules till they fell down themselves utterly exhausted. All in vain; the beasts stood as if rooted in the ground, and heeded not the clamour and blows. At length the men began to be afraid, for they perceived this was a miracle, and remembering him whom they had so cruelly scourged in that place, they said one to another, ” This man must have been a god or a devil.” Then a traveller passing by told them that it was the holy Martino himself, and they perceived with shame the evil which they had done. Weeping and throwing dust upon their heads, they ran after the saint, and, overtaking him, cast themselves at his feet and acknowledged that they deserved only to be swallowed up alive by the earth, or stiffened into immovable images like their beasts. But they besought him to have mercy and pardon them. Martino, pitiful towards all sinners who repented, after a while raised them up, and bade them go in peace and sin no more. And departing they came again to the waggon, and this time the mules moved off at once, without waiting for the word of command, and brought them happily to their journey’s end.

Meanwhile the saint, having rested in the house of a poor husbandman, and being quickly healed of his wounds by God’s mercy and the loving care of the monks, rose up to continue his journey. After a space he came to a monastery, where he spent the rest of the day in sweet discourse with the abbot and brethren. Night being now come, they brought him to a chamber where a fire had been kindled in the stove, and a heap of straw prepared for his bed. The saint, vexed at such softness and luxury, cast the straw hastily aside, and lying down upon the hard boards, covered himself with a piece of sackcloth. Now, some of the straw fell upon the stove and ignited, and about midnight the holy man, waking out of a deep slumber, found himself encircled by flames. Forgetful of the Lord, he ran in terror to the door and shook it vehemently, but could not open it because of the heavy bar which he had drawn on retiring. Meanwhile the flames ran about all over the floor, and reaching the saint, began to catch his garment, so that he well-nigh swooned and fell down in the midst of them. Suddenly he bethought him to pray, and cried out with a loud voice to the Lord for succour. Immediately calm came upon his soul, and he laid himself down tranquilly in the flames, which licked his body all over without doing him the least hurt. The monks, alarmed by the smoke and the crackling, came running in haste to the chamber and burst open the door. And they beheld the holy man in the middle of the fire, sleeping as sweetly as if he had lain on a bed of roses. The fire now faded quickly out, and Martino awaking, told them of his want of faith, and of God’s mercy towards him, and exhorted them always to put their trust in the Lord. And they gave thanks together, and the next day he continued on hfs road to Rome.

At length, with aching limbs, the aged saint drew nigh to the great city, and saw far off her multitude of marble temples and palaces, shining upon her seven hills. Then it was told to the Emperor that Martino was coming to demand a grace of him, and, being unwilling to grant it, he commanded that the saint should not be suffered to enter the palace. The old man, turned away from the gates after his long and bitter journey, departed very sorrowful. He went to the house of a friend, where, clothing himself in sackcloth and scattering ashes upon his head, he spent night and day in continual prayer. On the seventh day an angel stood beside him and bade him go boldly to the palace, for the doors should open to him of their own accord. And Martino arose and went to the palace, and lo! the doors split open, though untouched by mortal hand, and he walked forward without hindrance through many vast halls, till he came to the presence-chamber, where the Emperor sat upon his throne. Valentinian, seeing him approach, was filled with rage, and began to gnash his teeth and to cry out upon his servants for having allowed Martino to come in. He would not rise from his seat to receive the holy man, who stood humbly waiting at a little distance. All at once, to the consternation of those around, flames began to issue from beneath the chair of the monarch and to lick the royal person, wrapping him in smoke, so that he was compelled to rise up in haste, lest he should be burnt. Perceiving this thing to be the Lord’s doing, Valentinian was smitten with shame, and came and threw himself upon the neck of the saint, weeping and asking his pardon. Martino forgave him tenderly, and, the fire having been extinguished by the guards, the Emperor led him by the hand and set him upon a seat beside his own, and inquired of him concerning religious matters, listening gladly to his words.

Soon the queen, hearing that the holy man was in the palace, came running hastily to greet him. Throwing herself down before him, she kissed his feet and watered them with her tears. All day long she stayed beside the saint, hanging upon the precious words which fell from his lips. Then, going secretly to the Emperor, she besought him that he would suffer her to minister herself to their guest at the evening feast. And when they were all come to the banqueting hall she led Martino to a place she had herself prepared for him, and with her own hands brought him food and poured wine into his cup. All the time of the meal she stood meekly beside his seat, preferring rather to be the handmaiden of the servant of God than to recline in the chief place as empress by the side of her husband. Thus, in the presence of all the nobles and chief officers of the Court, was great honour done to the saint. And, after a little space, the Emperor, having promised to free the people from the tax, according to the desire of Martino, suffered him to depart in peace to his own city.

– from Saints of Italy, by Ella Noyes; J M Dent and Sons, London, 1901