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Giving at Eye Level – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith NelsonFeast of St. Martin of Tours

Luke 18:18-30

St. Martin of Tours, whom we remember today, was almost universally unpopular among his fellow bishops. But the reasons for this unpopularity are also the reasons we remember his life and witness in the Church. He was strongly opposed to the suppression of heresy through the use of military intimidation or violence. Tragically, such suppression had become common by that point in the history of the early Church. Martin was also called to the monastic life, and refused to compromise this commitment after becoming bishop. The monastic movement in the Western Church was still new enough that this way of life must have made Martin seem even more eccentric and uncooperative with clerical business as usual. Finally, he lacked a formal Latin education and was not a member of the ruling class, having been trained from an early age as a soldier.

St. Martin is most frequently represented in sacred art wearing the military uniform of a soldier, seated on horseback, cutting his red cloak in half with his sword and giving one half to a poorly clad beggar. It is a deeply archetypal image of compassion. We have seen so many images in children’s books, in movies, or in video games, of warriors on horseback committing acts of violent subjugation, slaying dragons or evil knights or foreign invaders. Even those who do so in the service of rescuing a helpless victim are seen slaying or beheading or trampling in the fulfillment of their virtuous mission. St. Martin inhabits this mythic genre, but with a crucial twist that confronts all that what we have been conditioned to see or expect in a warrior. St. Martin believed that spiritual warfare called for spiritual weapons. Foremost among these was his sacrificial generosity. 

This iconic depiction finds its origins in the record of Martin’s life by his contemporary admirer, Sulpicius Severus. Sulpicius wrote as follows:

[A beggar] was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness. In the following night, when Martin had resigned himself to sleep, he had a vision of Christ arrayed in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. He contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, and was told to own as his the robe which he had given. Ere long, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the multitude of angels standing round— “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”

While there is a certain visual poetry in the depiction of St. Martin on a tall white horse, I notice that Sulpicius’s account includes no such detail. I imagine that if this incident did indeed occur, and if Martin had been on horseback, he surely would have gotten down off his horse to interact as an equal with this poor man who had so stirred his compassion. I think the symbolic center of the story and the image is that the cloak is divided into two equal parts. The frayed edge and inadequate size of Martin’s half, and the part of his body now uncovered and cold, would remind him of Christ suffering in and with that man in his need. And the half of the beggar’s body that was now covered and warm would remind him that Christ has clothed him with himself and cares for him as an equal.

It is very easy to give from on top of a white horse. It is more difficult more uncomfortable to dismount, to stand in the mud at eye-level with need, with hunger, with flagrant inequality, and let it pierce our hearts in a humble conversation between two children of God: without an agenda, without a presupposition that we know what the person before us really needs, but with an open heart and a listening ear.

In our Rule of Life, we read a sobering reminder: “The security we enjoy as a community makes us strangers to the precariousness and destitution that are the lot of the poor. Therefore we come to the poor in need of their witness to what it means to be powerless and to put one’s trust entirely in God.”

At some moments, even those among us with the fewest material resources may find ourselves undeniably mounted on the tall horse of privilege in relation to someone with fewer resources than ourselves. Saroo Brierly, whose memoir we are reading as a community, grew up immersed and drowning in a sea of traumatizing poverty.[i] He writes eloquently that the difference between the relative poor and the relative rich can be as simple as the difference between someone who sleeps in a shack of cardboard and corrugated iron and eats a handful of lentils and someone who sleeps on a train platform and is lucky to eat a few peanuts that someone drops on the ground before other needy hands grab them.

The saints whose sacrificial generosity we remember were painfully and poignantly attuned to their own privilege, and found the prospect of not giving what they could to be spiritually intolerable. Once they realized that they were riding through life on horseback, they knew that their only choice was to dismount and live a life on foot. And those who lived prior to the twentieth century proliferation of national and international charities and non-profit agencies had no choice but to do their giving at eye level, hand to hand. Their witness proves to us, again and again, that if we give of ourselves in the same way, we will surely “get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come, eternal life.”


[i] Brierly, Saroo. A Long Way Home. 2015.

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