Giving at Eye Level – Br. Keith Nelson

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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  1. Elizabeth Hardy on October 19, 2021 at 11:36

    This is an appropriate reminder that on November 11th in Canada we celebrate Remembrance Day when we honour all lives lost in battle and conflict. We too live in positions of relative safety and are far removed from the many conflicts around our world that wrack the peace of women, children, the elderly and the infirm. We need to be more intentional about the peace we enjoy, rather than simply being nostalgic when we hear ‘The Last Post’. Elizabeth Hardy+

  2. Melinda Benton on November 1, 2020 at 11:47

    Br. Keith,
    Thank you for the insight and the image of getting down from one’s high horse to serve on foot, something which the Poor Clare’s did barefoot!

  3. John G. on October 31, 2020 at 13:34

    I have ridden a high horse all my life. My attitude has been manifested in flashes of temper, contempt for others, condescension, and isolation. I have garnered few friends, understandably. Now that I am older and recovering from illness, I hope it is not too late to meet the poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 RSV). Please pray, that God’s grace will enable me to change my habit of isolation and stand beside those in need. I will be praying for opportunities and praying for discernment to receive a nudge from the Spirit to act with compassion.

    • Gwedhen Nicholas on October 24, 2021 at 16:34

      Thank you, John, for your courageousness in naming your failings, and for your prayer for discernment to hear the Spirit’s nudging voice. I too need to do this. Gwedhen Nicholas

      • John G. on October 26, 2021 at 09:45

        Your comment, Gwedhen, was a spur to renewed effort. I am still on a journey of pains taking discernment. But in this COVID laced world, I haven’t returned to eye level ministry with the poor. I am hopeful an opportunity will appear when I am ready to take it up. I believe the Holy Spirit will see to that. Thank you for your kind response. May the Lord bless you today and every day and may He bless all the SSJE community.

  4. rev. carol carlson on October 31, 2020 at 11:42

    David’s comment from last year reminds me that FDR and Eleanor were often called ‘class traitors’ for their embrace of interests that conflicted with those of the 1% from which they both came. It seems to me, preparing to preach on the Beatitudes tomorrow, that anyone who, like Martin and the Roosevelts, wishes to declare allegiance to the poor must of necessity turn ‘traitor’ to their own privilege. That’s why so many white people have joined the Black Lives Matter protests, and why so many have blamed those protests for the violence of the system that they themselves support. We live in a system, and facing an election, that is at a crisis-point: to whom or what will we give our allegiance, to what are we willing to turn ‘traitor’ for Jesus’s sake? Blessedness or damnation lies with our choice.

  5. Diane on October 31, 2020 at 06:05

    Amen, Amen! Powerful homily today. I have found in my life that I have never been harmed when I give to charitable organizations – both to Church and to others that help the poor and needy. There have been occasions when I’ve stretched myself. But I have found that most of the time I spend on myself I can run short at the end of the month. Thank you for this lesson! You brought tears to my eyes – but they were good tears!

  6. Amanda Scott on November 11, 2019 at 12:06

    I am a missionary in Honduras. Like the statement from your rule of life, the poorest of the poor provide the most profound witness. Their goal trust in God, their instinctive generosity, their love, their hope, and so much more teach me how to be faithful and how to follow Jesus. Thank you for this wonderful and uplifting message.

  7. James Rowland on November 11, 2019 at 11:53

    Thank you, Br. Keith. The “tall, white horse” image rings loud and clear. I struggle to dismount and I see others around me “on the ground” tearing their cloaks. The image will be with me for a long time.

  8. Jeanne DeFazio on November 11, 2019 at 10:19

    Powerful teaching! Many thank!

  9. Susan Kuhn on November 11, 2019 at 08:10

    Oh yes. This is why our relationship with Christ, as reflected through our relationship with other (poor?) people, must anchor our work.

  10. David Hollingsworth on November 11, 2019 at 03:41

    Eleanor Roosevelt was dedicated to helping the poor. Those who were in her group had to go with her to visit the deep slums of NYC. Her husband was The President from 1932 to 1945. He was a demigod in the eyes of many people but Eleanor was tolerated at best because of her husband. Others were completely against her even referring to her as a N….. Lover.

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