Well, it is time for another installment of the Life of St. Martin. In this excerpt, we find Martin, newly discharged from the army, seeking guidance from the renowned bishop of Poitiers, Hilary.
(5) After he left military service, Martin sought out the holy Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, whose faith in the things of God was obvious and well-known. He stayed with him for some time. (2) Hilary tried to bind Martin more closely to him and to win him over to the divine ministry by making him a deacon . After Martin refused again and again, declaring that he was unworthy, Hilary, who was shrewd man, perceived that Martin could only be bound in one way: by imposing on him a task which he would take as injurious. So, he ordered Martin to become an exorcist. Martin did not refuse his ordination so that he would not seem to despise so humble a position. (3) Not much later, Martin was warned in a dream that, out of pious concern, he should visit his homeland and parents who up to then remained pagan. He left on the holy Hilary’s orders, bound by many prayers and tears that he should return. They say that he entered into that journey sadly, bearing witness to the brothers that he would endure the many hardships which he later experienced. (4) First, while he was travelling in a deserted stretch, he met bandits. When one of them lifted an axe and poised the blade over Martin’s head, another held the right hand of the man who was about to strike. With his hands bound behind his back, Martin was handed over as a slave and reward to one of them. When that robber led Martin to a more remote spot, he began to ask him who he was. (5) Martin answered that he was a Christian. The robber asked Martin whether he was frightened. Martin answered very calmly that he was never so secure because he knew that the mercy of God was especially present in his trials. Indeed, he grieved more for the robber, who, because he engaged in banditry, was unworthy of Christ’s mercy. (6) He entered into a discussion of the Gospel and declared the word of God to the robber. Why should I delay longer? The robber believed, followed Martin and returned him to the road, praying that Martin should pray to the Lord for him. The robber later was seen leading a religious life. This story which we reported above, was based on an account from him
The place to start with this passage is Hilary of Poitier. St. Hilary is a notable Church Father in his own right, a veteran of the Arian disputes and best known to us for his work to explain the Trinity to Western, Latin speaking audiences. He was made bishop of Poitiers sometime around 350 AD and became embroiled in the Arian disputes which had been raging since the 330s in the East. With the overthrow of the pro-Nicene Constans and the semi-Arian Constantius II's victory against Constans' murderer, the anti-Arian West found itself under the same pressure that the anti-Arian party in the East had been facing since the death of Constantine and the accession of Constantius II to the throne in 337. By 356, Hilary was condemned and sent into exile in Phyrgia until 360. This gave him the opportunity to learn more of what the Greek anti-Arians were arguing which led to his work on the Trinty which served to mediate this Eastern understanding of the Nicene solution to Latin-speaking audiences.
This exile establishes a terminus ante quem for this incident: sometime before 356, since Hilary was in exile after that. This chronology has been questioned by some, but the mention of Julian makes it just possible that they could have coincided. Julian became Caesar in November of 355, but only really made his reputation in 356. If we presume that Martin was discharged at the beginning of the campaign of 356 (which seems implied from the previous passage's reference to a mustering of the troops and the distribution of imperial largess), makes it possible that Martin went to Poitiers and stayed with Hilary for some months. It is a tight chronology, but it could just work.
The office of exorcist was one of the Minor Orders of the church and is known in the Western church from the 250s. The primary duties included exorcising (driving out evil spirits) catechumens and helping those afflicted with demonic influences. Sulpicius seems to suggest this office was seen as fairly humble which is why Hilary was able to get Martin to take it. He is making a point about Martin's humility as well as Hilary's cleverness.
The return of Martin to his homeland makes sense. Given his conversion to Christianity, one can sympathize with his desire to spread the Word among his own people and his family. This is, of course, in the long line of converts setting out to convert their own people.
The encounter of Martin with the robbers is a good example of the interaction between the criminal and the holy monk which we see in monastic literature. It is, in effect, the opportunity to display the monk's contempt of death and the power of Christianity to convert even the most hardened reprobate. Martin's discussion with his new owner establishes Martin's confidence in his salvation. This is meant to recall Paul's confidence in prison, but also, I think, to evoke Jesus' interactions with the thieves on the cross. Martin's confidence in God converts his new master just as Jesus' example of the cross converts the good thief.
Now, I'm not equating Martin and Jesus. Clearly, Jesus is Jesus, the son of God, but there is a connection. If we understand the task of the Christian to be the imitation of Christ, it makes sense that there should be, in saints' lives, attention to the points when that imitation becomes manifest. Martin demonstrates this confidence because Jesus did. Sulpicius, by highlighting this episode, is also making a point about how far Martin has gone in his imitation of Christ. Not that this imitation is about imitating the actions of Christ so much as his inner attitude. These parallels are meant to suggest that Martin is participating so fully in the life of Christ that he is starting to act like Him.