Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sulpicius Severus- Life of St. Martin 7

Well, here we are, Palm Sunday already. I hope you all had a good time waving palms and processing (that is, if that is your thing as it is at my church). Oh yes, and welcome to the St. Martin offering for this week.

In the last installment, we found St. Martin returning to his home province, Illyricum, to try to convert his parents. While there, he became embroiled in the Arian controversies shaking the Church in the late 350s. In this installment, something closer to peace is established and Martin is able to join his mentor, St. Hilary, back in Gaul.


Since Hilary had already passed by, Martin followed in his footsteps. When he was met very happily by Hilary, Martin established a monastery not far from town. At that time, a catechumen joined Martin, desiring to be instructed in the discipline of that very holy man. After a few days went by, he was seized by weariness and suffered under a violent fever. (2) At that time, Martin, by chance, had left. After he had been away for three days, he returned to find a dead body. Death was so sudden that he yielded his life without the benefit of baptism. The body was placed in public and was crowded in accordance with the sad duty of the mourning brothers, when Martin ran in weeping and lamenting. (3) Then, truly receiving the Holy Spirit in his whole mind, he ordered the rest to leave the cell in which the body lay. After the door was closed, he stretched himself over the lifeless limbs of his dead brother. After he had applied himself to prayer for some time and perceived that power was present through the Holy Spirit, he stood up, he fixed his eyes on the face of the dead man and boldly awaited the outcome of his prayers and God's mercy. He had interceded for scarcely two hours, but he saw the dead man gradually move all his limbs and trembling with his eyes opening to see. (4) Then, turning to the Lord and thanking Him with a great voice, the catechumen filled the cell with his shouting. When those who were standing in front of the door heard this, they immediately burst in. It was a marvelous sight because they saw living one whom they had left dead. (5) Having been returned to life in this way, he immediately pressed for baptism. He lived for many years afterwards and was the first subject of and witness to the virtues of Martin. (6) Moreover, the same man was accustomed to report that, after his body was put aside, he was led to the tribunal of the judge and it was necessary to condemn him to take up a sad sentence in obscure places and among a common crowd. Then, it was suggested to the judge by two angels that this one was the one for whom Martin was praying. Thus, it was ordered that he be led back by those same angels. He was returned to Martin and was restored to his old life. (7) For the first time, the name of the blessed man shone out so that he who was already thought to be holy by all, was now thought to be powerful and almost an apostle.


With peace more or less re-established in the West, we see Martin returning to Gaul, presumably back to Poitiers, the see of Martin's patron, St. Hilary of Poitiers. Presumably, this is around 360-61 AD, when the rest of the world was concentrating on the titanic contest between the Emperor Constantius II and his erstwhile Caesar, Julian, who had risen in revolt in 360 AD. Constantius would, eventually, die on the way to reckon with Julian and Julian would gain the throne without further fighting.

This incident is an odd one in one sense and quite usual in another. Clearly, in a historical sense, any raising from the dead is unusual, not to mention improbable. Considerable effort has been given to explaining these incidents in hagiographic works. The most common suggestion is that, somehow, the person in question is not so much dead as in a deep coma or sleep. The holy man in question, by delaying interment in order to pray, allows the 'dead' person the chance to regain strength and emerge from the coma. If he hadn't intervened, the poor person would have awoken in the coffin which wouldn't have been a pleasant experience for anyone. All this gives an air of plausibility to an otherwise incredible story and, of course, shouldn't be discounted.

Yet, this argument avoids the sense of this passage quite neatly. This story is clearly meant to be sensational and incredible; shall we say, even miraculous. That is rather the point because, as Sulpicius makes clear, this is the first indication of the true sanctity and sheer power behind Martin and his prayers. Nor is it coincidental that Sulpicius' conclusion about the whole affair is that Martin, on this day, graduated from being merely holy (!) to being potent and almost an apostle.

It is that last point which, I think, helps us in the interpretation. Clearly, Martin here is being equated with both Peter and Paul. Peter raised Dorcas in Acts 9, 36-43 and Paul raised Eutychus in Acts 20, 7-12. So, the 'almost apostle' comment is, likely, looking back to these two raisings. Of course, both of these look back to Lazarus in Jesus' own ministry, so, in a sense, we are seeing Sulpicius identifying Martin with Jesus in the same close way that he does in Life of St. Martin, 5 and for pretty much the same reason.

The question, of course, comes up why hagiographers insist on doing this. I think a clue can be given, oddly, in a comment that my wife picked up at a Jewish event she attended. The speaker had commented that, in the Talmud, there are a fair number of stories in which a given rabbi experiences a story which clearly is intended to evoke a scriptural story. The purpose of these episodes, it seems, is to show that this rabbi participated in the virtues of the scriptural hero. So, if we apply it here, Martin experiences a situation similar to Paul and Peter (who experience a situation similar to one that occurs in Jesus' own ministry) which should imply that he will exhibit similar virtues as these early predecessors. So, at the very least, we should expect an apostolic-like character in Martin. Given the fact that he will become a bishop and embark on a program of rural evangelism, that parallel is likely to be developed further. Stay tuned!


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