Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 22


(1)Frequently, the devil, while he was trying to deceive the saint with a thousand stratagems to harm him, used to attack him in plain view in very different appearances. Sometimes, he used to appear transformed into the appearance of Jove; many times as Mercury; often even in the appearance of Venus and Minerva. Against them, Martin, although terrified, used to protect himself with the sign of the cross and the help of prayer. (2) Many conversations were over-heard in which a crowd of demons scolded the saint with their insistent voices, but knowing that all these things were false and useless, the saint wasn't moved by their opposition. (3) Some of the brothers even bear witness that they heard a demon cursing Martin with insistent words (asking) why he had received back some of the brothers inside the monastery, who had abandoned their baptismal vows through different errors, after they had repented. He set out the crimes of each of them. (4) Martin, contending with the devil, answered back constantly that the old sins were cleansed by the conversion to a better life and that, through the mercy of the Lord, those who ceased sinning were absolved of their sins. Against the devil who said that criminals had not right to grace and that there could be no clemency from the Lord for those who lapse even once, Martin is reported to have shouted out these words: (5) "If you, miserable one, would cease from the pursuit of men and repent of your deeds either now or when the day of judgement is near, I am truly confident in the Lord Jesus Christ, (and) I would promise His mercy." O what a holy boldness in his dutifulness for the Lord, in which although he was not able to take on the authority, he showed his feelings. (6) Since this conversation about the devil and his schemes arose, it did not seem beside the point, albeit not concerning Martin directly, to report what was done because there is some portion of virtue in Martin and a worthy deed was entrusted rightly to the miracle of memory as a cautionary example, if some such thing should happen somewhere a second time.


In many ways, this section represents a high point of St. Martin's dealings with the devil as well as a striking section on St. Martin's attitude about repentance and conversion. This is spiritual warfare in its truest sense: St. Martin is contending directly and openly against the devil himself, after the conventional distracting deceptions. This is, of course, intended to imitate Jesus' own matching of wits against the devil after his baptism, but this contest has a rather different feeling and one that I think should be seen in the context of St. Martin's reputation for gentle remedies for sin as opposed to overly rigourous ones. The tone of grace is strong in this passage which is among the more comforting in this Life.

What I find particularly interesting in St. Martin's confrontation with the devil is that the devil's argument is exactly that of rigourist Christians from the previous centuries. We know that, as early as the Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century) that there were Christians who believed that any lapse after baptism was unforgivable. This impulse is behind the ecclesiological heresies like Novatianists and Donatists applied the logic implied in this position in the aftermath of persecutions to exclude those who did not accept martyrdom, but either sought to avoid it by flight or deceit or openly apostatized even when under torture or the threat of death. There was a long and venerable history of the kind of ethical position proposed by the devil.

What's more, we can see how such a position would be useful for the devil. If we preclude the possibility of repentance and mercy, any mistake or sin would be enough to convince the believer that they are God-forsaken, so why would one bother with returning to God and the Christian life, if you were damned anyways. There is a kind of black and white extremism implied by this position that is convenient in a world where even the saints must learn to set aside their sins and learn to imitate Jesus. If the Church is a school for sinners (an image popular among the Fathers), we are seeing an application of a zero tolerance policy towards sins whose consequences would be to empty the church, not fill it.

Yet, St. Martin's response isn't to go to the opposite extreme. Yes, he definitely defends the power of God's mercy and his grace to heal the sinner and bring him back to God. That is a necessary defence, given Scripture and the emphasis on God's grace and on his mercy which is found there. He, even, shockingly extends that grace to the devil himself, if the devil were to open himself up to it by asking for it. That is always shocking and scandalous to a world which seeks vengeance for wrongs, but it is the logic of grace in a Christian context. We often prefer to see the evil suffer and the good prosper. And we're often annoyed when the evil escape their suffering at the last second. Yet, so many of Jesus' parables and teachings emphasize that God's forgiveness is extended to all, if they ask for it.

Yet, Martin doesn't make the modern Christian error of assuming that, if God forgives everything, that we don't need to do anything else. Notice that Martin emphasizes the importance of repentance and of acknowledging that one has acted wrongly in God's eyes and turning for that wrong. For St. Martin, it is the conversion of his wayward brethren and that they ceased sinning that opens up God's mercy and saved them from God's wrath. Similarly, even for the devil, it is turning from his sins and ceasing his pursuit and perversion of humanity that opens up for him (even him!) God's mercy.

That is, of course, the rub, isn't it? Our own pride tends to rebel against admitting our wrongs, so it is often easier to believe that other people are the reason why we behave the way we do. Or that what we did wasn't really wrong. St. Martin's answer to the devil is the answer of orthodox Christianity: God's mercy and grace is for everyone, but we have to admit that we are sick before we submit ourselves to treatment and are healed. There is hope in that belief, but a hope that we have to be willing to accept before we can experience the benefits of it.


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