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Saint Martin and the Search for Holiness | Régine Pernoud |
Prologue to Martin
November 11 is now a red-letter day on the French civil calendar: in 1918
that date marked the end of the slaughter that was the First World War.
But even before France was called France, that date, the eleventh of November,
had been a date on the calendar used throughout Christendom because it
commemorated the burial at Tours of the amazing individual whom we call
was an amazing and even a paradoxical man: he never accomplished what
he had hoped to do, and yet his accomplishments surpassed all possible
expectations. To begin with, this man, who had always tried to go unnoticed,
enjoyed extraordinary popularity. He wanted to be a hermit, to flee the
world and devote himself to ascetical practices; instead he was constantly
surrounded by people, during his lifetime and after his death: the pilgrimage
shrine of Saint Martin in Tours was once the most important after the
three great pilgrimage sites of Christianity, Jerusalem, Rome, and, later
on, Saint James of Compostela. He is remembered as a soldier, and indeed
he was one, albeit entirely against his will. He had refused to be ordained
a priest, considering himself unworthy, and yet he became a bishop. He
had fled the world and sought a life of seclusion, but instead his biography
was written while he was still living!
Thanks to those who discerned the extraordinary qualities in this rather
reticent, unassuming man who resolutely practiced poverty, we know the
story of his life. It spans the fourth century, in which the Church became
free at last to live above ground, only to be torn by dissension so widespread
that it almost brought her to ruin.
There are not many individuals whose biographies were written during the
fourth century, especially during their lifetime. This was the case, however,
with Martin of Tours, thanks to his friend Sulpicius Severus, who survived
him long enough to record for us also the story of his death. And so we
have the unusual good fortune of possessing a contemporary document to
tell us about a man who, throughout his life, sought only to live among
his peers, in obscurity.
In Search of Holiness
Sulpicius Severus was handsome, young, and rich. He lived in Bordeaux,
a particularly prosperous town in the fourth century, where he received
an outstanding education; he practiced law there and excelled in his profession
because of his great eloquence. His family belonged to that Gallo-Roman
aristocracy which enjoyed the favor of the Roman emperors because their
power depended upon it. Thus, in the region that would later be called
Aquitaine, there were several families that owned enormous estates and
a large number of slaves and were extremely wealthy. The province was
crossed by navigable waterways, which guaranteed abundant commerce. Bordeaux
at that time had the reputation of being an "intellectual" city; like
Toulouse, it had quite a number of citizens who had conformed completely
to the customs and tastes characteristic of the Roman Empire. In the region
surrounding Toulouse archeologists have found as many busts and sculptures
from the imperial era as they have in the vicinity of Romeartwork
intended to ornament the villas where these opulent families lived.
Sulpicius Severus, being a lawyer, had made a name for himself in "upper-middle-class"
circles while he was still a very young man. His reputation is inseparable
from that of the man who would later be called Paulinus of Nola, with
whom he was bound by ties of friendship. Paulinus, a lawyer like Sulpicius,
came from an even richer family than his and was likewise an avid man
of letters. It is easy to imagine the two friends going together to the
thermal baths or attending the literary gatherings of the day, where people
discussed the poetry of Virgil or Ovid, or perhaps the eloquence of Cicero.
Paulinus, who was highly valued by Emperor Valentinian II, had been appointed
for a time as governor of Campania, but he had resigned from his official
duties and returned to Bordeaux so as to lead there a life of elegant
leisure, as was the fashion then on the banks of the Garonne River.
Now a new factor came into his life around the year 389 (Paulinus was
about thirty-six years old at the time): he was touched by the gospel.
The Christian religion, which had been spreading freely for a good sixty
yearsthe Edict of Milan promulgated by Constantine, which ended
the persecutions, dated back to the year 313would thoroughly transform
that pleasure-seeking aristocrat. In the year 390, together with his wife,
Therasia, he received baptism. His encounter with the Christian faith
may have been fostered by the great sorrow he had experienced at the death
of a beloved brother.
Soon afterward, Sulpicius in turn was touched by grace. He had been married
only a little while, and perhaps his motherin-law, Bassula, who was a
fervent Christian, had had some influence upon him. He received baptism,
but his wife died shortly after, and he found himself disowned by his
father, who could not abide his conversion. Moreover, Sulpicius himself
was preparing to follow the example of his friend Paulinus, who had begun
to divest himself of all his property, following the evangelical counsel
of poverty to the letter. Of what he inherited from his wife, Sulpicius
kept only a small lot, a kind of temporary lodging, where from then on
he would welcome a number of other Christian converts who wished to lead
a life of prayer and asceticism. The place was called Primullacum in Latin,
and it has been identified with the little city of Alzonne on the road
from Toulouse to Carcassonne, not far from Brain, in the Aude in Languedoc.
Sulpicius must have taken up residence there in 394 or a little earlier.
It was there, too, that he received the letters that
Paulinus wrote to him. For example, the one in which he expresses, in
the rather emphatic language of that era, his admiration for his young
But you, my most beloved brother, were converted to the Lord by a
greater miracle [than I]. For you were closer to your prime, you were
winning greater eulogies, the burden of your inheritance was lighter,
yet you were no poorer in store of wealth; you were still prominent in
the fame of the forum which is the theatre of the world, and you held
the palm for glory of eloquence. Yet with a sudden urge you shook off
the slavish yoke of sin, and broke the deadly bonds of flesh and blood.
Neither the additional riches brought by your marriage into a consular
household nor the easy tendency to sin after your marriage [i.e., after
he was widowed] which followed your celibate youth could draw you back
from the narrow entrance to salvation, from the steep path of virtue to
the soft, broad road trodden by many. 
And Paulinus continues, recalling the friendship that united them in their
What shall I render to the Lord for this grace in addition to all
his bounty to me? (Ps 115 :12). For through this grace He has
joined you to me not only as a most beloved friend in our earlier life
in the world, but also as an inseparable companion and partner in the
spiritual brotherhood of His affairs.... [T]hat intimate friendship of
our earlier life, when we still loved the things which we now reject in
Christ, marked us out for each other in the love of Christ. 
Paulinus had returned with his wife to Campania, where he settled at Nola,
a little town founded of old by Saint Felix, who was buried there. From
then on Paulinus and his wife led a very austere life, dwelling in the same
house but living as brother and sister, and devoting themselves to the needs
of the pilgrims and the poor. Paulinus had already been ordained a priest
in Barcelona, and in 409 he was appointed bishop of Nola. In another one
of his letters to Sulpicius he writes: "You revealed the increase of your
inheritance amongst the saints. This you did by your wholesome disposal
of the burdens of this world, for you have purchased heaven and Christ at
the price of brittle worldly goods,"  Thus the correspondence between
the two friends leaves no doubt as to their complete conversion, which led
both of them to give away their fortunes. It is said that even Sulpicius,
who retained his ownership of Primuliacum, only did so in order to host
friends there, as well as his mother-in-law, with whom he maintained close
ties of friendship and whose fervent faith was evident. He experienced scruples,
however, on that account, and Paulinus reassured him:
And why should you lament that you on the contrary are still unhappily
clinging to the slimy dregs of hell below, just because from your letter
you appear not to have sold one petty estate? Your forfeiture of your
present right even to that farm is equivalent to selling it, so that by
the greater fruits of your faith you showed to God a twofold dedication
... for the goods you have kept back are possessed by the church which
you serve. 
Sulpicius Severus, while in retirement on his estate, received many visitors,
and that is how he heard about the bishop of Tours, Martin.
As for Paulinus, even before his conversion he had been in contact with
Martin. Later on Sulpicius would tell of the circumstances. "A man named
Paulinus, who was afterwards to be an example to all, had begun to suffer
from acute pain in one eye and a fairly thick film had by now grown over
the pupil. Martin, by touching the eye with a fine paintbrush, restored
it to its former state and at the same time banished all the pain." 
This probably took place during a journey that Martin made to Vienne, and
it is conjectured that the two friends must have had an ongoing discussion
about this cure.
But this was certainly not the only reason that prompted Sulpicius to go
to see Martin. Plainly, the reputation of the bishop of Tours had aroused
his curiosity even before that. " 11 had previously heard accounts of his
faith, his life, and his powers and burned with the desire to know the man
himself", he writes. "I therefore undertook as a labor of love a pilgrimage
to see him." Indeed, in those days the journey from the regions along the
Garonne River to the banks of the Loire River was long. Traveling from north
to south was easy through the Saône and Rhône valleys, but that
was not the case in the western territories that drain into the Atlantic
Ocean; furthermore, the Roman roads crossed France from east to west.
"At the same time," Sulpicius relates, I was all on fire to write his life."
His natural talents would find expression in a literary work that was perfectly
suited to his deep feelings. He decided, therefore, to make the journey.
"You would never credit the humility and kindness with which [Martin] received
me on that occasion. He congratulated himself and praised the Lord because
I had thought so highly of him that I had undertaken a long journey especially
to see him." And he tells of his embarrassment when Martin invited him to
share in a meal, and "it was he who fetched the water for me to wash my
hands and, in the evening, it was he who washed my feet. Nor had I the courage
to remonstrate or resist. I was so overcome by his authority that I would
have felt it impious to do anything but acquiesce."
No doubt this visit made a profound impression on Sulplcius. He found in
Martin just as saintly an individual as he had been said to be. "But all
his talk while I was there was of the necessity of renouncing the allurements
of the world and the burdens of secular life in order to follow the Lord
Jesus freely and unimpeded." And the following lines suggest even more the
extent to which the conversations with Martin must have affected his guest:
indeed, Martin held up Paulinus to him as an example! "He quoted as an outstanding
example in our own day the case of his Excellency Paulinus, whom I mentioned
earlier. He had abandoned immense wealth to follow Christ and was almost
alone in our times in fulfilling the evangelical counsels. 'There,' Martin
kept exclaiming, 'there is someone for you to follow."' We can surmise that
his words elicited an emotional response from his interlocutor! Martin drew
from the decision of Paulinus a lesson for his generation: "For a rich man
with great possessions, by selling all and giving to the poor, had illustrated
Our Lord's saying, that what is impossible to do is in fact a possibility."
After that memorable encounter, Sulpicius was able to undertake what would
be the great accomplishment of his life: writing the life of Martin of Tours.
It took nothing less than the call of the gospel and the power of the faith
to draw together two men who were so dissimilar, from such different social
 Ancient Christian Writers Series, Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola,
trans. and annot. by P. G. Walsh, vol. 1 and 2 (Westminster, Md.: The Newman
Press, 1966-1967). The citation is from vol. 1, Letter 5, par. 5, pp. 56-57.
 Ibid., vol. 1, Letter 11, par. 1, 5, pp. 90, 93.
 Ibid., vol. 1, Letter 1, par. 1, pp. 29-30.
 Ibid., vol. 1, Letter 24, par. 1, p. 51.
 As indicated in the Acknowledgments, all quotations from the writings
of Sulpicius Severus are quoted from the translation by F. R. Hoare, in
The Western Fathers: Being the Lives of SS. Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Augustine
of Hippo, Honoratus of Arles and Germanus of Auxerre (New York: Sheed
& Ward, 1954). Reprinted by kind permission of Sheed & Ward (U.K.),
an imprint of the Continuum International Publishing Group.TRANS.
Régine Pernoud, a renowned French archivist and historian, is among
the greatest medievalists of our times, and the success of her books has
helped to bring the Middle Ages closer to us. Among her numerous works are
Terrible Middle Ages!, The
Crusaders, and Women in the Days of the Cathedrals.
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