It’s a cold day, and he rides his horse with his heavy woolen cloak pulled tightly around his shoulders to shield him from the chilling wind. He squints ahead and sees another figure — a beggar, shivering in the weather.
He stops his horse. He draws his sword, cuts his cloak in two, wraps half of it around the man, and continues on his way.
So goes the most famous legend about St. Martin of Tours, a fourth-century Roman soldier and convert to Christianity who would go on to become a monk and bishop.
I love this story for its immediacy — there is a need, Martin sees it, and he responds. That’s it. He just does it, without question or any worry of being taken advantage of.
We don’t really know whether words were exchanged, and in a way it doesn’t matter. Martin’s recognition of this person’s shared humanity was so deep and so real that his actions communicated everything that needed to be shared:
You are seen. You are loved. You matter. Your needs are mine, too.
The night after he shares with the person in need, Martin sees Christ in a dream, wearing the split cloak. Because he acts, Martin receives a dramatic confirmation of God’s preference for those who are suffering.
Meeting the beggar in the road was not something Martin planned — not something he could have planned — but it is for this encounter that he is remembered through the ages. His generosity made the encounter more than just a passing exchange — Martin seized the opportunity to love, which allowed him to meet God when he met the vulnerable beggar.
This kind of spontaneity is hard for me. I am a planner. I relish color-coded schedules, prioritized to-do lists, meal plans, and budgets. I don’t travel without a detailed, well-researched itinerary, and my wedding binder was honestly a masterpiece of organizational achievement.
I usually feel that I can do the most good this way. Organizing seems to make the best use of my time, maximize my efficiency, and help me make the most impact on the world. But Martin’s story invites me to think about things differently.
It would have been easy for Martin to see this person as a nuisance. It would have been easy to pretend not to see, to bury his face in his cloak. He could have used the pretense of hiding from the wind to hide from the bother of really seeing the person right in front of him.
Martin had plans, too. We’re not sure where he was coming from or where he was going, but he wasn’t out in the cold for no reason. He was on his way somewhere to do something else when he met this beggar. In sharing his cloak, Martin withstood the frost longer than he needed to so that he could care for someone else’s need.
Martin’s story makes me wonder what interruptions I’m overlooking in my life. I know full well my own temptation to perceive interruptions as inconvenient; it’s the shadowy side of my gift for organization. But Martin reminds me that those very moments might be unique opportunities to love — and encounter something of God’s love.
Where might I respond to interruptions with a little more love?
The saints are one of the greatest gifts the Church gives us. They pray for us and they serve as inspirations and guides for how to live a good life. They also comfort us, reassuring us that we’re not alone in our struggles. But sometimes, their example confronts us and makes us uncomfortable. And maybe that’s exactly the nudge we need to respond to something greater than we had planned for or imagined.