Martin's Cloak

by Jessica Hickey, (c. 2011)

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

"Have no anxiety, man of God, about stripping off that man who is made of earth, the one who presses you earthwards and would indeed press you down to the regions under the earth. He it is who plagues and burdens and makes war on you. What need have you of earthly garments, you who are on your way to heaven, and have a robe of glory to put on? The robe is ready, but will not be given to a man still clothed." (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in a letter to his friend, Abbe Suger of Saint Denis)


"The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven." (I Cor 15:47)

Situated as we are in the depths of winter, with the next snowfall always just around the corner, no one is likely to find us without all our woolen layers. Bundling up from head to toe is the only way to survive and function normally. Yet, the layers are an encumbrance, and we are glad to shed them when we reach our destination. If we enter a place and remain buttoned and swathed, it usually means that we don't intend to stay; we're stopping just for a moment, just passing through.

It would become quite an odd sight if, as the weather cleared and Spring's blossoms arrived, we kept to our winter garments; if we continued to clomp our booted feet over patches of violet and dandelion, and pulled our earflaps down to cover the sounds of the robin and the cicada. Strange too, if in our warm houses, while washing the dishes, reading the paper, sitting down to a meal, we kept our coats zipped to the top and wooly mufflers about our necks.

My metaphor may be a little obvious, but the point is: There comes a time when the outer garment has to be put away. To keep it on is no longer a help but a hindrance, even a source of misery and harm. And the same must be said in the spiritual life. We are urged to put off "the old nature with its practices," of which St. Paul speaks to the Colossians. To the Ephesians he directs the same exhortation: "Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (Eph 4:22-24).

So, my hope is that today, while we are yet swathed in our external garments of winter, we may nonetheless seize the opportunity to shed within that which is keeping us from attaining that likeness of God.

Perhaps St. Martin of Tours can serve as our patron in this endeavor. St. Martin, you may recall, was born of a Roman military family in the early part of the fourth century. Martin followed his father into military service and, drawn to the Christian faith, became a catechumen. He was sent to Gaul and it was outside the gates of Amiens that he encountered the naked beggar on whom he bestowed half of his uniform cloak, cut with his own sword. Martin's subsequent dream or vision made explicit the spiritual reality of his act: he had bestowed his garment on Christ Himself.

What Martin had done was more than a simple act of kindness. He had taken off the dignity of his earthly office, part of the insignia of his authority and rank and position, in favor of Christian love. Losing something of his own allowed something new, something of God to be born within him: a grace that would stay with him for the rest of his life and beyond. It was the first tremor of that kernel on its stalk, which must fall to the ground and perish in order for new life to come forth. Martin's subsequent life--his years under the tutelage of Hilary of Poitiers, his monastic foundation, his service as a bishop--was directed toward the spreading the truth where it had never been heard, the correcting of error, the vindication of the innocent, the forgiveness of sinners, and the humility and mortification which became his way of life.

Looking at the frayed, blade-rent edges of his cloak's remnant, Martin must have seen his former self pass away, and his new self emerging, imbued with the holy attributes of his Master. Casting away his old garment, he had prepared himself to be robed in glory by the hand of God, as was written of Aaron in the Old Testament:

He made him perpetual in his office when he bestowed on him the priesthood of his people;
He established him in honor and crowned him with lofty majesty;
He clothed him with splendid apparel, and adorned him with the glorious vestments:
Breeches and tunic and robe with pomegranates around the hem,
And a rustle of bells round about, through whose pleasing sound at each step
He would be heard within the sanctuary, and the children of his race would be remembered;
The sacred vestments of gold, of violet, and of crimson, wrought with embroidery;
The breastpiece for decision, the ephod and cincture with scarlet yarn, the work of the weaver;
Precious stones with seal engravings in golden settings, the work of the jeweler,
To commemorate in incised letters each of the tribes of Israel;
On his turban the diadem of gold, its plate wrought with the insignia of holiness,
Majestic, glorious, renowned for splendor, a delight to the eyes, beauty supreme.
Before him, no one was adorned with these, nor may they ever be worn by any
Except his sons and them alone, generation after generation, for all time.
(Sirach 45:7-13)

Scripture calls us to this glory as well. In divesting ourselves of what is earthly, we have in its place that which is eternal. As St. Paul wrote:

For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven. For in this tent we groan, longing to be further clothed with our heavenly habitation if indeed, when we have taken it off, we shall not be found naked. For while we are in this tent we groan and are weighed down, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (II Cor 5)

What is it that we must shed in order to be clothed anew for God's kingdom? St. Paul exhorts us:

Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Because of these the wrath of God is coming (upon the disobedient). By these you too once conducted yourselves, when you lived in that way. But now you must put them all away: anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths. Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator (Colossians 3:5-10)

Sin in its various manifestations, and even the desire for sin, have to be conquered and laid aside. Instead, we are to clothe ourselves in the virtues of the Redeemer which are now possible to us through the fruits of Baptism:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged. Slaves, obey your human masters in everything, not only when being watched, as currying favor, but in simplicity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the due payment of the inheritance; be slaves of the Lord Christ. (ibid, v. 12-24)

Obedience, joy, gratitude, charity--these are to become our new regalia, a uniform of sorts for those who stand with Christ and live in His grace.

What can persuade us to undertake this work? I remember here one of the fables of Aesop:

"The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: "I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin." So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on."

God is like the sun in this fable. The warmth of His Divine love daily surrounds us; how can we fail to be affected?

It seems that now is an opportune time to shed these old garments and put on the new. Between the joyous season of Christmas, when we celebrate the tenderness of God who came among us as an innocent child, and the penitential time of Lent, when Jesus gives Himself completely for us, we have a moment to contemplate the immeasurable love of God and to become more worthy of it. The moment is now. In both these seasons, we see God made vulnerable, born naked into a cold world. We seem Him later, stripped of all that is valued by men to die on the Cross. In this hour, we can, like St. Martin, take a few small steps on the path of our Master.

I mentioned earlier that when a person enters a house and keeps his winter garments on, it is a sign that he does not intend to stay. He intends to move on. If our destination is the Kingdom of God, the house of many rooms, we cannot stand in the doorway with our traveling clothes on. Jesus once taught us:

"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son . . . But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, 'My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?' But he was reduced to silence." (Matt 22:2-3, 11-12)

St. Martin of Tours, pray for us.

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