Wandering around Trafalgar Square, in the heart of London, you will probably notice a splendid, tall neo-classical building. It is the Parish Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. If you are sharp-eyed you might also chance to notice on ornate lampposts nearby the carved figure of a knight on horseback. It shows him handing down a garment to a naked beggar. A selfless, compassionate action that will forever be associated with the name of that noble saint, St Martin of Tours, whose feast day falls on November 11th.
Born in AD 315, Martin was an officer in the Roman Army. One day, in the middle of a very hard winter and severe frost, when many indigent people were perishing from cold, he was marching with soldiers near the French city of Amiens. He then saw a wretched, almost naked man, trembling and shaking, begging of those passing by. Everybody callously ignored him, but not Martin.
He had already given away all his money in charity, though. So, he drew his sword, cut his cloak into two pieces, gave one to the beggar and wrapped himself in the other half. Of course, that made his dress look odd and fellow officers laughed at him, while others felt the shame of not having helped. That night Jesus spoke to him in a dream: ‘Martin, I was that beggar. You clothed me with your garment.’
Martin’s charity was exemplary, in that he exercised both his heart and his mind. Of course, he could have given away his entire cloak. But he was not an ascetic monk. The duty of his military profession demanded that he should protect his own body from the cold. His charity was then guided by his intelligence and common sense. Later on, Martin gave up soldiering and became a priest but at the time he was still a Roman officer, tasked with defending the Empire from the barbarians. He had a job to do yet, as a Christian; he knew how to combine that with helping a needy neighbour.
The New Testament tells how the early Church made an attempt to establish a kind of utopian Communism. Unfortunately, the episode ended in disaster. A married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, instead of giving all to the community, secretly withheld some of their money and goods, so the Lord punished them with death. The lesson was learnt: private property, the attendant right to it, is an ineradicable component of human nature. Indeed, how could anyone give alms to the poor unless he had something to give in the first place?
Personal, chosen poverty, as a personal vocation and calling, is recognised and honoured in the Christian Church. There are religious fraternities, like Benedictines and Franciscans, whose individual members take a vow of poverty. Naturally, as communities, they are allowed to own property but such goods are devoted to the service of the poor. They serve the needy and the suffering by running schools, hospitals, shelters, soup kitchens and the like.
The principle of assisting the poor and relieving their distress is one common to Christianity and Islam. There are verses in the Qur’an, as well as sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, establishing the obligation of charitable giving called Zakat, regarded by Muslims as one of the main five pillars of their religion. Nonetheless, the pious practice is subject to certain criteria. For example, to be liable to paying Zakat a Muslim must possess a certain minimum level of wealth or property. Equally, to be eligible to receive Zakat, someone has to qualify in specific ways. Again, the idea is that the God-given duty of help others requires reasonable examination and conditions.
It is said that the figure of St Martin was an inspiration for a famous Vicar of the high-profile parish, Dick Sheppard. He is the man who turned the church from a fashionable and snobbish place famous for high-society weddings into a welcoming centre for those in need.
Today St Martin’s continues Sheppard’s vision and good works. It runs programs for the homeless and vagrants, a day and night centre, a street outreach and helps in finding employment. By the way, Sheppard was also a committed pacifist. He used to remind people that St Martin found bearing arms incompatible with being a follower of Christ and that is why he renounced his commission in the Army.
Not all of St Martin’s actions would find favour in today’s Western secular society. For example, as bishop of Tours, he found to his dismay that there were still plenty of pagans and idol-worshippers in his diocese. He made it his practice to lobby the imperial authorities for the closure and demolition of pagan temples. On one occasion he himself wielded the hammer. There was nothing wishy-washy about St Martin’s faith, obviously…
‘Give to him who asks of you’, Jesus enjoins in the Sermon on the Mount, St Matthew’s Gospel. Many thought it a hard saying. Is it an absolute command, applicable universally, in all cases? Or is it a counsel, or advice, addressed to special disciples? Or is it merely a rhetorical, homiletic exaggeration, not to be taken literally? Be that as it may, Jesus’ words are a perennial challenge for thoughtful Christians. When the beggar asked Martin, the Saint certainly rose to the occasion.