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A patron saint for horseback riders

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St. Martin of Tours (c.336-397)

Feast day: Nov. 11

Do a Google images search for “St. Martin of Tours” and nearly every picture that pops up shows Martin on horseback. No wonder horseback riders took him as their patron saint.

Martin came from a pagan family, but in his early teens he became interested in Christianity and began to take instruction. Remember, by the time Martin was born, Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, had not only converted, but he actively favored the church. Christians could practice their faith without fear of persecution, and priests and bishops, who once lived in dread of martyrdom, were now respected counselors in the imperial court.

Martin was about 16 when he began to take religious instruction. He still had not been baptized when he was called up for military service. He had some misgivings about serving in the army — as a budding Christian he was inclined toward pacifism. But Martin’s father wouldn’t tolerate a pacifist in the family and dragged his son off to the army registry office. So Martin became a soldier.

Now, about that scene of Martin on horseback. The story is set in Amiens in Gaul (present-day France). On a bitterly cold night in midwinter, Martin, an officer in the Roman army, was making his way back to his quarters. In spite of the cruel weather Martin was comfortable, wrapped in a magnificent red wool cloak, a gift from the men in his cohort. As Martin rode along he saw a poor man, dressed in rags, shivering violently, and begging passersby to give him something warm to wear. Everyone ignored the poor man — except Martin. Bringing his horse to a stop, he drew his sword, cut his fine cloak in half, and gave it to the half-frozen beggar. Then he spurred his horse and continued on his way.

That night Martin awoke to find his room filled with dazzling light. At the foot of the bed stood Christ surrounded by angels. Wrapped around the Lord’s shoulders was the piece of cloak Martin had given the poor man. “Look,” said Christ to the angels. “Martin, who is not even baptized yet, has wrapped Me in his own cloak.” Then the vision vanished.

There were no Christian chaplains with the legions, so Martin’s religious formation was put on hold. He learned some Christian prayers, however, and he understood the concept of good works. Even before he met the beggar he kept from his pay only what he and his servant needed, and gave the rest to the poor. Once his term of military service was completed, Martin traveled to Poitiers where the famous bishop St. Hilary completed his religious instruction and baptized Martin at last.

Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017