This excerpt is taken from "Sulpicius Severus’s Life of Saint Martin: the Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation" by John P. Bequette. Here Bequette demonstrates that "Sulpicius presents Martin as an agent of cultural transformation, one who challenges the Roman virtue of military valor with a corresponding divine valor rooted in Christian humility." The article examines the literary and religious conflicts between Christianity and paganism, and the conflict between Christian and imperial authority. Bequette concludes that Martin in the presentation by Sulpicius personified the countercultural ideal of valor rooted in humility and thereby transformed pagan literary values as well: "While pagan authors wrote the lives of valorous men in order to achieve some mode of immortality for themselves and their subjects, a hagiographer such as Sulpicius Severus writes a saint’s life in order to inspire his readers to practice heroic Christian virtue."
Sulpicius tells us that Martin was a catechumen for three years during his military service. Yet even before he received baptism, Martin exemplified the life of Christian virtue within the ranks of the Roman army, challenging Roman military valor with the striking alternative of Christian humility. Sulpicius writes:
Great was his kindness toward his fellow soldiers, and wonderful his charity, while his patience and humility were more than human. As for abstemiousness, it is superfluous to praise it in him. He practiced it to such an extent that even at that time he was regarded as a monk rather than a soldier.
On account of his "more than human" virtue, Martin had the reputation of a Christian even before he received the character of a Christian through baptism. Moreover, his virtues were so extraordinary that he had the moral status of a monk, contrasted with his apparent status as a soldier. Sulpicius summates "Though not yet reborn in Christ, he acted as one already robed in the good works of baptism—caring for the suffering, succoring the unfortunate, feeding the needy, clothing the naked, keeping nothing for himself out of his army pay beyond his daily food." Sulpicius’s presentation of Martin in this way would undoubtedly have provided encouragement to soldiers in like circumstances who desired to live the Christian life but had to postpone their baptism on account of the hostility of their leaders and fellow soldiers.
We see the height of Martin’s pre-baptismal humility in an incident that became the basis for the later iconography of Martin. In addition we find here a striking contrast between pagan and Christian valor in the person of Martin the Roman soldier. One day during a particularly harsh winter, Martin came upon a beggar outside the city gate at Amiens. Taking pity on the man, Martin divided his cape with him. Sulpicius relates:
Then the God-filled man understood, from the fact that no one else had had pity, that this beggar had been reserved for him. But what was he to do? He had nothing with him but the cape he had on, for he had already used up what else he had in similar good works. So he took the sword he was wearing and cut the cape in two and gave one half to the beggar, putting on the rest himself.
Here we see Martin the soldier behaving as a monk. He is the Christian soldier wielding an earthly sword to strike a blow for charity. Martin then entered the city wearing the tattered half of his cloak, evoking laughter from some of the onlookers, "for he looked grotesque in the mutilated garment (truncates habitu)." His heroic charity on behalf of the beggar affects Martin in such a way that his appearance elicits contempt from others. Martin is able to bear this contempt on account of his pre-baptismal Christian humility. Significantly, Sulpicius uses the word habitus to designate Martin’s cape, giving a prelude to the monastic habit he would later assume. That night while sleeping, Sulpicius tells us, "Martin saw Christ wearing the half of his cape (vestitum) with which he had clothed the beggar." Sulpicius continues:
Then he heard Jesus say aloud to the throng of angels that surrounded Him: "Martin is still only a catechumen but he has clothed Me with his garment." But Our Lord Himself had once said: "As you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40), and He was only acting on His own words when He declared that He had been clothed in the person of the beggar and reinforced his testimony to so good a deed by graciously showing Himself in the very garment (habitu) that the beggar had received.
Again, Sulpicius uses the word habitus, this time to indicate the garment worn by Christ in the person of the beggar. Also significant in this passage are the words of Christ that underscore Martin’s pre-baptismal status. Martin is only a catechumen, yet he has performed one of the most basic corporal works of mercy: clothing the naked.