By Denise Trull
When I spent some time with the monks of Our Lady of Clear Creek Monastery a while back, I was surprised to find so many icons of St. Martin in their gift shop. I always think of St. Martin as the strapping young Roman soldier, who famously cut his cloak in half to wrap around a mysterious beggar he met while on one of his many campaigns.
Well, he was a soldier, and a noble one by all accounts. But he left all that to seek the poor Christ who had touched his soul. Martin desired solitude and had the heart of a hermit. He longed for quiet, even for desolate places where he could seek and find the voice of God. He happened to meet St. Hilary of Poitiers at this time, who, as providence would have it, led a life of penance and prayer on a secluded island. St Hilary invited Martin and another holy priest to join him in the way of the desert monks in huts. But holiness is attractive, and they did not have this quiet, peaceful life for long. Hilary became a bishop by the popular demand of his people. The dream of solitude had to be laid down.
As for Martin, he became revered for his asceticism and great love and was likened to the Great St. Anthony of the Desert for his humility and zeal. He started Monasteries for St. Hilary and his efforts would have been a part of the illustrious monastic tradition in France. The monks of Fontgombault would have venerated him like all the other French monasteries, and from Fontgombault devotion to St. Martin made its way to the hill country of Oklahoma. That is where I found his beautiful icons.
In that gift shop was a little, smiling monk who asked if I had ever heard the story of St. Martin and the geese? I had not, but even if I had, I would want to hear it again. After all, it is a singularly wonderful thing to be told a story by a little French monk in a lilting accent. I was charmed. I repeat it here as best I can, though there is no imitating the distinctive loveliness of lilting French monks.
There was an attractive, mystical beauty in Martin that could not be hidden. His one desire was to be left alone to pray and do penance. To find his Lord in an isolated, deserted place. Martin chose this way of life and had absolutely no interest in a worldly or even Churchly career for that matter, although he possessed all the qualities of leadership and wisdom to do so. He got his wish for a time. He lived with his fellow monks praying and living in poverty. As he grew in holiness and humility, he was given the gift of performing miracles. Alas, the people of the city heard of this and flocked to him. After the local bishop of Tours died, the people called for Martin to be their bishop. And Martin did what any self respecting, humble saint would do when faced with the prospect of being a bishop. He ran for his life.
When the emissaries came to his monastery to deliver the news Martin was no where to be found. He, in fact, had successfully hidden himself in the center of a large flock of geese who were being raised nearby. The emissaries waited and waited for him, but were unable to find Martin. His plan seemed to be working.
But the curious emissaries eventually noticed the geese making a terrible, honking din. Martin was trying to quietly shush them, but the geese were not used to one of their monks crouching so low and crawling, so undignified, among their company. The geese would not be shushed, and in fact flew every which way when they saw the emissaries coming.
Alas, the hero was found hiding among the unhappy geese, with feathers sticking out of his disheveled hair and a look of sheer panic on his face. They pulled him up, dusted him off, and told him the news. He did not go quietly. They dragged the determined but unfortunate Martin away, by force, and installed him in his ecclesiastical seat - perhaps the most reluctant bishop in all of Christendom. The geese, alas, had betrayed him.
He didn’t hold it against them but submitted to the obvious will of God. As a commemoration of this event, in which the humble Martin hid among the geese, a goose is cooked and eaten on St. Martin’s Day.
St. Martin did not get his desert dream. But he became a great saint and leader in his diocese of Tours. That is how it happens sometimes. You are certain you are called to one vocation, and God has other plans in mind. I do hope, in the bottom of my soul though, that Martin was able to slip away sometimes to find the poor Christ in solitude - perhaps still keeping warm in Martin’s old cloak.