In 4th Century France, when the "good news" of Christianity had just begun to spread among the crumbling Roman empire, a 15 year old boy was pressed into military service by his pagan father. As Roman solider, Saint Martin de Torres began to study this new faith. At age 21, Saint Martin was so moved by the plight of a cold, nearly naked beggar, that he took his beautiful cloak and cut it in half with his sword. One half Saint Martin gave to the beggar and one half he kept for himself. That night in a dream, Jesus came to him dressed in the half of the cloak Martin had given the beggar. Jesus said "what ever you do for the poorest of the poor, you do for me." Jesus also told Martin that his studying was over, it was time to take his vows to formally join the Catholic Church.
This story, which is passed down for over 1500 years, is a startling example of "charity." Charity is different from benevolence, which is defined as giving from your excess. Mother Theresa said that "charity is sharing when it hurts." It was an extremely cold day when Saint Martin meet the beggar. As a solider, he had only one cloak. Yet Saint Martin is so moved with compassion that he shares his cloak with another who has greater need of its warmth.
My family celebrated this feast day by going to Mass, donating a new men's coat to our parish's coat drive AND THEN, driving to the National Gallery to drink in this fantastic portrait of St. Martin by El Greco. (There are so many benefits to living in the Capitol City!)
El Greco's seven foot high picture is amazing to contemplate in person. St. Martin has a young mans face, gawky ears and peach fuzz on his upper lip. His eyes are downcast with long lashes. His face has such a feeling of peace, gentleness and contemplation. One hand steadies the house and the other deftly starts to tear his luxurious green cloak in half. The body of the beggar is equally amazing. Its as if, El Greco is forewarning us of Jesus' presence. The beggar's right hand is in a form of blessing and his other hand take the cloak with such simple thankfulness and honor. There is no shame in his being barefoot or naked. He takes St. Martin's cloak as easily as if it was one of our children asking us for a glass of water. (Isn't that what charity is? The act of sharing resources shouldn't be anymore complicated that giving your toddler a glass of water on a hot day).
There was so much to think about looking at this huge portrait. We were the only ones in the room--a Catholic family which prayed to St. Martin and grew closer to him in spirit while contemplating this devotional work of art. I told my husband later, "those pictures must be so lonely." El Greco's artwork originally hung in a famous chapel in Toledo, Spain. Now his work hangs in Gallery No. 28, a back room of the National Gallery which is barely visited by bored, tired tourists.
The National Gallery is open late, until 6 PM on Sundays. Jon & I are planning many more trips to stare at the Saints with our three little Catholics. What a great way to inspire a strong devotion to the Communion of Saints.