Yesterday was November 11th, the day that we honor those who have served and the sacrifices they have made. It was also the feast of St. Martin of Tours. This is a favorite holiday in my family. It heralds the end of Autumn and the coming of Advent, reminding me to love my neighbor as myself. We usually celebrate with the European tradition of a lantern walk and by telling the story of St. Martin. Since childhood my favorite part has been the legend of Martin’s Cloak. Here is my own retelling of this tale, which first appeared on Stories of Yearning. I am honored to have it there beside so many other wonderful pieces. Now I wish to share it here with you. Enjoy!
I put on my gloves and took a last look around the kitchen. The golden light glinted on the tea kettle, and the warm scent of spiced cider hung in the air. I was reluctant to leave, but I didn’t want to disappoint my siblings. They deserved to experience the tradition that had brought me so much joy, so I picked up my lantern and turned the knob. Together, we entered the frosty night.
The bitter chill in the air stung my cheeks and pinched the insides of my nostrils. It was almost too dark to see the leaves that littered the ground, but they crackled under my feet. Suddenly a gust of wind whisked them away, leaving the yard even bleaker than it had been before. My breath rose above me and melted into the stars.
My sister followed my gaze. “The stars look like windows into heaven, don’t they?” she asked. I didn’t answer. I could remember saying the same thing at her age, but the stars had felt nearer then. They were so far away now. I looked at the lantern in my hand, at the dancing light inside it. It was only a jam jar decorated with bits of colored paper, but I had been proud of it when I’d made it years ago. It was beautiful. Not as beautiful as the stars, perhaps, but it echoed their beauty.
Just then, I felt a tugging at my jacket. It was my brother. “What is it, Michael?” I said.
“Why do we take a lantern walk on Martinmas?” he asked me. His little nose was red with cold, and his brown eyes shone. He was the youngest, and this was his first lantern walk. I suddenly realized that he didn’t even know who St. Martin was.
“I’ll tell you,” I said, kneeling down beside him. The other children knew the story by heart, but they gathered around us with eager faces. “Long, long ago,” I began, “in the days of the Roman Empire, there was a young soldier named Martin.”
“A soldier?” asked Michael, becoming excited.
“Yes,” I said. “One day, as he was riding to the city, a great storm arose. The wind howled like a wild animal, and the snow came down in great sheets. He was glad that his military attire included a good, heavy cloak, let me tell you. Well, when he had nearly reached the city, he came upon a beggar sitting by the roadside. The old man had hardly anything on, and his frail body trembled. He implored everyone who passed to spare him a cloak or a bit of cloth to wrap himself in, but no one seemed to hear him. At last Martin could stand it no longer. He reigned in his horse and began to dismount.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ one of his officers demanded.
‘This man is going to freeze to death,’ Martin told him, shouting above the wind.
‘So will we, if we don’t get a move on. If we stop now, we won’t reach town before the closing of the gates.’
‘Go on without me then,’ said Martin, and that is what they did. They kicked their horses and rode away, leaving him standing by the roadside.
Martin looked at the beggar. He wished he had an extra cloak, but all he had with him were the clothes on his back. Well, there was only one thing to do. He drew his sword and cut his cloak. Kneeling down, he wrapped one half around the old man’s body. The beggar looked up at the soldier in surprise. ‘Oh, thank you, sir!’ he said, his eyes filling with tears.
‘Don’t mention it. I only wish I could give you more,’ said Martin, smiling at him. All at once, he remembered the gates. Before the beggar could speak again, he mounted his horse and was gone.
By now it was quite dark, and the road was empty. Martin leaned over the horse’s neck, urging him to go faster. Soon the city walls loomed before him, dimly visible through the curtain of snow. Martin’s heart sank. The gates were closed. They would not be opened again till morning. Dismounting, he made himself as comfortable as he could on the ground, thankful for the half-cloak that remained to him. At last he drifted off to sleep.
And as he slept, Martin had a dream. He dreamed that he saw a group of people coming over the snow, bearing lanterns bright as stars. The lantern-bearers climbed up, up into the sky, till they came to a vast gateway. Unlike the gates of the city, it was open wide, and a blinding light poured forth. Standing on the threshold was the beggar. He was still wearing the half-cloak, but he seemed different somehow.
As the beggar’s eyes met Martin’s, such love and power shone within them that Martin could hardly bear it. Those eyes could only belong to Jesus Christ. Then the Lord raised his arm, and in a loud voice he cried to the lantern-bearers, ‘See! Martin, who has not yet been baptized, has clothed me.’ And Martin remembered the words, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”
“What happened next?” Michael asked breathlessly.
“Well,” I said, “Martin awoke the next morning and entered the city, but he didn’t forget his dream. He had been studying the Faith since he was ten years old, and now he was baptized as soon as possible. Eventually, he left the Roman army that he might focus on spreading the Faith. He had many other adventures and even became the bishop of Tours. But above all, he longed to enter the shining gates that he had seen in his dream.”
“And did he?” Michael asked.
“Yes, he did. When Martin was an old man, weary from his work for God, Christ came and took him home.”
“I want to enter the shining gates, too,” said Michael.
“So do I,” said my sister.
“We will one day,” I told them. I rose to my feet, and together we walked into the darkness, our hearts and lanterns like little stars.