The Spirituality of the Middle Ages was deeply influenced by a story that everybody knew from their childhood. It was the story of a Roman soldier and of his act of compassion for a fellow human being. The Roman soldier was later to become St Martin, Bishop of Tours, who was born at the beginning of the fourth century. He was still only a Catechumen when, on a cold winter’s night, he cut his cloak in half to clothe a half naked man, who was starving to death outside the city gate. When the story was told that the poor man was in fact Christ, its impact was immense and lasting.
It inspired every one from the humblest of subjects, to the kings who ruled over them. Clovis and the Frankish Kings who followed him, carried the other half of that cloak with them wherever they went, even into battle. It helped keep the story of St Martin’s act of charity alive, becoming the inspiration for countless works of charity in one of the most cruel and barbarous periods in the history of Christendom. When St Francis of Assisi was moved to jump off his horse to help a poor leper, he ‘kissed him on the mouth’ and gave him everything that he had. It was yet another example of the profound truth that had kept charity alive through the Dark Ages. When the story was told that the leper was in fact Christ, it became yet another reminder of those unforgettable words from St Matthew’s Gospel:-
“When you do it to the least of my brethren you do it to me”. (Matt 25:40)
Both St Martin and St Francis were deeply changed by their meeting with Christ in the neighbour in need. Pope Francis had a similar experience when he became ‘Bishop of the poor’ from which he learnt something deep and profound that he has since tried to convey to others. On the Vigil of Pentecost for instance, he asked his audience a rhetorical question – “Do you give alms to the poor?” Receiving the expected answer, he said, “Very good, but when you give alms to the poor, do you look them in the eye, do you touch their hands?” St Francis had always given money to lepers before, but only through others, or by tossing his purse to them from a safe distance, until that fateful day which, as he said in his final will and testament, was to change his life irrevocably.
We are not changed just by giving, but by the way in which we give. This is the insight that Pope Francis discovered for himself. It is in the way in which we give to the poor that we can discover Christ in them, and through this experience be changed ourselves, as others have been changed before us.
Lenten Course. First published in the Catholic Herald.