By William C. Noble
His strong hands gripped the dark wood railing of the boat as the gentle afternoon wind filled the heavy canvas sail above his head. The boat slipped quietly into the strong current of the Loire River on its westward way to the Atlantic. Ninian gripped the railing as much to steady himself against the unfamiliar rocking of the boat as to steel himself for what was ahead.
What would he do in Scotland? What would he be in Scotland?
What would he remember from these nine months in France’s Loire Valley? What would he remember from this time at the monastery of Marmoutier? What would he remember from this time with Martin?
He would remember … two days with Martin, two of his ideas, two of his words. He would remember that September day last year when another boat on the Loire had brought him to Tours and to Marmoutier and to Martin. The last days of summer in the Loire Valley are long. Ninian had expected to arrive at night; and although it was late in the day, the sun was still high in the sky when he stepped behind the stone walls of Marmoutier. It was against this sun that he first made out the stark figure of Martin scampering from his hermitage set high into the chalky cliff to meet him. Martin had run to him, embraced him, and said, “Ninian, I knew you were coming. You are God’s gift for me today. I thank him for you.”
Martin thanked God for me.
I later learned Martin thanked God for everything. He saw everything as a gift. He never expected anything from anyone. He asked little of others. He once said, “If everything comes from God, how can we not be grateful?” It was not that he commended this piety as superior, it was simply that he could imagine no other.
On that first day with Martin, I learned the importance of gratitude.
There was another occasion that I will remember. It was one of the few times when Martin talked about himself. One night, shortly after I arrived at Marmoutier, though it was hardly the beginning of winter, we were sitting with a fire on the ledge in front of our caves. Martin had given me a little cave very close to his. I must tell you, at the moment when he gave it to me even I questioned the value of it. I was not grateful. It was no larger than two meters square and yet it was bigger than his. He said it would be enough … and it was, after all, enough.
We were warming our hands and drinking a cup of bernache, the new fall wine, when I said, “Martin, how did you come to be here? How did you come to be a hermit? And how did you come to be the Bishop of Tours? I know something of the story, but I want to hear it from you.”
After a long while he said:
Yes, you know the story … you probably know more than the story, because even before I was appointed Bishop of Tours the story of “the Lord and me” had become in some ways more than it was. Anyhow, I was a soldier, a Roman soldier. I had never thought of being anything else. I was a good soldier. Obedient and well clothed. Obedient and well fed. Obedient and well housed. I was a good soldier, and I think a happy soldier. Obedient.
One day in the forest, I was unexpectedly stopped by a beggar. An old, twisted beggar stepped out in front of my horse. I couldn’t go around him. He said, “I have nothing and I am cold. Give me something.” What could I give him? I had no food for him; I had no clothes for him; I had no money for him. Then I thought of it. With a kind of foolish flair that embarrasses me now when I think of it, I cut my cape in half and gave half of it to him. He smiled in surprise and without a word wrapped himself in it. I rode away unable to shake free of the memory of his strange, ageless face, his twisted smile, and half my cloak around his bony shoulders.
That night the beggar came to me again. I suppose in a dream. But it was too real to have been a dream. He came to me again. This time standing straight and said, “Martin, I am the Christ. You gave your cloak to me.”
It was a dream. But it was a dream that has brought me here. It is a dream that I have never lost. I can close my eyes this very moment and see the beauty of his face, the strength of his smile. I can hear his voice, “Martin, I am the Christ. You gave your cloak to me.” To see his face; to hear his voice is enough.
On that night with Martin I learned the importance of generosity. Whatever we have, although it may be very little, we have it to give away.
I may never see Martin again, but I am stronger for having been with him. And I have learned from him more important lessons than all those in the schools of Rome. He gave me the memory of two days, two ideas. To trust God and to be grateful for all things and to give it away. He gave me two words: gratitude and generosity.
It will be enough.
Ninian turned from the rail and walked to the front of the boat toward the Atlantic and toward Scotland.
The Rev. William C. Noble was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1970, retired from the Army chaplaincy in 1995 after twenty years of service, and today works as a psychoanalyst with a full practice on the internet. Father Noble recently retired as Priest-in-charge of Saint James’ Church, Long Branch, New Jersey, to move with his wife, Liliane Guyon Noble to Charlotte, North Carolina. This fanciful piece was written after being shown Martin’s cave above Mamoutier by one of the Franciscan sisters who live and work from Marmoutier today. The piece was first printed in The Living Church more than a decade ago.