I enjoyed reading the article about St Martin of Tours in the Catholic encyclopaedia online. Not only is his life story interesting and full of the vignettes that make hagiography what it is; he is also the patron saint of soldiers, appropriate for today. If I were cleverer, I might say something about that.
What struck me, however, is a phrase near the end of the article: ‘recover your ordinary firmness’, says the angel to a brooding St Martin. He regretted bitterly a mistake he had made, and the angel warned him not to dwell on it. So you got that wrong, and you are rightly sorry for it. Move on. ‘Recover your ordinary firmness.’
I’m afraid I can be a bit like the brooding St Martin, in need of an angel to remind me not to dwell on those things for which I am rightly sorry. Unlike St Martin, though, I have no history of ‘ordinary firmness’ to recover. My life story is not one of courageous stands, self-sacrifice, and miracles. Just a girl-grown-up, having meandered from childhood and somehow ended up here. A theologian. A Roman Catholic. A mother and wife. A teacher, a writer, a friend. Not, I am sad to say, a saint.
I can learn something, though, from St Martin’s mistake and the angel’s counsel. The heart and soul of St Martin’s story is his quest for Christ-likeness. His ordinary firmness is not as a worker of miracles or a doer of extravagantly self-sacrificial deeds. His ordinary firmness comes from his being in Christ, and the stuff that makes his story so interesting is just details. The details attest to the saintliness, but they are not its substance. Recover your faith in the One who saves you, who covers over all your blunders, however stupid you feel about them.
It is the firmness, I think, of knowing a ‘blameless way’, not because one has never missed a step, but because the way has been made blameless:
…who is a rock, except our God? the God who girds me with strength, and makes my way blameless. He makes my feet like hinds’ feet, and sets me upon my high places. Psalm 18: 31-33 (NASB)
Earlier in the psalm, the psalmist seems to boast of his blamelessness. ‘I was also blameless with him’ (23), he says: with clean hands; without iniquity. Like God, whose ‘way is blameless'(30). And just when I feared I would never be able to pray this psalm, along comes verse 33: the blameless way, the firm ground, is made so by God (the One who has prepared those good works for us to walk in!).
The secret to imitating the saints in their imitato Christi is an imitation of the heart. It is not a backward-looking, self-reproaching endeavour, but a forgiveness-receiving and moving-forward adventure. All right, a journey, anyway! The path of discipleship is the ‘blameless way’, the way of ‘ordinary firmness’ made so by Christ’s own footsteps. The history on which I can look back and recover that strength of soul is Christ’s history, not my own.