The lives of the saints abound with simple acts of mercy, performed instinctively to those in need. Indeed, these are very often the most cherished and lovingly retold episodes from their heroic lives. Think, for instance, of St Martin of Tours’ dividing his cloak to clothe a naked beggar. Of St Christopher’s willingness to carry a child safely across a river. Of St Francis kissing the leper. Or indeed, of St Elizabeth of Hungary laying one down in her own royal bed.
The denouement of these stories is often, of course, that the mercies these saints thought were showing to the old, poor, sick, hungry, and naked were in fact being done to Christ himself. The Ur-version of this hagiographical trope comes, I believe, from Pope Gregory the Great’s recounting of the story of Martyrius.
The story is implicitly itself. Martyrius, an Italian hermit, encounters a derelict leper, whom he then carries to a nearby monastery to be cared for. Upon arrival, the leper revealed himself to be ‘the Redeemer of the human race, God and man, Christ Jesus’. Before disappearing, he blessed Martyrius, and assured him: ‘You were not ashamed of me on earth; I shall not be ashamed of you in heaven.’
This basic story has a number of variations. The “gotcha” moment occurs in a dream for St Martin. In the classic St Francis version (popularized by Bonaventure) it is implied by the leper’s miraculous disappearance. St Elizabeth, meanwhile, returns to her bed to find not a sleeping invalid, but rather Christ crucified.
The sheer memorableness of these tales can, however, obscure the essential theological truth that they evince. For the take-home point is not, surely, that one ought to help those most in need in case they might turn out to be Jesus – as though Christ were Jeremy Beadle, and this was merely a Candid Camera-style stunt. No.
The true point is not that Christ might be “hiding” in the guise of his “least ones” (cf. Mt 25.31-46!) – but rather, that he always is. Indeed, Sulpicius Severus underlines this catechetical insight in his famous Life of St Martin:
The Lord, truly mindful of his own words (who had said when on earth — “Inasmuch as ye have done these things to one of the least of these, ye have done them unto me”), declared that he himself had been clothed in that poor man; and to confirm the testimony he bore to so good a deed, he condescended to show him himself in that very dress which the poor man had received
In truth, these seemingly dramatic episodes from the lives of the saints are ones that millions of Christians, in millions of little ways, perform every single day of the year.
Take, for example, a single example, from the countless that occurred today alone.
This morning in Preston, a sweet little grey-haired old lady who walks with sticks slipped in the snow while getting on the ASDA bus. Despite being literally across the road from the hospital, it took well over an hour for an ambulance to come and get her. Unable to move and wracked with pain (and, quite possible, shock) she lay in the snow all that time. Various passers-by came to sit with her, including a nurse en route to work.
The bus stop, as it happens, is in front of a Catholic church. The parish priest, latter-day King Wenceslas that he is, spied the scene unfolding as the snow lay round about, if not quite “deep, and crisp, and even”, then at least grey, slushy, and treacherous. He came out to offer the old lady a blanket. This she refused: on the absurd grounds of “not wanting to be a bother”, and not having to trouble someone to have to return it. He also offered a cup of tea. Though the frost was cruél, this too she refused.
(NB: this is where the story departs, significantly, from medieval hagiography. Even the self-proclaimed “Redeemer of the human race, God and man, Christ Jesus” wasn’t so self-effacing as to refuse a helping hand.)
Anyway, to cut a long story short… an ambulance eventually turned up. At the time of writing, the woman in question is still waiting to be X-rayed. Meanwhile, her grateful son has googled the priest, and emailed him with heartfelt thanks. He promptly replied, wishing her well, and with a line that could have been uttered by Martyrius, Martin, Francis, or Elizabeth: “Once I became aware that someone had fallen it seemed a natural thing to see if anything was needed, being the nearest neighbour.”
And there our little story comes to an end. Unless, that is, my mother appears in a dream to the dear parish priest of St Clare’s, Fulwood… “And lo, the vision spake to that blessed young priest: “Eh up me duck! It was me – that Jesus – who you tried to help this morning. You nee’n’t have bothered helping the likes of me, chick. I could manage!”’
Do please pray for all of them. And for her, that she a) gets better; b) stops insisting on getting two buses to ASDA regardless of the weather; and c) that she accepts help when it’s offered.
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