Saint Martin and the Birds of Appetite


Sulpicius Severus recounts an odd story about S. Martin of Tours, whose Feast we celebrate today. It was on last journey before his death, he and his disciples past by a river where a number of birds were gobbling up fish in a feeding-frenzy. S. Martin was not amused:

This [exclaimed the saint] is a picture of how the demons act: they lie in wait for the unwary and capture them before they know it: they devour their victims when taken, and they can never be satisfied with what they have devoured.

He then proceeded to command the poor birds to fly off to “dry and desert regions.” The birds obediently flew off, “to no small wonder of many.”

What had the poor birds done to be sent off to the desert? They were merely following their instincts. Every living thing lives only by devouring other living things, or in, the case of plants, at least by depriving other living things of the chance to live on this bit of earth. Perhaps he did as a warning to future generations not to gorge themselves too much on Martin’s Geese. In man sensible appetite ought to be ordered by reason, but it often isn’t. Here is Charles De Koninck’s explanation from Ego Sapientia:

The union of intellectual nature and sensible nature subjects man to a certain contrariety. Sensible nature takes us towards the sensible and private good, while intellectual nature has as its object the universal and the good under the very notion of good, which is principally found in the common good. Now in us the sensible life is first; we cannot attain to the acts of reason except by passing through sense which, in this respect, has the capacity of principle. As long as man is not rectified by the cardinal virtues, he is drawn mostly towards the sensible good against the good of intelligence. (p. 17)

Sensible appetite leads to a destructive selfishness, an ordering of all things to oneself, which ends up destroying not only the things one desires but also oneself. We can only live if we eat, but the attempt to fill up our emptiness turns into a frenzy that eats us. Contrast that with the Son of God, who lacks for nothing, having the fullness of Divinity, but gives Himself up for our salvation. It is only being conformed to Him, S. Paul never tires of teaching, that we can escape being destroyed:

Let each of you look not to the things that are his own, but those that are other men’s.. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2: 4-8)

S. Martin is of course the great example of looking not to the things that are his own, but to others, witness the cutting of the cloak etc. There is a brilliant passage from S. Gregory Nazianen that reads Phil 2 as talking about the common good of the City of God, and it reads like a comment on the death of S. Martin:

The other wills that I should go forth into the midst [of the Church], and bear fruit for the common good, and be helped by helping others, and publish the radiance, and bring to God an abundant people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and His image cleansed in many. For, as a garden is better than and more than a tree, the whole heaven with its beauties to a single star, and the body to a limb, so also, in the sight of God, the ordering of a whole church is better than and more than the progress of a single soul; and therefore, I ought not to regard only my own interest, but also that of others. For in this way, Christ, when it was possible for him to abide in his own honor and deity, not only so far emptied himself as to take the form of a slave, but also endured the cross, despising the shame, that he might by his own sufferings destroy sin, and by death slay death. (Oratio 12, Ad Patrem, §4 (35,845)).

S. Gregory was of course talking about himself, but it is hard not to think of the famous scene of S. Martin’s death as described by Sulpicius:

Then indeed, sorrow and grief took possession of all, and there was but one voice of them lamenting, and saying: “Why, dear father, will you leave us? Or to whom can you commit us in our desolation? Fierce wolves will speedily attack thy flock, and who, when the shepherd has been smitten, will save us from their bites? We know, indeed, that you desire to be with Christ; but thy reward above is safe, and will not be diminished by being delayed; rather have pity upon us, whom you are leaving desolate.” Then Martin, affected by these lamentations, as he was always, in truth, fullof compassion, is said to have burst into tears; and, turning to the Lord, he replied to those weeping round him only in the following words, “O Lord, if I am still necessary to thy people, I do not shrink from toil: thy will be done.” […] O man, whom no language can describe, unconquered by toil, and unconquerable even by death, who didst show no personal preference for either alternative, and who didst neither fear to die nor refuse to live!

This was a man in whom sensible appetite had been totally rectified by virtue, and who loved “the good under the very notion of good, which is principally found in the common good.” O Martine, o pie … prophetis compar, apostolis consertus… This was what S. Thomas was talking about in the famous passage from the De Caritate:

To love the good in which the blessed participate in order to acquire or possess it does not make man well disposed towards it, for the evil envy this good also; but to love it in itself, in order that it be conserved and spread, and so that nothing be done against it, this is what makes man well disposed to this society of the blessed; and this is charity, to love God for himself, and the neighbor who is capable of beatitude as oneself.


Still, it seems kind of hard on the birds, they seem to have gotten more than their comeuppance for the unfortunate incident of the geese betraying his hiding place: S. Martin’s day is the occasion  for immoderate bird consumption, and all kinds of ritual bird de-capitation:


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