Saint of the Day – St. Martin of Tours
November 11 is the feast day of St. Martin of Tours (c.316 – c.397). We know very little of most of the early saints. Fortunately, Sulpicius Severus wrote the saint’s biography before St. Martin died. St Martin was born into a Roman military family in what is now Hungary and was named for the god of war, Mars. Martin’s father, a tribune, was transferred to Pavia, Italy, where the young man encountered the recently legalized religion of Christianity that was still a very small movement. Martin became a catechumen and was preparing for baptism. At the age of 15 he was required to join the army and became part of a distinguished cavalry unit. The famous story of his cutting his military cloak in half to clothe a beggar in Amiens, in what is now France, shows an emerging sense of his Christian vocation, which led to his unwillingness to kill men in battle. This pacifist position was not unusual in the early Church. St. Martin left the army and not only became a Christian, but also went to be a disciple of St. Hilary, the bishop of Poitiers, who was known for his holiness and learning.
The Arians – an heretical group which believed that Christ had not existed from eternity “there was a time when he was not” – had gained substantial strength in Gaul (present day France) and forced St. Hilary into exile in the East. (The emperor Constantine was baptized on his death bed by an Arian priest.) St. Martin returned to his parents’ home in Lombardy in northern Italy. However, the region was a stronghold of Arianism and St. Martin fled to the island of Gallinaria (now Isola d’Abenga) in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is west of southern Italy.
When St. Hilary was recalled from exile by order of the emperor, St. Martin returned to Poitiers in 361. He asked St. Hilary if he could live near Liguge, which was not far from Poitiers, as hermit as he had done on Gallinaria. Eventually, other men were attracted by his example and they formed a community which would later become a Benedictine Abbey. (St. Benedict of Nursia would not be born for another 19 years in 480.) In this early monastic community, the monks lived in caves, shared all things in common, and neither bought nor sold anything. They assembled for the liturgy and meals but otherwise lived in their caves.
Periodically, St. Martin would travel in central and western Gaul, evangelizing people in the countryside. The places he visited later became popular places for pilgrims to visit on their way to the shrine of St. James the Apostle in Compostela, Spain. In 371 or 372, when the second bishop of Tours, St. Lidorius, died, St. Martin resisted the request of the people of Tours to become their bishop. He was literally tricked into it when he agreed to visit a dying woman at the pleading of her husband. When St. Martin got to Tours, he was acclaimed bishop by the people. St. Martin still persisted in his monastic lifestyle by setting up a small hermitage outside of Tours – Montmartier – that would become a larger monastery than Liguge.
While he paid primary attention to Tours, St. Martin would also travel outside his diocese as necessary. On more than one occasion, he went to Trier, in present day Germany, which at the time was the capital of western empire. He went to ask for clemency for condemned criminals in his diocese. St. Martin also asked the emperor to release bishop Priscillanus of Avila ( in present day Spain) to the jurisdiction of Church authorities. Priscillanus had been found guilty of heresy in absentia by the Synod of Saragossa. He and his followers essentially held that the true Christian life had to be that of the celibate monk. Pricillanus’ views appeared to echo those of gnosticism and Manicheanism, which downplayed the value of the physical world and placed the universe in a contest between equally strong forces of good and evil. Although St. Martin had been assured that Priscillanus would be returned to the church’s jurisdiction, the Spanish bishop, Ithacius, got the decision reversed. Priscillanus and his key followers were beheaded. This was the first time that Christians were killed for heresy. St. Martin protested and refused to have anything to do with Ithacius. However, when St. Martin approached the emperor to spare the lives of two rebels, the emperor said he would only do it on the condition that St. Martin would be reconciled to Ithacius. St. Martin complied in order to save the men’s lives, but always regretted the action as a moment of weakness. He died in 397.
The traditional image of St. Martin cutting his cloak to share it with a beggar is only a very small part of his story. His act of charity doesn’t appear to capture the meaning of his vocation and the effect that he would have on the church. In St. Martin we see the model of the monk as Bishop, teacher, and advocate. The selection of a hermit by the people to be bishop would be repeated with St. Augustine bishop of Hippo and many others. St. Martin’s efforts to evangelize the countryside as monk, and later as bishop, would become a model for centuries to come. His combination of learning, holiness, and zeal for the simplicity of the Christian life would be an ideal that Christians and non-believers would adopt in evaluating church officials.
Today we might have some reservations about the elimination of pre-Christian religions, lack of religious tolerance, and the union of church and state. However, we see these things from the long trajectory of Christian history, with a post-modern sensibility. We might take heart in St. Martin’s zeal if for no other reason than our need of some energy in the post-modern malaise.