Sunday, November 11, 2012

St. Martin still speaks to us

In the United States, today is Veterans' Day.  Europeans still celebrate it as Armistice Day, to mark the end of the Great War--"the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, 1918."  But it is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, patron of soldiers, the poor, innkeepers, and drunkards. I wrote the following piece for "The Winged Ox," the newsletter of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, back in 2004, when the United States was at war in both Iran and Afghanistan. But while America's wars seem to be winding down, the fourth-century saint still speaks to us.



"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," wrote British historian Lord Acton.  The feast day of St. Martin of Tours, November 11, celebrates a man who fought the corruption of power in the church.
Until the fourth century, the Christian church had little or no power.
When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in
314, this struggling church was endowed with great, if not absolute

Martin was born in 316, in Pannonia (modern-day Hungary), of pagan
parents.  At the age of 15, he was conscripted into the Roman army,
where he was eventually stationed at Amiens, in Gaul (modern France).  By this time he
had become a catechumen, or inquirer into the Christian faith.  One
winter day, according to legend, he met a half-naked beggar outside the
city gates.  Moved with compassion, he cut his military cloak in two and
gave half to the beggar.  In a dream that night, Christ appeared to him
wearing the half cloak.

Martin then appealed to be released from the army.  He was accused of
cowardice, but offered to face the enemy armed only with the cross of
Christ.  Before the battle began, the enemy sued for peace, and Martin
was allowed to leave the army.  He might be considered the first
conscientious objector.

Martin eventually made his way to Poitiers, in southern Gaul, to become
a disciple of Bishop Hilary.  He lived as a hermit, but attracted so
many followers that he had to establish a monastery.  Legend says that
he did not want to become the Bishop of Tours in 371, but was persuaded
to visit the city to give last rites to a dying woman, and was there
made bishop by acclamation.  As bishop, Martin had no qualms about
destroying pagan shrines.  But he would not accede to the taking of
human life.

Priscillian, bishop of Avila, preached asceticism: vegetarianism,
teetotalism, and celibacy.  His call for the renunciation of marriage
brought him the censure of Church authorities.  The Council of Saragossa
condemned his teachings in 380.  After unsuccessfully appealing to Pope
Damasus I and Ambrose of Milan, Priscillian and six of his followers
appealed to Emperor Magnus Maximus at Treveris (modern-day Trier,
Germany). It wasn't a good move.  The emperor, at the urging of Bishop
Ithacius of Ossanova, had Priscillian and his disciples condemned to death.

For Martin, excommunication, not execution, was the proper punishment
for heresy.  He made the long journey to Trier, where he persuaded the
emperor to remove Priscillian and his companions from imperial
jurisdiction.  But soon after Martin left Trier, Ithacius prevailed on
the emperor to have the men beheaded.  They were the first, though sadly
not the last religious dissenters to be executed at the behest of church

Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius after learning of his
treachery.  But later, when Martin returned to Trier to plead for the
release two rebels held by the emperor, Maximus would agree to the
pardon only if Martin would make peace with Ithacius.  Martin did so to
save the lives of the men, though he later reproached himself for his
weakness.  For me, Martin's compassion was his greatest strength.

Martin is the patron of soldiers and beggars.  Because his feast day
coincided with the pagan feast of Bacchus, he is also the patron of
drunkards and innkeepers.  But he also needs to be remembered as a man
of Christlike love, who stood against the abuse of power by church and
imperial authorities.

Illustration: La charité de saint Martin from Heures d'Étienne Chevalier,
illuminated by Jean Fouquet (1420-1480)