Today the church honors the start of an ancient feast, Martinmas, named in honor of St. Martin of Tours, Bishop, Conscientious Objector, and Gentle Bishop.
St. Martin was born in the early 4th Century in modern day Hungary. His family was not Christian, and his father was a distinguished Roman legionnaire.
In his childhood he came under Christian influence, and at the age of ten he took it upon himself to sign up for Catechism classes (imagine that happening today!).
As a young teen, though, his catechumenal exploration was put on pause as he was drafted into the Roman army, a common practice for children of Roman soldiers. He was a good soldier. Very good, in fact, and well-liked by his comrades.
This is a nice tie-in to Veterans Day, no?
But, as the legend goes, one winter night he was stationed in Amiens, and on night watch he saw a poor old beggar at the city gates shivering in the cold. St. Martin had nothing to give him, so he cut his cavalryman’s cloak, and gave the old man half to wrap himself in. That night St. Martin dreamt that he saw Christ wrapped in his cloak, saying, “Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.”
Well, this sent St. Martin into an existential crisis. Over a period of time he became convinced he could no longer be a soldier because he could no longer justify killing.
He decided to be baptized and asked to leave the army. He was twenty years old.
St. Martin went off to seek Bishop Hilary of Poitiers (see Jan 13th for his feast day) to learn from him. He met with him and decided he wanted to join him in his work in Poitiers, but first wanted to say goodbye (and convert) his family back in Hungary. While St. Martin was journeying back to Hilary after hanging with his family, he learned that Bishop Hilary had been exiled. St. Martin decided then that he, too, would seek a solitary life for a while, and lived a hermits life in a hut outside Poitiers.
The thing is, St. Martin was becoming famous for not wanting to be famous. And so his little hut grew into two, three, thirty…a thriving humble monastery had formed that was providing charitable work all over the French countryside. In 371 the Bishopric of Tours became vacant. St. Martin’s followers tricked him into entering the city, and then would not let him leave until he agreed to be their Bishop.
“Fine,” he said. “But I’m going to do it my way…” (cue Frank Sinatra).
St. Martin, now Bishop, set up his home in a cave on the cliffs of Marmoutier, two miles from Tours. The office for his Bishopric was a hut just outside the cave. And though he had an unusual lifestyle, and an unusual approach, he was unusually effective in reaching the poor countryside people of France with charitable love, good works, and the Gospel message.
He fought for the rights of peasants in front of Emperors, not afraid to advocate on behalf of the poor. He established centers of charity and teaching in places no one else cared about. And when the Church first used capital punishment as the sentence of heresy, as they did in 386, St. Martin strongly opposed the sentence and began to ask tough questions about mixing the church and state.
He thought government and the church should not hold hands too tightly.
St. Martin died in 397. Interestingly enough, his work set much of the foundational work for the Celtic Christian Church, as missionaries trained in his little outposts traveled to the British Isles.
Martinmas, much like Michaelmas, became a festival time in much of Christendom, perhaps even spanning ten days originally. After the Reformation, many Lutherans continued to celebrate Martinmas, but did so to honor both St. Martin of Tours and Blessed Martin Luther (whose birthday is November 10th).
St. Martin’s motto, “Non recus laborem” or “I do not turn back from work” has been the motto of many of the faithful throughout the centuries.
St. Martin is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that catechetical study has been known to significantly alter how people live and work. It has been formative…and could still be.
-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by Aiden Hart depicting St. Martin’s formative experience