Martin of Tours is a famous saint, the patron saint of France. Unlike many saints he lived to old age and died naturally. During his lifetime he worked tirelessly to spread the word of God among the people of the French countryside. He is a particularly appropriate saint to remember on Armistice Day as he is the patron saint of soldiers.
The readings at the 2pm service on Thursday were Psalm 1, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:34-40. My reflection is given below:
Today we are remembering St Martin of Tours who was born around 316 AD in Pannonia, which is in the area of present day western Hungary. Martin’s father was an officer in the Roman army, being a member of the Imperial Horse Guard.
When the family moved to Pavia in northern Italy, Martin came across Christianity. Though only ten years old he went to the church and became a catechumen, preparing for baptism. His parents were suspicious of Christianity and disapproved of his choice. Christianity was more common in cities where it had been brought along trade routes by Jews and Greeks who had been converted. More important members of society continued to follow their traditional religion and in the army the cult of Mithras was very important.
At the age of 15 Martin joined the army himself, something that seems to have been required of the sons of veteran officers. He was stationed at Amiens, France and probably belonged to a heavy cavalry unit. It was in Amiens that a famous incident took place. It was winter time and he was riding in full regalia towards the city when he saw a beggar by the gates. The beggar was ill clad and shivering. No one was taking any notice of the poor man or giving him any help. On impulse, Martin took off his thick woollen cloak and cut it in two with his sword, giving half to the beggar. The next night Martin dreamt of Jesus, who appeared dressed in the half cloak he had given to the beggar. Jesus told Martin, ‘You may still be a catechumen, but you have clothed me with this robe.’ It is said that Martin’s cloak was miraculously returned to its original condition and preserved as a relic in later years. Martin arranged to be baptised shortly after this vision, at around the age of 18.
Martin was known to live more like a monk than a soldier. He was entitled to have a servant as he was an officer. Instead of allowing the servant to serve him, Martin turned things around and served his servant. When he was 20 it seems that he found it too difficult to reconcile being a soldier and a Christian. The Emperor Julian was distributing pay to the soldiers before they went into battle against invading barbarians. Martin said to him: ‘Until now I have served you as a soldier. Give me leave to become a soldier for God. Let the men who are to serve you in the army receive their due pay: I am a soldier of Christ, and it is not right that I should fight.’ The Emperor, of course, thought that Martin was a coward. Martin said he was willing to go ahead of the army unarmed into battle to prove his sincerity. He was imprisoned overnight to await the battle. However, the enemy unexpectedly decided to sue for peace in the morning. No battle took place and Martin was allowed to leave the army.
Martin went to Poitiers and spent some time with Hilary. In a dream he felt called to return to his home in Pannonia. His mother responded to his preaching and became a Christian, along with some others, but his father refused to change. Martin preached against the Arian heresy, which denies the divinity of Christ, while there and was whipped and forced to leave. Hilary had also been banished from Poitiers as a result of opposing the Arians. Once Hilary was able to return to Poitiers in 360, Martin went back there also and finally had a chance to live the life of a hermit on a remote piece of land in France. Gradually others joined him and a monastery was founded.
Martin lived there for ten years, preaching in the surrounding countryside. He worked to convert people from paganism, tearing down the pagan temples and replacing them with Christian churches. Many stories are told about miracles he performed. When a young man died, Martin lay across his body and prayed, and the man recovered. He healed a girl who couldn’t speak by asking her to say her father’s name, which she did. At one pagan site, the chief priest said they would cut their sacred tree down themselves if Martin would stand under it wherever they chose. He was placed on the side where the tree was leaning and the pagans began to cut it. Just as it was about to fall on him, Martin made the sign of the cross and it fell the other way. When he was destroying another temple, a pagan came to attack him with a sword. Martin bared his chest and the man fell back in terror.
When the bishop of Tours died in 371, the people decided that they wanted Martin to be their new bishop. They knew he would not agree so tricked him into coming to the city to bless a sick woman. Once he arrived, the people surrounded him and forced him to go to the church. The other bishops didn’t want to consecrate such a ragged person as a bishop but the local people and priests spoke up for Martin and he duly became bishop. His new position did not change Martin, who chose to live outside Tours in a retreat which later became the abbey of Marmoutier. Many men flocked to join him, living a life with no comforts. Martin was renowned for the training he gave to his priests and many of them went on to become bishops.
Martin took his responsibilities seriously and travelled around the district on foot or by donkey, going from house to house to tell people about God. He would install a priest or monk to look after each parish he formed in this way. Every year he visited each of his parishes.
Martin was well known for his work in freeing prisoners. He became so famous for this that people in authority avoided meeting him in case he asked them to release someone. Avitianus arrived in Tours with many prisoners who were due to be tortured and killed the next day. Martin headed for the city, arriving at midnight. He went to the house where Avitianus was and shouted at the door. An angel woke the man to tell him that Martin was there. It took two visits from the angel before Avitianus believed the message. He then went to the door and said to Martin, “Don’t even say a word. I know what your request is. Every prisoner shall be spared.”
Martin stayed in the diocese of Tours for the rest of his life. As his life drew to a close the monks who were with him wanted to make him more comfortable by giving him a sheet to lie on but he refused. He raised his hands and eyes to heaven saying, “Allow me, my brethren, to look towards Heaven rather than to earth, that my soul may be ready to take its flight to the Lord.”
Martin died aged 80 on 8th November 397 and was buried at Tours on 11th November. 2000 monks and nuns were there at his funeral. Eventually a basilica was raised over the spot and pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela called there. Martin is the patron saint of France and of Wurtburg and Buenos Aires.
Today on Armistice Day, when we remember the end of the First World War, it’s fitting to remember Martin who is also the patron saint of soldiers. He was a soldier who served Caesar before dedicating his life to serve Christ. We remember those who have risked their lives or given their lives in the past and those who continue to serve in the armed forces today, hoping to bring peace and justice to the world.
It’s also fitting to remember the many chaplains who offer comfort and support to those servicemen and women serving around the world in many capacities. Chaplains actually got their name because of St Martin. In the Middle Ages, St Martin’s cloak or cappa, was kept at Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. It was carried wherever the Frankish kings went, including into battle. The priest assigned to care for the cloak was called a cappallanu and the name cappellani was eventually applied to all priests who looked after military personnel. In French this word became chapelain and from this we get the English word chaplain. As Martin was prepared to do when he chose to serve Christ and not Caesar, chaplains walk into battlegrounds unarmed except with faith in God and words of hope. We give thanks for the support they give to those who serve in the armed forces around the world