martin of tours

(fr Cyprian)

The rest of the church recognizes and honors Saint Martin of Tours with a memorial on November 11th as a bishop, but the monastic tradition honors him with a full feast as a monk. And, as Robert would love to point out, he is also revered and celebrated in the Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran traditions. Of course we think of Saint Benedict as the patriarch of Western monasticism, but traditionally it is Martin who has been regarded as the first monk of the West (even though this is a bit of an exaggeration). In the history of monasticism in western Europe there are though to be two strains that became Benedictine monasticism, that of Lerins and that of Martin. So, while not the most well known of saints (at least in the US), he is very pivotal. There is an old tradition, which I believe started in Milan, where Saint Martin lived for a time, of the St. Martin’s Fast, which begins this day and goes all the way until Christmas! Of course there would be a big feast on this day to begin it (like Fat Tuesday) and then the days following were called “Martinmas.”

Just to give some of the highlights of his life: Saint Martin was born in Sabaria, which is in modern day Hungary. (No one is absolutely sure what year; about a twenty year spread of discrepancy, between 316 and 336.) He spent part of his childhood in Italy and most of his adult life in France. He had attended Mass (against his parents’ wishes) at an early age and by this time he considered himself a catechumen, waiting for full communion with the church. This is just after the legalization of Christianity, but before Christianity became the dominant religion throughout the empire. There was still a lot of worship of the Roman gods as well as the cult of Mithra, and real authentic pagans (!) back when pagani simply meant the people who lived in the countryside having their own deities.

Martin was the son of a Roman officer, and he himself was then impelled to join the army as a teenager. It was from those years as a soldier that the famous legend of his cloak arose, passed on to us by Sulpicius Severus––that he cut off half of his cloak ael grecond gave it to a beggar, and that same night Jesus appeared to him in a dream wearing it.  (see the famous El Greco painting of that event embedded here.) Shortly after that he was baptized, at the age of 18. At some point he decided that his Christianity prohibited him from fighting, at least from shedding blood, which was not unusual in this early era of the church. He was accused with cowardice and jailed for it. (This, by the way, is why he is considered the patron saint of conscientious objectors among other things.)

After he was released from military service in 356, Martin moved to Milan and lived as a hermit until he was expelled from there by the Arian bishop. He then moved to an island called Gallinaria with a priest companion. They lived the ascetical life together there for a few years until he made his way down to Poitiers where he became a disciple of the famous Hilary of Poitiers, and joined him in combatting the Arian heresy. For that he himself was persecuted again and went into a kind of self-imposed exile, again living as a hermit. When he returned to Poitiers he lived as a hermit there again, but this time a group of disciples formed around him, and he established what is regarded as the oldest monastery in Europe, Ligugè Abbey, which still exists in its modern day form (a couple dozen monks at last count). Originally Martin’s Ligugè was a kind of laura, semi-anchoritic, with caves and then cells built around the common oratory.

He then, reluctantly, became the bishop of Tours by popular acclamation, which made him the first of the great monk-bishops of the Western Church. (There is a story of him hiding from the crowd who wanted to ordain him among a flock of geese whose cackling gave him away.) But even as bishop, like Saint Gregory the Great, he wanted to continue to live the monastic life, so he and his brothers founded another monastic community at Marmoutier, where they lived again in a sort of laura style. From here he set up an early form of a parish system in his diocese and also continued to found other monastic communities. He is known for working fiercely to eradicate pagan religious practices and establishing monastic foundations on ancient pagan sites. Saint Benedict regarded him so highly that when Benedict destroyed the old temple of Apollo at Montecassino, he built a shrine dedicated to Martin of Tours on it instead. I haven’t found corroborative proof of it, but I also wonder if it isn’t the legend of Jesus wearing the half cloak that Martin gave to the beggar that inspired Saint Benedict to tell the monks to welcome guests as if they were Christ.

All that makes me think that we Camaldolese should celebrate Saint Martin with a solemnity instead. He is like the embodiment of the three fold good––solitude, community and even authentic evangelium paganorum!

I often think of the phrase that Jesus uses when he is speaking of divorce in Mark 10–– that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal for his wife ‘because of the hardness of your hearts’­­—and thought that this arbitrary distinction between the active and the contemplative life in the church was also only given to us because of the hardness of our hearts and the smallness of our minds, maybe the weakness of our virtue. But that may be especially a problem in Western Christianity, maybe because of our extreme extraversion and our inability to bring the contemplative into the active––and vice versa, to bring the active back to the contemplative. How many religious congregations start out wanting to be “contemplatives in action,” and yet at a practical level I hear from so many parish priests and other active religious how the first thing to go is contemplation and prayer. This by the way, seems to me to be Martha’s problem, Mary’s sister––not that she couldn’t relax and sit at Jesus’ feet, but that she couldn’t still be a contemplative while serving the table. This is my problem too: if I can’t be a monk while I’m at the checkout line at CVS, if I can’t be a contemplative while I’m washing my dishes, then something is not taking root in me. In Eastern Orthodoxy, though their priests can be married, the bishops are always drawn from the monastics. I think often too of the spirituality of the Far East: most of the practices that have caught on in the West, so attractive at even a popular level, are what would be considered monastic practices, meditation, even yoga. Most of the great teachers of Buddhist meditation and yoga in the West have been monks––from Yogananda through Shunryu Suzuki. The monastic is much more on the surface of popular religiosity in the East. There’s a correct intuition there, that there is something of the contemplative that is essential to well-rounded spirituality, that there is something about monastic spirituality that encapsulates the spiritual life.

The Church celebrates Martin as a bishop with a memorial. The monastic tradition celebrates him as a monk with a feast. We should all simply remember him as a Christian: like Jesus, he just breathed in and breathed out––breathed in the love of God in his prayer and study and solitude, and breathed out the love of God in his care for the poor, in his service to his brothers as abbot, and in his pastoral ministry to the church. May it be so with us as well that, as the reading from Isaiah 63 we heard today sings, the Spirit of the Lord which rests upon us would also impel us to bring good news to the poor.

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