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St. Martin and a beggarCommemoration of St. Martin of Tours

November 11


Martin is believed to have been born in the year 316 in Sabaria, part of what is now Hungary. He was the son of a pagan army officer who moved his family to a post in Italy. Martin placed himself in the catechumenate at the age of 10, over his parents' objections; by the time he was 12, his love of God was so ardent that he wanted to retire to become a hermit. Unfortunately, the Roman army had a law requiring sons of veterans to enlist in the military at 15. Martin was so convinced that warfare was in conflict with his commitment to Christ that he had to be taken by force and held in chains before taking the military oath. Once the oath was administered, however, he felt bound to obey. Instruction for baptism for adults and children lasted many years in those days, so at the time of his conscription Martin was still an unbaptized catecheumen. But by the age of 15 he had been living more the life of a monk than a soldier for several years.

Martin was on garrison duty in France one bitterly cold day when he noticed a semi-naked beggar being ignored by those he approached for help. Martin sliced his sumptuous military cloak in two and gave half of it to the cold starving man. That night in a dream Martin saw Jesus wrapped in the half of the cloak that he had given away. Jesus said to him, "Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with this garment." Following this dream, according to the famous biography, he "flew to be baptized." He was 18 years old.

When Martin was about 20, he was presented to Julian Caesar to receive a special soldier's gift of money, but Martin refused it saying, "I have served you as a soldier; let me now serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others who are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight." Irritated by this stance, Julian accused him of cowardice. Martin replied that he was willing to go into battle unarmed and stand between the opposing parties in the name of Christ. He was thrown into prison for refusing to fight, but received his discharge as soon as the truce was declared.

Saint Hilary recognized Martin's extraordinary merit and took him as a disciple. Hilary wanted to make him a deacon, but Martin continually refused ordination. He preferred to live as a solitary, so Hilary gave him some land in the area now called Ligugé, where he was joined by other hermits -- thus founding the first monastic community in Gaul. An extensive hagiography of Martin by Sulpicius Severus, begun while the saint was still alive, helped codify the model for monastic lives of saints. It goes into great detail about his miracles and his experiences with exorcism. Instead of threatening demons, Martin would prostrate himself on the ground and subdue them by prayer.

When the second bishop of Tours died, the people demanded Martin in his place, but Martin was unwilling to take the office. It was necessary to resort to a ruse to overcome his resistance. A citizen of Tours begged Martin to visit his sick wife. When the kindhearted Martin arrived in the city, crowds of people came out of hiding, surrounding him. He was swept away by the multitude and taken into the church by force, where bishops had been gathered to consecrate him. The visiting bishops were repelled by this dirty, ragged, disheveled choice and thought his unkempt appearance proved him unfit for the office. The people replied that they didn't choose Martin for his outward appearance, which can be easily changed, but for his holiness and poverty, that only charity and grace could bring. Overwhelmed by the acclamations of the local clergy and the people, the bishops had no choice but to consecrate Martin, and he became the third bishop of Tours.

St. Martin of ToursEven as a bishop, Martin lived an austere life. After his consecration, he initially lived in a modest cell near the church, but soon retreated to a place that would become the great monastic abbey at Marmoûtiers. It had a steep cliff on one side and a river on the other. Before long, eighty monks joined him. Some built cells of wood; others lived in caves dug out of the rock. The hermit monks engaged in no art or business. The older ones were engaged solely in prayer; the young ones spent their days writing. Many bishops were chosen out of this monastery because Martin was known for taking great care in the formation of priests.

Over time Martin warmed to the idea that God had called him to the episcopate. He was an innovator in his methods of converting rural areas. Previously, Christians were largely confined to urban settings, where most bishops and priests lived. But Martin did not attempt to convert rural pagans from a high pulpit or from far away. His method was to go to a remote region and travel from house to house speaking to people about God. Then he organized the converts into a community under the direction of a priest or monk. To let them know of his continued love and to keep them following the Christian way, he would visit these new communities at least once a year, traveling by boat, by donkey, or by foot when necessary. This crude parochial system became the key to establishing and maintaining the faith of newly-converted rural Christians. He was one of the first bishops to insist on visiting each of his parishes every year, no matter how remote. The custom of having a bishop visit each of his parishes every year is of course still practiced today.

Martin was so dedicated to the freeing of prisoners that when authorities, even emperors, heard he was coming, they refused to see him because they knew he would request mercy for someone and they would be unable to refuse. One day a general named Avitianus arrived at Tours with ranks of prisoners he intended to torture and execute the next day. As soon as Martin heard of this cruel plan, he left his monastery for the city. Although he arrived well after midnight, he went straight to the house where the general was staying and threw himself on the threshold crying out in a loud voice. Avitianus was awakened by an angel who told him Martin was outside. Avitianus went to the door and told Martin, "Don't even say a word. I know what your request is. Every prisoner shall be spared."

Although Martin is the patron saint of France, and his principal shrine is at Tours, he is important in the Celtic tradition for several reasons. His rural parochial model was the method used to convert many people in Ireland, Scotland and Wales who lived far away from cities. The Celts had a special honor for clerics such as Martin who practiced one-on-one evangelism, who had the gift of building spiritual communities, and who encouraged the spread of monastic ideals. Martin was revered by many of those who later became Celtic saints, and Martin's monastery at Marmoûtiers became the training ground for many Celtic missions and missionaries. Some believe that St. Patrick was his nephew and that Patrick was one of many Celtic notables who lived for a time at Marmoûtiers. St. Ninian definitely studied at Marmoûtiers and was profoundly influenced by Martin, carrying a deep love and respect for his teacher and his methods back to Scotland. Ninian was in the process of building a church when news reached him of Martin's death. Ninian dedicated that church to Martin, and now many other churches and chapels bear his name in Ireland, Africa and all over the world. St. Martin was one of the greatest pioneers of Western monasticism before Benedict, directly influencing many of the beloved Celtic monasteries established in Ireland and Scotland. Martin is most generally portrayed on horseback dividing his cloak with the beggar. He is the patron saint of beggars, France, geese (because their migration coincides with his feast), infantrymen, innkeepers, vintners (because his feast falls just after the late grape harvest), and tailors and wool-weavers (because he divided his cloak).

In England, a spell of fine weather that occurs right before or after St. Martin's Day is called "St. Martin's summer"-- a British counterpart of the American "Indian summer." Martin died on November 8, but his actual death date was eclipsed in the minds of the people because of a momentous celebration three days later, when more than two thousand priests, monks and nuns gathered to honor him at his funeral and burial in the cemetery of the poor. Some say Martin was the first man to be venerated as a saint without first dying as a martyr. The year of his death is placed anywhere from 395 to 402. His feast day is observed on November 11.

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