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Saint Martin

Last modified: 2003-04-19 by rob raeside
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Stained glass windows most often show Martin of Tours, as he has become known, as a Roman soldier with half a cloak - he has cut the cloak in two and given the other half to a beggar. And since after cutting his cloak, Martin had a vision of Jesus Christ, who told him that his gift had been to Him, the Lord also is seen in some windows. But that is far from all there is to Martin, and the simplest way of telling it is from the beginning.

His name (Martinus) tells us that he was dedicated to Mars, the Roman god of war, and he came from a pagan military family: his father was an officer in the Roman army, serving at the time of Martin's birth at Sabaria in the province of Pannonia. Martin grew up at Ticinum, in Cisalpine Gaul, and was drawn to Christianity at the age of 10, enrolling as a catechumen. He appears to have been drafted into the army at the age of 15 as veterans' sons usually were, and served in the cavalry of the Imperial Guard. The turning point in his life came one icy winter night as he rode into the city of Samarobriva in Belgica and saw a naked beggar shivering. Impulsively, Martin took off his snow-white cavalry cloak and cut it in half with his sword, wrapping the beggar in one half. The next night he dreamed of the event, but in his dream found himself in Heaven, and that the beggar was Jesus, dressed only in Martin's jagged half cloak and telling the angels: "Martin, still a catechumen, covered me with this cloak." Not long after this experience Martin was baptised.

His attitude towards soldiering changed. The popular cavalryman began to feel that military service was incompatible with Christianity and wanted to buy himself out. Just after being promoted, he applied for a discharge on the eve of a campaign. Regarded as a coward, he was refused his application. "I am Christ's soldier," he responded. "I am not allowed to fight." He offered to stand in the front rank in battle, armed only with a cross. Martin was imprisoned but was soon discharged.
Aged about 20, had no clear idea about his future, but he then met St Hilary, Bishop of Limonum, in Aquitania, and the two became firm friends. Hilary (also remembered as Hilarius or Hilaire of Poitiers), seeing potential in him, taught him theology and ordained him. Martin now desired to share his joy in Christ with his parents, and went to join them in Pannonia (Hungary), where he became a missionary, moving later to Illyricum. However, the Arian heresy had become increasingly strong in the outer provinces of the Empire, and the Arians expelled Martin. (Arius of Alexandria [AD 250-336] taught that Jesus of Nazareth was a created being, not truly divine. His opponents held that this made Christ a demigod, which meant that God could not be One, and instead taught that Father and Son were of one essence, a teaching which later gave rise to the doctrine of the Trinity.)

Martin headed for Limonum to see his friend Hilary, but on hearing that Hilary, too, had been expelled by Arians, remained in Mediolanum (Milan) - until the Arians removed him from that city as well. He turned to a monastic way of life on an island in the Gulf of Genova (Genoa), and remained there until 360, when Hilary was restored to Limonum.

The year AD 371, when Martin was about 56, found him living as a monk outside the city of Limonum (Poitiers). Just outside the city at a place now called Ligugé,  he had settled alone and eventually founded what was probably the first monastery in Transalpine Gaul (present-day France). At Ligugé, Martin had developed a new form of monasticism: in the deserts of the Middle East, where the monastic life had begun, men had gone alone to live a life of prayer, fighting against the demons who they believed dwelt in the deserts. Now Martin taught his followers to be active in evangelism as well as in prayer, fasting and physical labour. He became known as someone people could turn to when they were sick, or to settle quarrels. And so, against his will, Martin was in 371 made bishop of the city of Cæsarodunum on the River Liger - again founded a monastery, on the cliffs of the Liger 3 km from the city at a place later called Marmoutiers. Here he also undertook training for the priesthood, which grew into a school for boys. Here many future leaders of the Church came to be trained, including a Romano- British chieftain's son from Cumbria, named Ninianus, who was to become the Apostle to the Picts. But while the monastic community survived, Martin's most enduring monument is to be found in rural districts around the world, for he was the first bishop to take the Church out of the cities and into the land of the pagans (people of the rural areas) or heathen (heath-dwellers) - he can fairly be called the patron saint of the country parish.

One story told of him is that in a particular village he had obtained the community's consent to the destruction of their temple. But when he commanded the felling of a sacred pine tree, the men of the village grew resentful and said they would defend their tree. After a parley, Martin agreed to stand under the tree and demonstrate the power of his God to save him. The cheering pagans set to with their axes with a will, expecting it to crush the bishop. "As the tree splintered, Martin raised his hand in the sign of the Cross, the trunk began to heel over, waver and, as if caught by a sudden wind, reversed its direction and crashed the opposite way." After that, the entire village was baptised. Not only evangelism but healing was a gift of Martin's, and through his prayers the famous poet Paulinus of Nola was cured of his blindness, and a small child was brought back to life near Autricum (now Chartres).

The Priscillian heresy also saw Martin involved in controversy. The Hispanic bishop Priscillianus not only preached the renunciation of all pleasures and taught some strange things about the Trinity, but was convicted of sorcery and was condemned to death by the Emperor Magnus Maximus. Martin travelled to Augusta Treverorum in Belgica to plead for Priscillianus's life, arguing that he should be dealt with by the Church, not the State. But Priscillianus was executed - the first heretic to be put to death - and his heresy grew in strength, especially in Hispania (Spain). Martin died on 8 November 397, 60km from his city at a place now called Candes-St Martin, and was buried at Cæsarodunum on 11 November. He was so well loved that he became the first non-martyr to be revered as a saint, and churches were dedicated in his name across Europe. Ninianus's church at Whithorn in Galloway was named after him. Two famous English churches, one at Canterbury and another in London (St Martin's-in-the-Fields) bear his name - in fact, by the year 1800, 173 ancient churches in England had his name, and in France 500 villages and 4 000 parish churches share this distinction. The calendar of the Book of Common Prayer marks his name twice: on 11 November (called Martinmas) and on 4 July, the anniversary of his consecration as bishop. In Europe, fine, warm winter weather often occurs in the first fortnight of November and is called St Martin's Summer.

Mike Oettle, 11 March 2003

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