Saint Martin of T ours
With so many Saints to choose from I felt a little bit spoilt for choice, so today is the turn of St Martin of Tours, the Saint that the Municipal church of Basildon takes its name from.
Martin was born around the year 316 in modern day Hungary. His family left that region for Italy when his father, a military official of the Roman army had to transfer there. Martins parents where pagans, but he felt called to the Catholic faith which had become legal throughout the empire in 313. He received religious teaching and considered becoming a hermit in the desert.
As Martin came from a military background, he was forced to join the Roman army when he was 15, before he had been baptised. Martin tried to live a humble and upright life in the military, giving away much of his pay to the poor. This generosity led to a life changing incident. Martin encountered a man freezing without warm clothing by the city gates. As everyone walked past the man, Martin stopped and cut his own cloak in half with his sword, giving 1 piece to the freezing man. That night Martin has a dream, he saw Christ wearing the half cloak he had given to the man. Jesus said in the dream ‘Martin, a catechumen has clothed me with his garment’ a catechumen was somebody who was still learning the faith and had not yet been accepted to take the Holy Mysteries, to us this would be a candidate preparing for confirmation-yet to take the Eucharist.
Martin knew this meant the time for him to join the church had come. He remained in the army for another two years after his baptism, but desired to give his life to God more fully than the profession would allow. When Martin asked to leave the army, during an invasion by the Germans he was accused of cowardice. In response to this he offered to stand before the enemy forces unarmed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, protected not by helmet and buckler, but by the sign of the cross. This display of faith became unnecessary as the Germans retreated and Martin was discharged.
After living as a Catholic for some time, Martin travelled to meet Bishop Hilary of Poitiers, a skilled theologian and later canonized saint. Martins dedication to the faith impressed the Bishop who persuaded him to return to his Diocese after he returned from his travels back to Hungary to visit his parents. Whilst he was visiting there he persuaded his Mother, but not his father to join the church.
During this time Bishop Hilary had provoked the anger of the Arians, a group that denied Jesus as God, meaning that Martin could not return to him.
In 360 Bishop Hilary and Martin met again, and Martin was granted a piece of land to build what may have been the first monastery in Gaul. During the decade he was there as a Monk, Martin became renowned for raising two people from the dead through his prayers. This evidence led to him being appointed the third Bishop of tours, in the middle of present-day France.
Martin had not wanted to become a Bishop and was actually tricked into leaving his monastery by those who wanted him to lead the church. Once appointed he continued to live as a Monk, dressing plainly and owning no personal possessions. In the same spirit of sacrifice, he travelled through his diocese from which he is said to have driven out pagan practises.
Both the church and the Roman Empire passed through times of upheaval during Martins time as Bishop. Priscillianism, a heresy involving salvation through a system of secret knowledge, caused such serious problems that civil authorities sentenced heretics to death. Martin, along with the Pope and St Ambrose of Milan, opposed the death sentence for Priscillianists.
Even in his old age, Martin continued to live an austere life, focussed on the care of the souls. His disciple and biographer noted that Martin helped all people with their moral, intellectual, and spiritual problems.
Martin foresaw his own death and told his disciple of it. But when his last illness came, he felt uncertain about leaving his people. He prayed ‘Lord, if I am still necessary to thy people, I refuse no labour, thy Holy will be done’ He developed a fever but did not sleep, passing his last few nights in the presence of God in prayer.
‘Allow me, my brethren to look rather towards heaven than upon the earth, that my soul may e directed to take its flight to the Lord to whom it is going’ he told his followers, shortly before he died in November 397.
St Martin of Tours has historically been among the most beloved Saints in the history of Europe. In 2007 Pope Benedict XCI expressed his hope that ‘all Christians may be like St Martin, generous witnesses of the Gospel of love and tirelessly builders of joint responsible sharing’
Now as I was reading about St Martin of Tours, I was struck by how relevant his life then can be to us today. I wondered what the lessons are that we can learn from his life and witness. I think the part that stands out most profoundly to me is when he cut his cloak in half, to share it with the freezing man. This brought to mind the scripture in Luke 3:11 “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” but Martin went beyond this, he only had the 1 cloak, yet he chose to share it with someone who had less than him and in doing so, he clothed Christ Himself.
How often do we look away when perhaps we could help?
As we go about our day today, I pray that we can learn from the life of St Martin, that God might show us what we have that we no longer need, and how we can give ourselves or our possessions to live more simple and humble lives, helping us to be a blessing to others, but always for the Glory of God