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Archive for November 11th, 2013

imageMartin of Tours: Ripe for Recycling?

Is Saint Martin of Tours one of those saints whose time came and went and now is ripe for recycling?  At first blush, he seems to be a most unlikely candidate for imitation today, at least to me.  But then again, there might just be another round for him, and it’s worth taking a look at this question on his feast day, November 11th.

Born to pagan parents in Hungary in 316, he followed his father into a career in the Roman army.  As a youth he thought about Christianity; but only later, as a soldier, did he come forward for baptism.  He is famously depicted in art as the guy who cut his coat in half to share with a beggar.  Later still he resigned his commission in the army, became a monk in Gaul, and very soon was dragged from his monastery to become a bishop.  In the course of his ministry he worked many miracles, did lots of pastoral work, and converted whole villages of barbarians.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  But is that much of a role model for Christians in the 21st century?  The truth is, it really doesn’t  give us much to work with.

imageOur earliest source of information about Martin comes from his disciple, Sulpitius Severus, who wrote a short biography soon after the saint’s passing.  I’ve read that text many times, but I hadn’t looked at it since I left the classroom several years ago.  So as his feast approached, I thought it might not hurt to give it another shot.  Was it still the historical novelty I recalled?  Or was it something more?  What I discovered is that much of the story remains typical of saints’ lives of the era.  What I also found were themes that glow a little more brightly in the era of Pope Francis.

What strikes any reader are the many miracles that Sulpitius attributes to Martin.  Whether you believe that he did them all or not, however, is in some measure irrelevant.  Sulpitius Severus had a larger editorial purpose behind his selection of material.  First of all, his miracle narratives use language that deliberately evokes the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels.  Second, he interprets Martin’s life through a clear and  unmistakable  tone:  Martin cared about the poor and the suffering.  This is best seen in the sharing of his cloak with the suffering man on the side of the road.  Later, in a dream, Martin realized that the beggar was Christ.  That vision drove all of Martin’s work ever after.  For that reason the Church has revered him as a patron for those who serve the sick and the needy.

imageThere is another strand to Martin’s life that I used to dismiss rather patronizingly. For a long time I ascribed Martin’s ambivalence about becoming a bishop to false humility.  I saw a parallel to the ritual three-fold “I am not worthy” that medieval popes pronounced on their election to the throne of Saint Peter.  I’m still convinced that their lips may have said “Lord, I am not worthy,” but their eyes were searching the room for the chair.  “Get me to that chair before anyone asks for a recount.”  But now I realize that Martin’s hesitation was likely authentic, and I believe it was so for several reasons.

One legend has it that Martin was so adamant about remaining a monk that he hid in a pen of geese to avoid a mob of townspeople that was looking for him.  Unfortunately, the honking of the geese gave him away, and the mob dragged him off for consecration.  For that reason a goose often shows up in many depictions of Martin, who by then is wearing a mitre.

imageOf course one could still say that this was merely pro forma humility, since hiding with geese is the worst place you could choose to hide.  It was akin to advertising “I don’t want this job, but here I am if you’re looking.”  But it was Martin’s post-consecration behavior that convinces me that he didn’t want the job.  Once installed as bishop, he returned to his monastery for a life of prayer and pastoral wanderings.  In Sulpitius Severus’ biography, Martin never once appears at the cathedral to say Mass.  He never shows up even once at the chancery office to sign dispensations or make parish assignments or do long-range diocesan planning.  Instead, he went out to meet and to nourish his flock, and to add to their number.

This behavior did not go unnoticed by his fellow bishops.  By then the office of bishop in Gaul had begun to morph into a powerful job.  By the 4th century bishops managed significant wealth and wielded growing responsibility.  And a few were already successful at installing their sons and grandsons on the episcopal throne.  To them Martin was neither doing his job nor setting a good example.   What was worse, aristocratic sons were joining Martin’s monastery.  All this threatened the status quo, and the neighboring bishops gave Martin lots of grief.  They resented his simple way of life as well as his disinterest in the trappings of episcopal power.  In short, Martin threatened to undo everything they had worked so hard to put in place.  Martin threatened the aristocratic episcopacy and all their apple carts.

imageYou can certainly fault Martin for not putting in an occasional stint at his cathedral or at the chancery office.  But on the other hand, I have to believe that he fulfilled the hope of Pope Francis that a bishop “should smell like his sheep.”  Given Martin’s lifestyle, I suspect he smelled like his sheep, both allegorically and literally.  But whatever his faults, he never wanted the job, and he never asked for the job.  He genuinely cared about his sheep, and he drove himself on the idea that in each of them he would see the face of Christ.

Saint Martin went on to earn wide popularity across Europe.  And he earned it among the Benedictines as well.  Saint Benedict, for example, built an altar at Monte Cassino in honor of Saint Martin.  Not surprisingly, threads of Martin’s life weave through Benedict’s biography by Saint Gregory the Great.  Gregory was careful to point out that, like Martin, Benedict preached to the neighbors and went out to meet the barbarians — all the while living in a monastery.  No wonder monks drew their authorization for pastoral work from Saint Martin.

imageAcross Europe you still find pockets of devotion to Saint Martin.  But despite the decline in his popularity, I would argue that his usefulness for the Church is not over.  His day in the sun may yet return.  For one, his hesitation about honors in ministry is an example we might want to encourage in the Church today.  For another, his vision of Christ in the poor and the suffering is still the best reason for ministry that I can think of.  And thirdly, while we should be glad that our bishops show up at the cathedral a little more often than did Martin, it would also be nice to see them out in the field a little more.  Martin’s wanderings for the sake of Christ’s little ones is  something we may want to insert into pastoral  job descriptions.  It might not do any harm, and it might even do some good.

imageNotes

+On November 4th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA.

+On November 7-8th I participated in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 10th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and my sermon, I Believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, may be found in Presentations.

+On November 4th we received the sad news that Father Peter Kawamura, aged 64, died from a heart attack at our priory in Japan, Holy Trinity Monastery.

image+On November 9th, the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Abbot John instituted Brothers Lew and Nick into the office of Acolyte, and Brothers Isaiah and Clement into the office of Reader, as part of their preparation for priesthood.  Brother Clement is a member of Saint Leo’s Abbey in Florida.

+The uppermost picture in today’s post illustrates Saint Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar.  It is at the cathedral in Utrecht, The Netherlands.  The statue of Saint Martin, with the goose at his feet, is from the Church of Saint Martin in Tannheim, Germany.  It was once a Benedictine abbey.  The remaining photos come from The Lateran Basilica in Rome.  They are appropriate not only for the recent feast day, but the year of consecration was 324, making the earliest parts of the church contemporary with Saint Martin.

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