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Posts Tagged ‘Dutch Reformed Church’

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Saint Martin of Tours:  A Survivor

Modern visitors to the cathedral of Utrecht may find it slightly odd that Saint Martin of Tours is there to greet them.  It’s odd because this church built in his memory has been Dutch Reformed since 1580.  How in the world did Saint Martin make the cut?  Why is it that he’s still around when the Dutch Republic pulled his peers down from their pedestals and banished them into exile?

Martin is a survivor in part because he was unconventional.  First, Martin had been a soldier in the Roman imperial legions.  After his baptism he resigned his commission because he would only fight for Jesus Christ and no longer for the emperor.  Coincidentally that’s what the Protestant Dutch were doing when they rebelled against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor.  Did their devotion to Martin serve double duty as an ironic poke in the eye of their modern emperor?  Probably.

328E7938-1A4F-4C2C-B011-68564A604136Then there is Martin’s identification with the poor.  In an act that made him a favorite for artists for centuries, Martin cut his cloak down the middle and shared half with a beggar.  The story is that Jesus came disguised as the beggar, and it underlined the notion that what we do for the least of people we do for Christ.

Martin eventually became a hermit, and to his hermitage flocked droves of young people.  So great was his reputation for holiness that the local Christians drafted him as bishop.  Reluctantly he accepted, but he did so only on his own terms.  Forced to be bishop, he still lived in his monastery, surrounded by his monks.

All this sounds like just another innocuous life of a saint, but embedded in it is yet one more poke in the eye.  By Martin’s time many of the bishops in Gaul were aristocrats who preferred life on their estates.  Martin’s way of life was a deliberate affront to them.  What rubbed salt in their wounds was one item that’s easily overlooked.  Many of those who joined Martin at his hermitage were the sons of those same aristocrats.

So there is in Martin’s story all sorts of countercultural symbolism.  He was a military man who swore off allegiance to the emperor.  He was oblivious to his own creature comforts and preferred to tend to the poor and suffering.  And while he finally caved in to the demand to become a bishop, on some things he would not compromise.  Power and luxury and aristocratic status were okay for other bishops, but that was not the kind of bishop he felt called to be.

EAAB366E-39B4-4C23-8B8F-514A7CA6AB45I used to wonder why Saint Benedict dedicated a chapel at Monte Cassino to Saint Martin.  Eventually I concluded that it was Benedict’s nod to Martin as a monk who was willing to combine service to the people of God with life in a monastery.  But now I think there’s more to it than I had thought.  Could his respect for Martin be a veiled warning to his own monks to be wary of both secular and ecclesiastical power?  It’s entirely possible.

Today I regret Saint Martin’s relative obscurity in the Catholic world.  If Martin had so much to say to Saint Benedict and to some Dutch Protestants in the 16th century, has he nothing to teach us today?  I certainly hope not, because what Saint Martin had to say then is what we need to hear now.

NOTES

+On November 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Martin of Tours.  Quite by chance this year November 11th happened to fall on the Monday when we celebrate Veterans Day in the US.  Today’s post was not a sermon I gave that day but rather comes out of my memory as a teacher who has learned quite a lot since I left the classroom.

+On November 12th I celebrated the Eucharist for the annual meeting of the San Francisco area of the Order of Malta.

+On November 15th I attended the meeting of the Board of Directors of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+The photos in today’s post show the cathedral of Utrecht in the Netherlands, which I visited many years ago.

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