Friday, November 11, 2011

"Martin, once poor and lowly, enters heaven with riches. Alleluia."

                                     St. Martin and the Beggar, Holy Trinity Church, Skipton, England

Just as, according to Shakespeare,  there is a tide in the affairs of men, so too is there a tide in the affairs of saints.   Though in heaven saints enjoy unchanging beatitude, their reputations and influence here on earth are subject to the vicissitudes that effect all temporal things.  There was a time when St. Martin of Tours (316 AD - 397 AD) was not only the object of an intense devotion throughout the Church (and especially in France), but his feast, which the Church celebrates today, carried great cultural significance.  Alas, this is no longer the case.

St. Martin grew up in Northern Italy, the son of a Roman cavalry officer.  At the age of 10, against the wishes of his pagan parents, St. Martin became a catechumen.   At the age of 15, as required by Roman law, St. Martin enrolled in the Roman cavalry.  It was while St. Martin was a Roman soldier and still a catechumen that the most celebrated episode of his life took place.  Outside the gates of Amiens in Gaul, St. Martin came upon a shivering beggar.  Taking pity upon the poor man, St. Martin cut his military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar.  According to tradition, that night St. Martin dreamt of Christ wrapped in the cloak he'd given the beggar.

At the conclusion of his military service, St. Martin was baptized and become a disciple of  St. Hilary of Poitiers.  When St. Hilary was forced by Arian heretics into exile on an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, St. Martin followed him.   St. Martin eventually returned with St. Hilary to Gaul, where he lived as a hermit for 10 years.  St. Martin periodically travelled about Gaul preaching the Gospel, and all the while drew followers to himself.  Eventually this community of hermits would become the celebrated Benedictine monastery of Liguge.  When the bishopric of Tours became vacant, St. Martin sought to avoid appointment to the see, but he was constrained to accept it by popular acclamation.   St. Martin was a holy bishop who fought bravely against heresy and paganism.

After his death, St. Martin was credited with many miracles, and the cult of St. Martin became hugely popular.  Many churches and towns were named for him, and the monastery near Tours holding St. Martin's relics became a popular destination for pilgrims.  Soon a great basilica was built to accomodate them, and this basilica was several times rebuilt on successively larger scales.  St. Martin's famous cloak was not only preserved, but became the most treasured relic of the Frankish kings, who carried it about with them everywhere, including into battle.  The priest who cared for the Cappa Sancta Martini was known as the capellanu.  Soon all military priests were called capellani, the word from which our term "chaplain" is derived.  Small churches built to shelter the relic were called "capella," in reference to the cloak, and from this term comes our word "chapel."

Coming soon after harvest time, the feast of St. Martin was kept in something of the same spirit with which we celebrate Thanksgiving today.  Also, since the feast comes just before the penitential season of Advent, Martinmas also contained an element of "carnivale," complete with feasting and bonfires.

In 1562, during the French wars of religion, the great basilica of St. Martin was sacked by Huguenots, and St. Martin's relics were destroyed.  Worse misfortune was to come, as in 1793, during the French Revolution, the basilica itself was destroyed, and two streets were laid through the site so it could never be rebuilt.  Only the two towers of the basilica stand today.  In the mid-nineteenth century, a much smaller basilica was built nearby to house a few relics which excavations had revealed.

St. Martin of Tours, pray for us.

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