St. Martin of Tours, Bishop

11 November

Born in Sabaria in Upper Pannonia (Hungary), c. 316; died November 8, 397.

Most mortals only have to deal with a collective devil (or so they think)--the devil of communities and families, the occult force which appeals to the lowest parts of our nature, the dark god of the city at night. To have a personal devil seems to be a "privilege" reserved for saints. The greatness of a saint is measured by the greatness of the temptation he has to overcome because the life of the saint stands out in contrast with the work of the devil.

Martin was the son of a pagan army officer who moved with his family to his father's new post in Pavia, Italy. Martin had placed himself in the catechumenate at the age of 10 against his parents' will. He took lessons at the local church and, by the time he was 12, his love of God was so ardent that he wanted to retire to become a hermit. At 15, as the son of an army veteran, he was compelled to join the army against his will. Although Martin had not formally become a Christian, he had lived more the life of a monk than a soldier for several years.

While stationed at Amiens in France in 337, a semi-naked beggar approached him in bitterly cold weather. Martin's name became immortal at that moment, for he sliced his military cloak in two and gave half of it to the starving man. That night in a dream he saw Jesus wrapped in the half of the cloak that he had given away. Jesus said to him, "Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with this garment." Following this dream, he "flew to be baptized," according to his biographer.

When he was about 20, barbarians invaded Gaul. He was presented to Julian Caesar with his companions to receive a donative, but Martin refused it saying, "I have served you as a soldier; let me now serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others who are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight."

Irritated by this stance, Julian accused him of cowardice. Martin replied that he was willing to go into battle unarmed and stand between the opposing parties in the name of Christ. He was thrown into prison, but that night the barbarians demanded and obtained an armistice. Martin sought and received his discharge c. 339.

Thereafter he lived for some time in Italy and Dalmatia before he went to Poitiers, and Bishop Saint Hilary took him as a disciple. Martin sought him out knowing that in serving this holy man he would be serving God. Hilary recognised Martin's extraordinary merit and would have ordained Martin a deacon, but he could not overcome Martin's humility.

To keep Martin in his diocese, Hilary assigned him the duties of exorcism--so it was in that official capacity that Martin first made the acquaintance of the devil. It was still only the general devil, for he did not yet have his own private one. Martin, however, learned how to ward off evil spells and parry thrusts from the devil's horns, a lesson that would always be useful.

Martin had a dream that called him home, and he returned to Pannonia, converting his mother and others, including a group of bandits who would have killed him, during the visit. Shortly thereafter the devil appeared to him in human form and told him that no matter where he went or what he did, the devil would oppose him.

In Illyricum his vocal opposition to the Arians led to his being publicly scourged and exiled by Auxentius, the Arian bishop. Returning to Italy, Martin found that Hilary had been exiled. He retreated to a place near the walls of Milan, where he entered the monastic life. Auxentius, when he seized the see of Milan, caught up with Martin and drove him from the diocese. Martin then joined company with a virtuous priest. The duo retired to the deserted island of Gallinaria in the gulf of Genoa where he lived as a recluse until 360, when the banished Saint Hilary was allowed to return to Poitiers.

It was true for Martin as for most saints that the more Martin grew in holiness, the more his private devil became differentiated from the collective devil. More and more the devil clung on to his soul, forcing him to be ceaselessly on his guard. It was like the scientific principle of communicating vessels: as Martin rose like mercury towards saintliness, the devil hastened to fill the empty space behind him.

One day while he was still living in seclusion on the island, Martin ate a poisonous plant that almost killed him. The chronicles call this plant 'hellebore' which is doubtless a mistake, since hellebore is no more fatal than it is a cure for madness, and, according to herbalists, contains nothing worse than a drastic purgative.

Perhaps the plant wasn't there by chance? There is a variety of hellebore called 'Christmas rose' that is a mandrake. Nevertheless, when Martin felt the poison at work, he began to pray--which proves that he realised that there was nothing natural about his sickness--and God cured him.

Martin's devil was capable of transforming himself into many different shapes. He was particularly fond of taking the form of the gods and goddesses of mythology, appearing sometimes as Jupiter, sometimes as Mercury. But though Martin was always alarmed by Mercury, he dismissed Jupiter as 'a stupid animal' and 'a fool.'

The devil also liked to disguise himself in the form of women. One day he appeared as Venus, the next as Minerva, always exuding a strong smell of sulphur and always being put to flight by the sign of the cross.

After learning that Hilary was returning to Poitiers, Martin travelled to Rome to meet him en route and accompany him back to his see. As Martin wished to live as a solitary, Hilary gave him some land, now called Liguge, where he was joined by other hermits--and thus the first monastic community in Gaul was founded. It was a famous monastery until 1607, and was revived in 1852 by the Solesmes Benedictines. He lived there for 10 years, preaching and reputedly performing miracles in the area, including raising a catechumen and a hanged slave back to life.

Soon matters with the devil began to get worse. One day while the saint was at prayer in his cell the devil came in without knocking, holding in his hand a horn covered with blood. "I've just killed one of your people," he told the saint, and in fact the monastery's carrier had just been gored by a bull. Thereupon Martin resolved to fight the surrounding devils by destroying all the pagan temples in the district. He was soon given the gift of perceiving devils, and this enabled him to keep out of the way of his own devil.

Around 371, Tours chose him as its third bishop. He was unwilling to take the office; the people tricked him into visiting a sick person in the city and then took him to the church. His poor appearance did not impress the bishops who had come to assist at the election, but the people overruled their objections and Martin was consecrated on July 3, 371.

He lived in a cell by the church but soon retreated from the city and its distractions to a place that would become an abbey at Marmoutier, which became another great monastic centre. It was a desert, with a steep cliff on one side and a river on the other. Before long, eighty monks had joined him. The hermit monks engaged in no art or business. The older ones were engaged solely in prayer, while the younger ones were deputed to write. Many bishops were chosen out of this monastery because every city wanted a pastor who had been bred under the discipline of Saint Martin.

Here Martin lived privately as a monk, while publicly he devoted himself with burning zeal to the discharge of his episcopal duties. Every year he visited each of his parishes in rural regions, travelling by foot, by donkey, or by boat. He was an innovator in that he worked to convert rural regions, to which he introduced an incipient parochial system. Previously, Christians had been confined primarily to urban areas.

His biographer and friend, Sulpicius Severus--reported that he extended his apostolate from Touraine to Chartres, Paris, Autun, Sens, and Vienne. Although he is said to have ruthlessly destroyed pagan temples, his reputed miracles did much to aid his progress: he cured Saint Paulinus of Nola of an eye disease, healed lepers, and raised a dead man to life. Martin experienced visions and revelations and was gifted with the ability to prophesy. As an exorcist, Martin did not threaten the demons, rather he would prostrate himself on the ground and subdue them by prayer.

He was one of the greatest pioneers of Western monasticism based on the models of Eastern monasteries in the Holy Land and Egypt and Syria, and in this manner he came to have an effect upon the type of monasticism which was established in Ireland, Scotland and Wales This was before Benedict--who had a particular veneration for him.

During this time, Priscillian, the leader of a Gnostic-Manichean sect, was attacked by Ithacius, the bishop of Ossanova, who accused him of sorcery and urged the emperor to put him to death.

Martin, together with Pope Saint Siricius and Saint Ambrose, stood against the capital punishment of Priscillian and other heterodox Spaniards by the civil authorities including Ithacius and Emperor Maximus. He believed that the state should not intervene in an ecclesiastical matter. Martin pleaded with Maximus not to execute the heretics but to simply allow them to be excommunicated.

Ithacius then accused Martin of heresy. Maximus told Martin that he would execute no one, but after Martin left him in Trier, Maximus was prevailed upon to remand the case of the sect to the Prefect Evodius. The sect was found guilty and the members were beheaded, marking this as the first judicial death sentence for heresy. Both Maximus and Itacius were censured by Pope Siricius for their roles in the affair.

Martin encountered a good deal of opposition in his later years, one of his chief critics being the firebrand Saint Brice, who succeeded him as bishop. But his awe-inspiring spiritual power was too much for the 'unspeakably bloody ferocity' of Count Avitian, who refrained from intended barbarities in Tours.

He became ill at rural Candes in Touraine. As he lay dying, stretched out on his bed of ashes, ready to draw his last painful breath, while the bells were already tolling to mark his passing, he asked his disciples, "Leave me, my brothers, so that I may fix my eyes on heaven rather than on earth and set my soul on the path which leads to the Lord."

But the devil was waiting at the bedside of his old enemy. He knew only too well the subtle workings of the death agony. He knew just where to put his hand at that last moment when the soul, white-hot with the heat and effort to tear itself away from the body, has become as soft and malleable as molten glass; and the devil was waiting to seize the soul at that moment and carry it off to the fires of hell. He was much too busy to talk, and besides he had long ago used up his stock of wiles. And so, heavy, black, and watchful, he worked in silence on the body of the dying man.

Then Saint Martin, rousing himself from his death throes, confronted the monster with these words: "What are you doing here, savage beast? You'll find nothing in me that belongs to you, accursed one, for I shall soon be in the bosom of Abraham!"

And having exorcised the demon from his body, Martin turned his face to the wall and gave up his soul to God. Such, since the beginnings of the world, have been the relations between the saints and the devil.

Martin is buried at Tours. His successor Saint Brice built a chapel over his grave, and it was later replaced with a basilica. He was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, and his shrine was and still is a great site of pilgrimage where many miracles are wrought.

As an evangelizer of rural Gaul and the father of monasticism in France, Saint Martin of Tours was a figure of great importance. His fame spread from Ireland to Africa and east. In England, Saint Martin's Summer is a spell of fine weather that sometimes occurs around the time of the feast. Many churches in England were dedicated in his honour, including Saint Martin's at Canterbury and Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

Although the saint longed to be a hermit, the church forced him to lead the life of a loving, energetic Bishop of Tours (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopaedia, Husenbeth, Monceaux, Severus, Walsh, Watkin, White).

Saint Martin is most generally portrayed as a young soldier on horseback dividing his cloak with a beggar, but sometimes he is shown as a bishop with a beggar at his feet or near him, or in armour, with episcopal symbols. His emblems are a globe of fire over his head as he says Mass, or a goose, whose migration often coincides with his feast (Roeder).

Saint Martin is venerated at Tours. He serves as patron of armorers, beggars, cavalry, coopers, domestic animals, France, geese, girdlers, glovers, horses and horsemen, infantrymen, millers, innkeepers, soldiers, tailors, wine growers and wine merchants (because his feast falls just after the vendange), and wool-weavers (because he divided his cloak) (Roeder). (Benedictines). He is invoked against drunkenness, storms, and ulcers (Benedictines).

Webpage of our friend Jean-Michel
Several picture of Tours cathedral, the abbey, icons, reliquaries and tomb of Saint Martin
(Scroll down the page about one third)

Also the complete Septimus Severius writings on Saint Martin, in French.

Martin of Tours: The Shaping of Celtic Christianity
Christopher Donaldson, Canterbury Press, 1997
ISBN 1-85311-157-0

Icons of Saint Martin:

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