St Martin of Tours Day is celebrated in many churches on November 11, “possibly the anniversary of his funeral” (The Spreading Flame, by F.F. Bruce, pages 350-351).
This biographer assures us that St Martin “belonged to the true evangelical succession” (ibid, page 350).
He was born in Hungary about AD 317 to pagan parents. His father was a military tribune in the Roman army and in Martin’s early years he went with his father to his posting in Pavia in Italy. When Martin reached his teens he was enrolled in the Roman army becoming a cavalry officer.
Following the conversion of Constantine Christianity had been a favoured religion in the military camps and Martin was inclined toward it.
His regiment was soon sent to Amiens in Gaul and this is where “the most famous incident in his life” took place … a meeting with a half-naked beggar at the gates of the city one very cold day. Moved with compassion Martin cut his scarlet officer’s cloak in two and gave the beggar half. That night he dreamed – or was it a vision? – of Christ wearing the very cloak he had given away. A voice spoke, “Martin has clothed Me with this garment.”
As a result young Martin was baptised into the Christian faith, returned home to win his mother to Christ, and following his release from the army sought to study under St. Hilary, a wise and pious bishop in Gaul with an excellent reputation as a theologian was. When he learned that Hilary was in exile by the Arians he resorted to an island in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea. There he pursued a life of piety and self denial.
In 361, when Hilary returned to Gaul, Martin hurried to join him at Poitiers and gained permission from him to set up a solitary life in a desert region now known as Liguge. Many monks gathered around him forming a community which later became the celebrated Benedictine Abbey of Liguge.
When the Bishop of Tours died in 371 Martin was the chosen successor but he ignored all who came to invite him to the post. Finally a ruse was created to get him to the city. A nobleman called Martin to urgently visit the man’s dying wife. Martin hurried to the city, unsuspecting, and was there hailed as the new Bishop.
From that post he became famous as a healer, exorcist and missionary. “He was active in winning non-Christians and travelled extensively. He believed that no-one was so depraved that he was beyond the scope of God’s pardon…” (History of Christianity, by K. Lattourette, page 231).
His fame spread. He was loved by all … except some bishops! … and he continued to exercise a wide influence.
“Out from Tours as a centre he led an army of monks through the land destroying idols, pagan temples – and preaching,” writes Elgin Moyer (Who Was Who In Church History).
Whilst acting as bishop he refused a throne and preferred to sit on a small wooden stool. His principles of self denial still held him. He lived in a small cell not far from Tours and other monks joined him there, creating yet another monastery.
Whilst the stories of many of the ‘saints’ of the early church are encrusted with legend and superstition, there is good reason to believe that Martin of Tours was a true child of God.
Following a last visit to Rome, Martin went to Candes, one of the religious centres he created in his diocese. There he was struck by the malady which ended his life. Ordering himself to be carried into the presbytery of the church, he died there in 400 (according to some authorities, more probably in 397) at the age of about 81. To the very last he displayed that exemplary spirit of humility and mortification which he had ever shown.
A church built over Martin’s sarcophagus was attacked by Protestants in 1562, due to their opposition to the reverence given to a man and his relics. Then in 1793 the atheistic French Revolution saw to the total destruction of the building and the construction of a road on the site, to frustrate further veneration of the ancient saint.
Over 1000 years after Martin’s death the Luther family in Germany named their little son after this remarkable monk.”!
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.