Poverty, War and St Martin of Tours

Today is Armistice Day in Britain. At 11.00 a.m. the nation will stop, pause for two minutes and silently remember or pray for all those who died in World War I and subsequent conflicts.  In the monastic calendar, it is also the feast of St Martin of Tours, the soldier turned monk and bishop, who is remembered for having shared his cloak with a poor man he met on the road and is celebrated as the founder of the abbey of Marmoutier, the first monastery in the west. The connection between the two is poverty. Poverty kills more people than war, but war always impoverishes those caught up in it. We have only to think of the suffering experienced by millions of people after the First and Second World Wars, or look at what is happening in Europe today, to see the truth of that. The migrants and refugees fleeing the Middle East are proof, should we need any, that war ceates poverty.

To later generations, Martin’s cutting his cloak in two in order to share it has become a symbol of how poverty is alleviated — not so much by giving as by sharing. That can be a rather tricky idea to get one’s head round because it suggests that the have-nots have a claim on what the haves possess. They have, so to say, a right to what is shared with them. That goes against our ideas of self-help and making our way in the world, and undermines any sense of self-satisfaction we may be tempted to feel when we notice ourselves being generous, but it is surely the most Christian response to poverty. As a nun, Martin’s example challenges me to consider how we as a monastic community attempt to meet the needs of the poor in our own day, mindful of the fact that poverty isn’t always material poverty. And, of course, his example also reminds me of the danger of thinking of poverty as an abstraction. It isn’t. Poverty has a face, as individual as yours and mine. It is Christ’s in everyone who is poor.

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2 thoughts on “Poverty, War and St Martin of Tours”

  1. Thank you for a timely reminder, not just of Remembrance, but about St Martin. I remember being told about him as a child and the symbolism of sharing his cloak was used to encourage us to share with others less well of than ourselves – and in those far off days, the African Missions.

    Nowadays, it seems that missionaries are being sent from Africa to Europe and North America? Not sure of the message that gives us about our adherence to the faith, that we and our ancestors passed on to them?

    But Saint Martin as a former soldier, will have known the hardships of war and in particular the cruelty involved and even inhumanity in many cases. He can be an example to us of transformative grace, as we stand beside the War memorial at our parish church and pray for those who dies, and for reconciliation and Christ’s peace in the world.

  2. “Poverty has a face.” The legend about St Martin sharing his cloak is a good illustration of compassionate response to an individual in need. Looking at some of the art that illustrates this I have been struck by how the faces are portrayed, but also in some by what looks like patronising. A well dressed and equipped soldier mounted on a war horse dropping the half-cloak down to the beggar beneath him, but not dismounting to be alongside him. Food for thought there.

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