St Martin of Tours and Armistice Day

There is a sad irony in the fact that Armistice Day co-incides with the feast of St Martin of Tours. Long-term readers will know that Martin is a favourite of mine, as he is of most monks and nuns, but I supect the one story everybody knows about him is of his having shared his cloak with a beggar — the young soldier, not yet baptised, who responded to the need of another and found, as we all do, that it was Christ he was serving. And at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we recall the Armistice and the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, which did nothing of the sort and only showed us how much death and destruction seemingly civilised nations can wreak upon one another. Is there any way of making sense of this?

We could, of course, reflect on the fact that poverty kills more people than war does. We could go and look at paintings of St Martin using his sword to divide his cloak and be struck by how much they tell us about the social attitudes of the painter — the saint is almost invariably depicted on horseback, condescending to the poor man rather than standing side by side with him — and examine our own attitudes to charitable giving. We could go and read accounts of war in Europe and its aftermath and be sobered by our apparent inability to see further than our own noses at times. All these would be useful but I doubt whether they would help us understand something I think St Martin understood, and that we need to understand if we are not to repeat the unlearned lessons of the past.

Martin’s life was changed for ever by his encounter with that poor man on the road. He was baptised, braved his superiors’ disapproval and a spell in gaol, became a monk and later a bishop, and was remarkable not only for his orthodoxy but also his compassion. His efforts on behalf of the Priscillianists, for example, did not endear him to others. Like St Ambrose, he opposed the burning of heretics and did what he could to alleviate their sufferings. But there is something else I think we should remember. He was born in what is now Hungary, lived much of his life in Italy, and founded the first monastery in the West at Marmoutier in Gaul (now France). He was, so to say, an internationalist avant la lettre. His membership of the Church made national boundaries of secondary importance. That does not preclude love of country and all that is good about patriotism, but it does do away with the less admirable elements, what I call the ‘ya, boo, sucks’ approach of drunken football fans and the like. It means seeing people clearly as people, not as abstractions, symbols of something else. When Martin looked into the eyes of the poor man, he saw his brother, not an object of compassion. I think that is what we all have to learn to do. I dare to say if we could all learn to do that, Armistice Day would have attained its purpose and we would all live more happily as a result.

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16 thoughts on “St Martin of Tours and Armistice Day”

  1. If this is inappropriate please delete it but I could do with some advice.
    I never knowingly pass a Big Issue seller, although I don’t take the comic, and I try not to pass by other beggars without giving something.
    In London on Wednesday their was a very elderly muslim women, showing no signs of homelessness, begging beneath a tree outside Euston station.
    I watched for a few minutes and she had a choreographed routine. It was a performance of shrunken shoulders, sad wrinkled face and wrung hands. I found the show revolting and, in the short time I was watching, unsuccessful.
    I made myself give her something, told her that she was demeaning herself and walked away with my conscience troubled by my negative reaction.
    I have thought about several times these past few days and the fact is that I do not like being preyed upon. This was begging as a profession.
    I am now thinking of giving my money to the Christian group who are dedicated to the homeless in my small city, rather than to the beggars direct.
    Would that be a good enough response?

    • My own view would be that to give money to the homeless in your own city would be a perfectly reasonable and compassionate response, and would make sure you didn’t end up in a situation you couldn’t handle because you had misjudged a situation/the likely response to your intervention. (You may have judged the situation you saw correctly; you may not. I think grace and intuition have a lot in common.) May God bless you for your desire to help!

    • There are genuine folk down on their luck or trapped by habit into begging on streets. Our cathedral through SVdP gives them hot food and food parcels on Tuesdays and a hot meal on Thursdays (which I often attend too – I’m a hair’s breadth away from being in their position, as many, perhaps most, of us are).

      There are also professional beggars – Roma, largely – who it appears make colossal amounts of money from gullible folk keen to receive that secular absolution before they enjoy their evening’s stupefaction in the bars & clubs.

      • I think it is generally advised in th UK that giving money directly to the homeless is not a good idea, as it discourages people from accessing the support services that can help with deeper issues than a handful of coins can address. Just ignoring immediate needs feels very cold, though, so many churches in cities have schemes whereby you can give out meal vouchers instead of cash. I think the most important thing, though, is to acknowledge that people are people – for some homeless a smile and apology that you won’t help this time, but wish them well, is as valuable as a handful of change from someone who otherwise ignores them completely.

  2. Amen.
    Sobering thoughts which have sent a 90 yr old down Memory Lane … to look past the present horrors … to see a happier future …. with Faith… Trust… and Hope.
    Thank you.

  3. I am in a vulnerable position with regard to beggars outside churches. I do not usually give them a second look when they stand or sit near supermarket doors, even when they are accompanied by a nice-looking dog. With churches, though, I’m inclined to do my bit, not really from charity, but in support of the institution’s reputation!

    I had a Spanish friend here years ago, whose practice was to fill his waistcoat pocket up each day with a set number of florins, dishing them out por el amor de Dios on a strictly ‘first-come, first served’ basis. ‘I prefer not to judge them beyond that’, he told me.

      • I do not know about Spain but I believe there were less beggars here in the ’50’s and ’60’s.
        There were tramps who begged, but usually asked for a task in exchange for money or food.

  4. Dear Sister Catherine

    This may be trivial ( or even ignorant) in relation to the comments above, however I have looked up St Martin on Wikipedia because of your phrase “Martin is a favourite of mine, as he is of most monks and nuns,”. Perhaps this says something about me, however may I ask: Why would he be a favourite of ” most monks and nuns” ( compared with other saints?)?

    • Dear Jo,
      Thank you. My post has got bogged down in discussion of how we give to others. Monks and nuns tend to have a special fondness for Martin because he founded the first monastery in the West; and because Sulpicius Severus wrote a lively biography of the saint, we know more about him than we do many monastic founders. The Office for the Day (antiphons, prayers, etc) is also very attractive. As a result, the feast of St Martin is often chosen for monastic clothings and professions. If you are interested, do a search for St Martin in the search box for this blog and you will find other posts about him that tackle different aspects of his life and work.

      • Thank you, Sister Catherine – After I sent the comment I did search ” Martin” and nearly sent you a Ps that I had found
        “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.” ( hmm?) . Also got St Jerome . I have put in St Martin now and there are more obviously St Martin of Tours to discover. Thanks

  5. Hello. Lovely post re St Martin.
    Just to clarify to previous poster, people who sell the big issue are not begging. They are selling the big issue. It is a good read often interviewing someone of note. I particularly enjoy the Christmas issue.
    Love to all, goodnight

  6. In view of the interest in charitable giving expressed in the comments, may I offer these sentences from an earlier post on St Martin?

    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.

  7. There is a difference between giving material goods to the poor (food, clothing like St Martin) and giving money to a beggar who will almost certainly use it to purchase drugs. The problem with monetary generosity is that our giving is abused and we are unwittingly funding the addiction that led to poverty in the first place. Even food is not foolproof. I have see beggars taking food, going round the corner and selling it to their fellow beggars for cash in order to buy more drugs. That seems to me to be a very cynical practice.

    • I think one should be wary of assuming that every beggar is a drug abuser. We have encountered some who are, and some who are down on their luck for quite different reasons. One of the things we have to take on board is that when we give, we do so knowing that we may be taken for a ride, so to say. Obviously, one should use prudence and discretion. Even so, I think there should always be room for the jar of nard in our lives. Otehrwise we are setting ourselves up as judges of what constitutes the deserving poor and I myself have always been uneasy about that.

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