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.