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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