Martin of Tours: Inspiration to the Celts

St Martin of Tours had a profound influence on the Celts. The story of his life was included in The Book of Armagh, a beautiful illuminated manuscript currently held in the library of Trinity College Dublin. Both Patrick and Ninian spent time learning at Marmoûtiers, the monastery started by Martin. St Columba made a pilgrimage to visit Martin’s tomb and included a mass dedicated to the saint in the liturgy of Iona. The Cloud of Unknowing, my favourite book, also makes mention of Martin and holds him in high regard. Even though Martin was not himself Celtic, he inspired the Celtic people and many themes in his hagiography demonstrate what later became distinctively Celtic Christian.

There are parts of his life story that I absolutely love and parts which make me really uncomfortable. But that’s to be expected when we read these ancient stories. I would like to discuss with you in this article the dynamic tension between the things I love and the things that make me uneasy in Martin’s life. Firstly, Martin was fearless in his refusal to participate in war and to honour the royalty. I love those parts of his story. But, he also had a real hate on for any religion that wasn’t Christian – to the point of going around and burning down pagan temples all across Gaul.

At first glance these things seem to contradict each other, and maybe at the last glance they still will – but for Martin, and many early Christians, these things were inseparable. The empire was pagan and to follow Christ meant to deny both secular authority and pagan religion. I would argue that Christendom kept many aspects of pagan society it should have left behind and left behind many aspects it should have kept.

Martin was a run of the mill middle class soldier in the Roman empire. His father was a soldier and Rome decided to draft all the sons of their veterans to continue their war efforts. Martin was forced into military service at a young age. He was born into a family who still worshiped the old gods of the Greco-Roman past. Yet, he was noted for his uniquely Christian behaviour before he came to know Christ. This is something that very much resembles the teaching of Pelagius who was only a couple decades younger than Martin.

Pelagius taught that the human condition is inherently good in direct opposition to Augustine who taught original sin. He used a combination of scriptural arguments and observation from human nature to prove his point. One of his main arguments based from nature was that people who have never heard the gospel are still able to be saintly. There are holy people in every culture and this shows that goodness is an innate part of what it means to be human. Martin was a perfect example of that.

Martin was famous amongst his fellow soldiers for doing all the chores without being asked and tending to the needs of those around him. His selfless behaviour got the attention of a local monk who taught Martin about Christ and began the process of bringing him into the faith and baptising him. Martin remained in military service up until he was called to actually fight. During a public ritual the soldiers were being called forth to receive their pay for serving their nation. Martin went up in front of everyone as Caesar was handing out the rewards and refused to accept the money saying:

“Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God: let the man who is to serve you receive your payment. I am the soldier of Christ it is not lawful for me to fight.”

Refusing to worship gods of war and emperors who conquered was actually a good thing. Martin was right on with that. But unfortunately, mainstream Christianity went on to turn Jesus into a new god of war when it justified slavery and genocide in His name. That’s something we should have left behind. But we kept our armies despite what Jesus obviously taught.

At one point Martin made a dramatic scene cutting down a tree that had been a consecrated part of a pagan temple. He thought he was doing the Lord’s work. If we had decided to let people consecrate sacred trees that wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Why did we keep all the bad stuff of Roman society and ditch all the good stuff?

I still love the way Martin had no regard for royal authority and the way he refused to participate in any way with the corruption and violence of the empire. One time it is said that the emperor Maximus invited him to a banquet along with a number of bishops and high ranking people. At first Martin declined because he did not want to sit at table with a man who was responsible for so much violence. Eventually the emperor persuaded Martin to join him with kind words and discourse. However, Martin did not have very good table manners – and that was a serious thing at a banquet of the king.

Martin was seated at the king’s right hand and had seated at his own right one of his presbyters. The king made a toast and had his servants pass the cup to Martin first as a sign of great respect. The appropriate thing for Martin to do would have been to pass it to the king after he had his drink. However, Martin took the opportunity to make a public show of what little importance he placed on political power or royalty. He announced to the assembled noblemen that his presbyter is the holiest man present and that the cup should go to him. This may seem trivial to us today, but it was the sort of thing that could have gotten him into serious trouble.

Just as he had refused to fight for Rome he also refused to pay respect to the men who created those same wars he had walked away from. This public and vocal disregard for the status quo is explicitly praised in the text. Martin’s ability to resist the temptations of the kings gifts and favours is what proved his apostolic authority. The text says of Martin when comparing him to the bishops who had gathered for the banquet:

“Such is the nature of our times in which all things have fallen into decay and corruption, it is almost a pre-eminent virtue for priestly firmness not to have yielded to royal flattery…in Martin alone, apostolic authority asserted itself.”

I absolutely love the subtle but profound commentary on apostolic authority here. Martin was summoned to the emperor’s table, along with many very powerful religious men, to be honoured and given a seat at the king’s right hand. This was a great temptation because to be a favourite of the king means to gain wealth and power. All the other bishops had already tasted that forbidden fruit. They were no longer serving the Prince of Peace and eating at the table of Christ, but were now worshiping this worldly king with his war and his riches.

Even though the text does not explicitly say that these bishops were also claiming apostolic succession, it was understood to be the case because that’s what a bishop is. To say that Martin was the only one present who carried upon his shoulders the true weight of apostolic authority was to redefine what apostolic succession means. I believe this text is boldly claiming that true apostolic succession is carried in the heart and is known by its fruit. It has nothing to do with being ordained a priest or bishop. It has nothing to do with any human hierarchy. It has everything to do with who you serve and where your loyalties lie.

Just as Jesus criticized the Pharisees for sitting in Moses’ seat but not practicing what they preach, so here is Martin shown to be the true apostle because he is not only a Christian in name but also one in practice. To have the gospel so firmly implanted in our hearts that it becomes the way in which we live and move and have our being is to carry the true lineage. Do you live with the apostolic authority in your heart?


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