Sunday, November 15, 2015

Martin of Tours and St. Martin in the Fields: A Patronal Feast

The patronal feast is always a special date for every congregation.  I tried to find out how we got named St. Martin’s in the Field and so far haven’t found out.  (As we come close to our 50th anniversary in a couple of years, it might be interesting for those who know that story to put it in print.)  

Usually the saint for which a congregation is named is important to the spirit of a parish and for us here at St. Martin’s that is true.  But the name of St. Martin’s in the Fields is also the name of an important parish in the heart of London in Trafalgar Square that may have figured in the naming of our parish. Often parishes get named after parishes in 'old country'.  So I did some
checking. I am a classical music aficionado and am used to hearing music from the Academy of St. Martin’s of the Field, one of the finest music schools of the UK. I knew it started from a parish in London, so I decided to do a bit of study on that congregation.  

The earliest date on that parish is 1222.  It kind of puts our history in a bit of perspective, doesn’t it?  It was built in the fields between Westminster Abby and the Diocese of London and in the 13th century there was a bit of a kerfuffle about to whom the parish belonged —the Abby or the Bishop of London. (Sounds a bit familiar, huh?)  Now, that church is in the center of London in Trafalgar Square in what is considered the center of London.  It has been a church for the homeless for centuries, a place where 'the doors are never closed.' 

Our parish was named a little less than 50 years ago, and it would not surprise me because of the lovely fields around us.  But like the London church, we are quickly becoming the center of a lively community, no longer out in the country where we were just within the lifetime of many of us. When I started teaching here in Keller in 1967, I can assure you there was nothing here BUT fields! 

 Another little piece of information I found was that a distant cousin of mine was the organist at St. Martin’s in the Fields, Trafalgar Square.  I can no longer just find that my presence here at St. Martin’s is just a matter of serendipity.

The Saint Martin for whom both Trafalgar Square and here in Keller/Southlake is named is one of the early Christian spiritual powerhouses.  Martin was born in the early 4th century in Hungary, the son of a member of the Roman Imperial Horse Guard.  He spent his childhood near Pavia, Italy and at the age of 10 attended the Christian community there. There was a certain amount of mobility at that time as there is today. 

Against his parent’s wishes he became a catechumen, much as the Emperor Constantine had done.  At the age of 15 he was drafted into the cavalry and stationed in France.  The military at that time was as much the agent of public works for the empire as it was a fighting arm. They built roads, towns and aqueducts.
When Martin was 18, he met a man who had too little clothing to keep him warm.  With his military sword, Martin cut his lush military cloak in half and gave it to the man.  That night Martin dreamed that the man who had received the cloak was Christ.  He had been touched by the spirit of God. The next morning, he went to the priest and asked to be baptized.  Not long after his baptism there was a threat of war by local Gallic chieftains.  Martin went to his military commander and said he was a ‘soldier for Christ and he could not fight.’  He was arrested for cowardice.  He offered himself to be placed on the front lines and help his colleagues, but said he would not carry a sword. The military threat dissolved and Martin was dismissed from the army in France.  

Martin set himself up as a hermit on an island off the Italian/French coast.  Soon he came into contact with  Hilary of Poitier, the earliest bishop of the area, and attached himself as a hermit.  Martin became a monk before the idea of monasticism was very well developed.  Others, men and women, flocked to him for advice and direction. 

Christianity was still new in the area and it was difficult to find those who could lead.  The people of Tours needed a bishop.  They knew that Martin would not accept the position so they invited him to tend to someone who was ill in Tours. The people of Tours wanted to press him into service as bishop. Martin tried to escape by hiding among the geese, but the geese gave him away. And to this day, Martin is considered the patron of geese. The herald of hospitality among the Celtic people has always been the goose.

Martin was consecrated as the bishop of Tours in 371.  But instead of being housed in the bishops’ palace, he chose to live in the caves across the river from the city where many new Christians came to live with him. The Abby of Tours grew up there and became a center of learning and remarkable devotion in which all were welcome. Martin founded monasteries and parishes throughout that part of France.  And through this time of the
“Dark Ages” these monasteries became the centers of education for England and Europe after the fall of Roman Empire.

The mark of hospitality of Tours was one that was absorbed into Benedictine spirituality some 250 years later, and it has characterized the lives of those who followed in the spirit of Martin of Tours. We really do not know much about the life of Martin per se, but he was a soldier who refused to
fight.  He understood the meaning of Christ’s peace.  It is not the way we think of Christianity today, but perhaps it is a part of Christianity that perhaps we need to recapture. 

He was a man who preferred to follow Christ by being a monk, but was pressed into service to the whole of Christian community to serve in leadership.  He was called to serve Christ not the way HE wanted but in a manner that was needed.  He stood firm in Trinitarian theology at a time when the Emperor was touting Arianism.  Yet he did not believe in the wars that were fostered to root out those who did not believe the way he did.  He was outspoken in his opposition of the institution of the death penalty for those who were convicted of heresy.  He was an icon for peace and hospitality at a time when unrest was beginning to infect various parts of western Europe.  The Abby of Tours, Marmoutier  and Liege and  the various convents
founded by him became the refuges for pilgrims in the age of pilgrimage and marked the highway systems of what is now France, northern Italy and Spain. 

So what do we have to take from our patron today?  Martin, as a person, was a person who personally took his faith seriously.  His personal relationship with God in Christ moved him to center on service, kindness and living out the peace he saw in Christ.  The manner of his living informed his theology and vice versa.  Wealth and position were not for him.  He stood for what he understood was the way that Christ had taught and he ministered in that light. Conscientious objection was not centered in fear.  It was a clear conviction to fight was singularly opposed to the values of Christ.  It is ironic that he became the patron of the military in the 19th century with his firm conviction about peace.

 Hospitality was also part of how he saw his commitment in community. Those places which he founded became places where people in need could find welcome no matter their situation.  He refused to find fault with those with whom he disagreed.  He would not malign those who held different ideas of faith but required those who followed him to offer generosity despite the differences.  He was a bishop who did not garner power or use his authority to demean others.  He led by humble example.
Saints are not necessarily remarkable men and women.  They are plain ordinary people who face their lives with a single mindedness centered on Jesus.  They give us a vision of how we can face the things in our lives with the kind of vision that Jesus had.  The early saints have some wonderful stories (we call it hagiography) told about them that may or may not be factual, but they are true to the character of their gifts.  What I see in Martin is the greatness of the person, but also what has followed in the institutions that have been raised up in his name.  All over Europe, institutions were raised up
under the influence of Martin of Tours.  They became the hospitals, the monasteries, the places of higher education especially in France and the stops of cordiality on the pilgrim ways to Compostella in Spain, to Rome and even to the Holy Lands.  Even St. Martin’s in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, founded some 800 years after Martin’s life, has a tradition of being a place of education and hospitality to the homeless, ‘never closing its doors’. 

The kind of peace that Martin lived is the kind of peace that we too can live here at our St. Martin’s.  And while we remember Martin of Tours as a soldier, he was a soldier who called for the laying down of arms in the name of Jesus.  He was a bishop who laid down his raiment so that the poor could be clothed.  He was a saint that spoke quite theologically but refused to demand the expelling of others if they believed
differently.  These are all qualities that we, here in Keller/Southlake, can call from ourselves as we conform to the life of our patron.  It is the way that we celebrate his life with our own.  Even in the youth of our foundation—50 years is not a very long time in the story of Christ, we stand in an ancient tradition as it is reformed into the newness of faith today.  We stand upon the shoulders of a humble man, a faithful man, a peaceful man who followed in the ways of Jesus.  And we stand upon the stones of monasteries and dioceses of Europe, built also as a place of hospitality, peace and education.  And we should be able to see that we being tended by the saint even without knowing it.

So how do we continue the tradition for a new era?  How will we maintain the charisma of our patron for a new age? 

1.     Let us claim a code that calls us to non-violence as a part of our core.

2.     Let us contribute the education of Christian values in for all ages.

3.     Let us demand from ourselves a type of humility that allows this community to go out to others and invite them to share Christ with us.

4.     Let us always offer the kind of welcome that allows for differences.  Hospitality is not just radical, it is part of our DNA! It comes from the heart of our namesake.


Martin dared to live the life of Christ and it changed the face of Europe.  St. Martin in the Fields, now in Trafalgar Square some 800 years ago helped to change the fabric of British society.  Can we begin to think of what it might mean a millennium from now here in North Tarrant County?  We may be the center of Dalworth then and our fields filled with ways for others to know of Christ.  This building probably won’t be here, but the spirit of Martin can still be lived in what we have begun here.  We stand in a tradition, a remarkable heritage, but it isn’t just history we promote.  The remarkable ways that we have to continue these values and will continue throughout the generations ahead will continue to promote the values we have absorbed and embrace. 

I invite you to make the new paths to Christ as did Martin 1,800 years ago.  AMEN