A great figure presents himself for our edification and remembrance this week on November 11 in the person and the feast of St Martin of Tours (d 397). St Martin is famous for having been a heavy-cavalry soldier and a bishop, which is almost pleonastic these days. In between, however, Martin also lived as a hermit and a monk. He was reluctant to serve in the military, it turns out, and left as a kind of ancient conscientious objector. He was also disinclined to serve as a bishop. He was lured to Tours on a ruse and was then forcibly consecrated. There is a story that he tried to hide in a barn full of geese, but that didn’t wind up being the stealthiest possible choice.
Two good Latin palindromes (which read the same backwards as forwards) are associated with St Martin. It seems one day that the Devil accosted and mocked Martin who was walking along on foot instead of riding a donkey, as befitted a bishop. Apparently the Devil worries about clerical transportation. Martin transformed our soul’s Enemy into an ass and then rode him with the Latin goads: “Signa te Signa: temere me tangis et angis…” or Cross, cross thyself, you plague, and vex me without need”; and “Roma tibi subito motibus ibit amor” or “For by my labours you shall soon reach Rome, the object of your wishes”.
Speaking of geese, the feast of St Martin, or Martinmas, has its own traditions, including the fitting consumption of geese (after cooking them to make the experience somewhat less noisy and agitated). I understand that in Ireland, and somehow this doesn’t surprise me, animals that didn’t pull their weight, such as hens that no longer laid, were put to the pot, and pigs were killed and their blood was quaffed.
There are various harvest festivals in this period, of course. Since this feast effectively marks the beginning of our experience of winter in earnest, and the nights are getting longer, there are processions with lanterns. And since St Martin famously cut his own cloak in half to share with a beggar, some people donate clothing to the poor.
The cold season cometh. Nights are longer and lonelier for many. Even if you are of modest means, there are those who have less, with whom you might share your benefits in imitation of St Martin, bishop and confessor.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection