In Canada today the civic world observes Remembrance Day. The Remembrance Day Ceremony has been a major part of this date in Canadian civic life since 1931. People will gather in parks, halls, workplaces, homes, and schools to stand in memory and honour of those who, in service to this country, have been killed by war.
The Church has kept this date in memory of St Martin of Tours, a patron saint of soldiers, chaplains, and the poor, since his death in 397. Christianity had been made legal in the Roman Empire only shortly before Martin’s birth and the religion was still suspect among many. His parents discouraged him from attending church and becoming a catechumen, but he insisted. (Catechumen is the term for one preparing for baptism and, in those days, a process that might take many years.)
Martin became a soldier in the Roman army and served actively for some years. During this time, perhaps the most famous event of Martin’s life took place. While riding into the city of Amiens, he spied a naked beggar at the roadside. Impulsively, he cut his soldier’s cloak in half and gave one portion to the man. That night, while sleeping, he had a vision of Christ clad in the half-cloak he had given away while an angel said “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” When Martin woke in the morning, he found his cloak restored to its full size.
Eventually, he felt the call to another form of service and left the army. He moved to Tours and studied with Hilary of Poitiers while living an austere life as a lone monk. Seeking to avoid political unrest, he journeyed back to his home in northern Italy for a time, converting many people—including his reluctant mother—during his travels. He returned to Tours and, in 361, he and Hilary founded Ligugé Abbey (still operating), the oldest known monastery in Europe.
Martin was ordained bishop of Tours in 372, though it was not a role he wanted. He was tricked into coming to the city to minister to someone ill—a ministry that he never refused—to find a crowd waiting to carry him into the church for the ceremony. He escaped and hid in a barn, hoping to escape, but was given away by a flock of noisy geese and finally accepted the acclamation to a new ministry.
Long before his death in 397, Martin was renowned for his kindness, his tireless work for the benefit of the poor, and the many, many healing miracles attributed to him. He traveled great distances to visit sick people and pray for their healing, often at times of what appeared to be certain death. In one case, it is said that a letter from Martin, read to an ill person, effected their complete recovery.
The legend of Martin’s cloak and his care for the poor and sick are the source of our English words “chaplain” and “chapel”. After Martin’s death, his cloak became an important relic that was believed to continue his healing ministry. It would often be taken into war, with the hope that Martin’s history as a soldier and a healer would benefit the side that held it. The priest who was to care for it was called a cappellanu, taken from the Latin word for a cloak. Eventually, small, temporary shrines were built to house the cloak when it traveled, called capellae.
More important than the linguistic connection, however, is what chaplains—the ones who spiritually hold St Martin’s cloak today—do and what they remind the larger Church to do. Chaplains are those ministers of the Gospel who live and work in situations where people are removed from their homes and loved ones. Schools, hospitals, prisons, the military, and so on. These circumstances are regularly isolating, disorienting, and leave people unsure of where to turn for help. The chaplain is not a physician or jailor or armed soldier. Instead, they are ready with the comfort of a warm cloak and prayers for healing and wholeness in the midst of conflict, distress, and pain. They offer themselves to serve—often putting themselves in real danger—in those liminal spaces where few of us would willingly be.
On 11 November each year, we think of those who have given their lives to serve their neighbour. We remember those taken by war and we remember St Martin’s dedication to those in the slow, painful conflicts of poverty and illness. May nations no longer lift swords against one another but, instead, use those blades to cut cloaks for all of the cold and naked and pray for healing and peace.
Written for the Parish of Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.