Saint Martin and the Search for Holiness | Régine Pernoud | Prologue to Martin of Tours
November 11 is now a red-letter day on the French civil calendar: in 1918 that date marked the end of the slaughter that was the First World War. But even before France was called France, that date, the eleventh of November, had been a date on the calendar used throughout Christendom because it commemorated the burial at Tours of the amazing individual whom we call Saint Martin.
He was an amazing and even a paradoxical man: he never accomplished what he had hoped to do, and yet his accomplishments surpassed all possible expectations. To begin with, this man, who had always tried to go unnoticed, enjoyed extraordinary popularity. He wanted to be a hermit, to flee the world and devote himself to ascetical practices; instead he was constantly surrounded by people, during his lifetime and after his death: the pilgrimage shrine of Saint Martin in Tours was once the most important after the three great pilgrimage sites of Christianity, Jerusalem, Rome, and, later on, Saint James of Compostela. He is remembered as a soldier, and indeed he was one, albeit entirely against his will. He had refused to be ordained a priest, considering himself unworthy, and yet he became a bishop. He had fled the world and sought a life of seclusion, but instead his biography was written while he was still living!
Thanks to those who discerned the extraordinary qualities in this rather reticent, unassuming man who resolutely practiced poverty, we know the story of his life. It spans the fourth century, in which the Church became free at last to live above ground, only to be torn by dissension so widespread that it almost brought her to ruin.
There are not many individuals whose biographies were written during the fourth century, especially during their lifetime. This was the case, however, with Martin of Tours, thanks to his friend Sulpicius Severus, who survived him long enough to record for us also the story of his death. And so we have the unusual good fortune of possessing a contemporary document to tell us about a man who, throughout his life, sought only to live among his peers, in obscurity.
In Search of Holiness
Sulpicius Severus was handsome, young, and rich. He lived in Bordeaux, a particularly prosperous town in the fourth century, where he received an outstanding education; he practiced law there and excelled in his profession because of his great eloquence. His family belonged to that Gallo-Roman aristocracy which enjoyed the favor of the Roman emperors because their power depended upon it. Thus, in the region that would later be called Aquitaine, there were several families that owned enormous estates and a large number of slaves and were extremely wealthy. The province was crossed by navigable waterways, which guaranteed abundant commerce. Bordeaux at that time had the reputation of being an "intellectual" city; like Toulouse, it had quite a number of citizens who had conformed completely to the customs and tastes characteristic of the Roman Empire. In the region surrounding Toulouse archeologists have found as many busts and sculptures from the imperial era as they have in the vicinity of Romeartwork intended to ornament the villas where these opulent families lived.