Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 9

Here is the new installment of St. Martin's Life. In this passage, we see Martin's strange, but popular ordination as bishop of Tours, a post he held until his death.


At almost the same time, Martin was sought after for the episcopacy of the church at Tours. But he could not easily be drawn out of his own monastery. A certain Rusticus, a citizen, pretending the illness of his wife, fell down to his knees and prevailed upon Martin to come. (2) Since a crowd of citizens were placed along the route, he was led right up to the city under a sort of guard. In an astonishing way, a incredible multitude not only from the town, but also from the nearby cities gathered to conduct a vote. (3) There was one will among all, one vote and the same opinion that Martin was most worthy of the episcopate and the church with such a priest would be lucky. Nevertheless, a few, several among the bishops who were called to ordain the high priest, impiously were revolted, saying, doubtless, that his personal appearence was contemptable, the man was unworthy of the episcopal office and despicable because of this appearence, his clothing was dirty, and his hair unkempt. (4) Their madness was mocked by people of a more sane opinion, who praised that illustrious man while they desired to find fault. Nor truly was it permitted for them to do anything than what the people decided in accordance with God's will. Nevertheless, among the bishops who were present, was a certain Defensor, who especially was said to have resisted. Then, he was considered to have been seriously censured by the reading from the prophets. (5) When, by chance, that reader whose duty it was to read that day was absent, having been shut out by the people and the service disrupted while they waited for the one who was not there, one of the bystanders, taking up the psalter, seized upon the first verse he encountered. (6) The psalm was this one: "from the mouths of infants and babes, you have perfected praise against your enemies so they you will destroy the enemy and the avenger[defensorem].". With that reading, the clamour of the people was raised and the other side put into confusion. (7) It was though,t as a result, that the psalm was read by divine approval so that Defensor would hear the testimony against his own works, which was shown, with the praise of God being perfected in Martin, and, equally from the mouhts of infants and babes, so that, as his enemy, he was destroyed.

This is an odd, but not unheard of kind of ordination. This ordination is usually dated to c. 371 AD, so Christianity has been quite established for over twenty years, even if the Arian controversy is continuing. Over those fifty years, there has been a considerable evolution in the office of bishop and the kind of person ordained. By the 370s, the episcopacy was a position of considerable influence in a city and, indeed, in a province. They weren't running the show, but they could make life rather hard on a governor, if they decided to, especially if that governor was a Christian.

Thus, there shouldn't be a surprise that there was a tendency for the high property classes to dominate in this office. Certainly, we have enough stories of highly educated and rich candidates being recruited or, if need be, dragooned into becoming a bishop. Ambrose and Augustine are two examples which turned out well. I'm pretty certain that Defensor and the other bishops who opposed Martin's ordination were probably of that type, so their opposition was probably based on their ideas about the dignity of the episcopal office. Those ideas were almost certainly tinged by social class.

By those standards, Martin made an astonishingly bad candidate. He was dirty, badly clothed and had a bad hair-do. How could he possibily make a good bishop?

Here is where we see the clash between the growing monastic-ascetic movement in the West which was already very strong in the East. Martin is distinctly not interested in power or the perks of being bishop. In fact, he'd sooner run the other way, so he had to be tricked and implicitly compelled to come into the city in the first place. He does not look the part nor, as the bishops surely feared, would he act the part of a bishop.

So, what was Martin's appeal? He was a holy man. That is, he was believed to be closely connected in prayer to God and that connection came out in his deeds, especially his healings. He was notably not the worldy, powerful bishop that Defensor and others wanted, but was increasingly being regarded with suspicion by laymen. He was resolutely anti-Arian and, given his dislike of the honour, was unlikely to reverse himself for career reasons if imperial pressure should again be placed on him to become Arian.

Yet, it seems a contentious election. In fact, it was only solved by the (chance?) reading of Psalm 8 which seemed to implicitly condemn Defensor, the leader of the anti-Martin opposition. This episode is interesting because it shows an aspect both of the Father's attitude to Scripture and their conception of the miraculous intervention. Here, it is the chance reading of a scripture which is immediately seen to apply to the situation. This chance reading determines the winner in this contest because it is not taken as a chance reading. Rather, God made sure that this line would be read aloud at this particular time by makng sure the regular lector was missing and that the substitute turned to precisely this page and read this line. God's will is recognized in this simple act of reading a line out of a psalm.

Now, we can, as many would, say that this was either a massive coincidence, a clever on-the-spot contrivance or mob mentality which inflated this incident to its decisive status in electing Martin. We can also shake our heads at the clear proof-texting here. Yet, the point isn't this. The idea here is that the reading of this Scripture at this time was considered to indicate divine approval for Martin's ordination. This is a high view of Scripture in a way that a modern or a post-modern would have a problem seeing. I'm not sure whether to say that this is a good or a bad view, but it is important to see this use (which is rather widespread: think of Augustine in the garden before his conversion)as a very old one and to ask what we can draw from it.


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