Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sulpicius Severus- Life of St. Martin 11

I'm behind on my installments of St. Martin, but here is the new one, dealing with a (false) martyr cult.


But I shall proceed with addressing his remaining virtues which he performed as bishop.

Not far from the town, there was a place near the monastery in which the false opinion of men dedicated as martyrs' tomb. (2) For it was believed that an altar had been set up by earlier bishops. Martin, not adhering rashly to faith in uncertain things, demanded the name of the martyr from the priests and clerics who were older and to be shown the time of his martyrdom. He was moved by a strong scruple because the constant memory of tradition handed down nothing certain about it. (3) When he had held himself back from that place, neither detracting from that cult because it was uncertain, nor adapting his own authority to the mob so that the superstition would flourish, on a certain day, with brothers accompanying, he hastened to the place. (4) Then, standing over the tomb, he prayed to the Lord that He might show Martin whose tomb it was and what merit he had. Then, turning to the left, he saw a foul and savage ghost standing nearby. He ordered him to say what name and what merit he had. The ghost gave his name and admitted his crime. He was a robber who had been struck down because of his crime, but celebrated because of the error of the mob. He had nothing in common with the martyrs, since glory preserved them, but his punishment preserved him. (5) In an astonishing way,k those who were present heard the voice speaking, but saw no person. Then, Martin explained what he had seen and ordered that the altar which was there be moved from that place and, thus, he released the people from the error of its superstition.


This is an interesting passage on several scores. First, it reveals the confusion and misunderstandings that grew up around the cults to the martyrs which becomes quite important in the course of the fourth century. We, with our fully developed saints' lists, forget how messy the process of discerning true saints and martyrs and linking them to their tombs/relics was. Usually, there were many years between the death of the martyrs in question and the rise of the cults, simply because outward signs of commemoration of these saints was tricky while Christianity remained illegal in the Roman Empire. With Christianity's legalization, there was literally an explosion of localized martyr cults, some of which had considerable evidence for a connection, but many of which, like this one, are only tenuously connected to a martyr or saint.

This, of course, has led many scholars, secular and Christian, to wonder what was happening here. Was this the appropriation of pagan sites by connection to a previously unknown (or even fictitious) saint? Was this site mentioned by Sulpicius an ancient pagan site or tomb which was connected earlier with a martyr to preserve the traditions attached to the site. Sulpicius doesn't make it clear what kind of commemorations were done on the site, so it is difficult to know whether this is what was going one, but there is evidence that many of these rural pagan shrines were appropriated by Christians for this or that saint. Even as late as the Reformation, we know of these rural shrines being very active; to the horror of the Reformers who, rightly, saw these as pagan survivals.

This leads to my second point. What St. Martin seems to be doing here is regulating this impulse by questioning a cult with a highly dubious martyrs cult. He was rightly suspicious of a martyr's cult where the name of the martyr and the time of the martyrdom was unknown. Yet, he is cautious about how to deal with it, recognizing that the cult was very popular. So, he hesitates before he abolishes it and, then, only on the authority of a vision from God. This, in many ways, demonstrates both St. Martin's savvy as a bishop, but also his authority as a holy man. Ultimately, it is his status as a holy man which validates his vision and allows him to tear down the altar after 'proving' it to be a false cult. In St. Martin, the holy man and bishop are found in the same person and, one wonders, whether Sulpicius is implying that this is the way it should be.

Thirdly, I think we have to also see this episode as part of St. Martin's attempt to Christianize the rural areas in his responsibility. As many scholars have pointed out, Christianity was, initially, an urban phenomenon and did not really start penetrating the largely pagan countryside until the end of the fifth century; Martin of Tours being one of the pioneers of this effort. Admittedly, this shrine was conveniently located close to St. Martin's monastery, but the decision of St. Martin to deal with the altar shows his interest in religion in the rural areas usually neglected by Christian leaders. We will see more of this as the story goes on.

Lastly, I want to again highlight the role of the vision in this story. As the holy man, St. Martin is able, with God's help, to call out the demons and unclean spirits in the land, just as Jesus was able to do and as the Apostles became able to do. This connection is not coincidental, but, I think, has to be attributed to a tendency to want to equate St. Martin with the Apostles and show the degree to which St. Martin participates in the incarnational reality of Jesus. This is true imitation of Christ in the sense that St. Martin, in imitating the virtues of Christ, can, on occasion and through prayer, emulate Jesus' power over the supernatural world. Now, the Protestant in my twitches at that because I feel I have to add that this does not mean we should worship saints, but rather we need to remember that all this is done with God's power. Mind you, I'm sure St. Martin would agree.

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