Monday, July 09, 2012

Return to St. Martin

For as long as this blog has been around, I've been working on a translation of Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin. To be accurate, I've been working on it, off and on, for longer than that, but I spent time in 2007-2009, posting chapter by chapter of the Life which I gathered into a final posting in Feb, 2009. And, then, I set it on the shelf, intending to get back to it in a while. It has been a while and high time to review the whole project.

The project has, in the interim, expanded. I realized that I probably should translate the Letters and Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus because they shed considerable life of St. Martin as we have it. And, while I'm at it, there is St. Gregory the Great's work on St. Martin, which would supplement Sulpicius Severus' account. I haven't got very far on these last pieces, but now that it is summer I thought I'd spend some time on it.

Last night, I found the CSEL volume free on Google Books and have duly printed off the relevant portions of that volume. I thought I would post the translations as I proceed. Comments are always welcome, of course, and, just like the portions of the Life, I'll provide commentary to give a preliminary interpretation to the passages I'm translating.

With that intent in mind, I thought I'd take a post to reflect on what I've observed and learned about this particular enterprise.

1. The biography of St. Martin as remembered by many Christians is limited to one or two incidents. Of course, most people know about the cloak and the beggar incident (Life, 3). This incident has a particular resonance among many Christians these days as an expression of social justice. Of course, giving half one's cloak to a beggar is social justice and particularly striking when done by a Roman soldier, who were not, generally, well-known for acts of social justice. If one hangs around pacifists, one might quote approvingly about Martin's defiant refusal to fight in the late 350s in Gaul (Life 4). And that is about it. The balance of the life which describes St. Martin's episcopate in Tours and his reputation as a holy man is not as well known.

2. Following on this point, there are reasons why the balance of St. Martin's life isn't well known. If one reads it as either a modern or a post-modern, there is much about which to be offended or dismissive. The many miracles of St. Martin are bound to cause modernist readers to dismiss the whole life as fantastic and useless as a historical document. Martin's relentless campaign to root out paganism in the countryside around Tours, involving the destruction of altars and such like, are bound to offend post-moderns, who are liable to see this as an expression of power, not piety. So, one feels when reading the Life that one has the alternative of being credulous or oppressive- neither which are popular shortcomings these days.

3. What is interesting to me about the body of literature on St. Martin is that there is a reflective sense, if only because Sulpicius Severus wasn't content with just writing an saint's life, but he felt it necessary to answer his critics. Not every one of St. Martin's contemporaries agreed with Sulpicius Severus' take on St. Martin. Even in the life, we see opposition to St. Martin's approach to the episcopate, even if that opposition was condemned as being wordly. In the Letters and Dialogues, we see how deep that opposition went, even into St. Martins' own community which elected as his episcopal successor one of the most vociferous critics of St. Martin while alive. That is one of the reasons why I want to translate these works because they give a fuller picture of St. Martin and raise interesting issues such as Martin's mental competence at the end of his life (when, incidentally, Sulpicius Severus knew him).

4. Yet, this complexity is also unsettling. One of the reasons why I embarked on this project back almost a decade ago was that I attend a St. Martin-in-the-Fields (West Toronto, as it happens, not the original in London, England) as well as I attended in London, Ontario. It was, and is, in my mind to give a translation of the Life to both churches as a gift, but I find it is a rather odd one. Simply stated, I would not be giving a plaster saint for the edification of all, but rather a flawed, but, I firmly believed, deeply faithful saint, whose life raises many, many questions which are uncomfortable for us to answer such as our belief in miracles, attitudes to other religions, attitude to the military and, quite possibly, our attitude to mental illness as well as the more satisfying reflections on social justice and faith. I'm not sure I'll be thanked for raising these issues, but I'm also convinced the role of a Christian scholar, even an amateur as myself, is to tell our stories, no matter how unsettling they might be.

That is, for what it is worth, is where I am right now with what I've called elsewhere, the Martiniana. Hopefully, I'll be able to post the first letter before the end of the week and then work my way through the Letters and Dialogues in the  course of the summer. That's the plan at any rate.


Rob Scot said...

Would you mind if I include your blog link on my blog roll? I've just started a new blog at

Phil Snider said...

No problem. I'm adding you, so you might as well too.