Soldier bishop

Daily Reading for November 11 • Martin, Bishop of Tours, 397

An ex-soldier like the Egyptian pioneer Pachomius, Martin abandoned his military career in Gaul (France) to live a life apart from the world. Around him, probably in the year 361, there gathered the West’s first known monastic community at what seems to have been an ancient local cultic site in a marshy valley, now called Ligugé. . . . Archaeological traces still remain of Martin’s first community buildings at Ligugé, treasured by the monks who, after many vicissitudes, have returned to this place so resonant in the story of the religious life. Not long afterwards, in 372, Martin was one of the first ascetics anywhere in the Church to be chosen as a bishop, in the Gaulish city far north of Poitiers called Civitas Turonum (now Tours). While bishop, he still lived as a monk, and his second monastic foundation near Tours was destined to fare rather better than Ligugé in its later monastic history: as Marmoutier, it remained one of the most famous and ancient abbeys in France until its near-total destruction in the French Revolution.

In his public career, Martin retained enough of his soldierliness to emerge as a notably aggressive campaigner for the elimination of the traditional religion still strong in rural areas of western Europe such as his. His ministry, played out against formidable opposition, was clearly dramatic. . . . Bishop Martin’s work excited those who sought to preach their faith in similar areas where city life was either decaying or had never existed, and it can be no coincidence that now a number of individuals began taking missionary initiatives beyond Gaul and even beyond the empire. . . . North of the furthest imperial frontiers in Britain, an ascetic called Ninian established amission around 400 in what is now south-west Scotland, reputedly building a church in stone, such a rare sight in the area that it was called the “White House,” Candida Casa. Ninian or one of his early successors dedicated this church in honour of Martin the Gaulish bishop, who had only very recently died.

From Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (New York: Viking, 2009).

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