Friday 25 April 2008

Of saints and secularists

Reading Bob's post about forgetting to celebrate St. George's Day (I did too - only being reminded of it by the garish red and white flags in our local card shop window), and then this article by Jonathan Glancey about the re-opening of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, has sent me off into a reverie about patron saints...

Glancey's article caught my attention, in part because I've been researching my family history recently and have discovered that my Scottish-born great-great-great grandparents lived in the Charing Cross area in the 1830-40s, and that my 3 x great grandmother was buried at St. Martins.

But I was also interested because the church is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours who was, as Glancey reminds us, 'a fourth-century Roman cavalry officer turned Christian ascetic and preacher', and is 'the patron saint of beggars and soldiers.' The church's current work with the homeless (which runs alongside its more familiar functions as a cultural venue and tourist attraction) seems to be an attempt to follow in the footsteps of its saintly patron.

If I were ever to resolve my arguments with Christianity and experience a rebirth of faith, I'd probably take Martin of Tours as my patron saint. Not necessarily because of his charity towards beggars, and certainly not on account of his soldiering. Rather, it would be because of his lesser-known reputation as one of the first Christian advocates of the separation of church and state. I found this out recently via the wonders of Wikipedia, which tells the story of Martin's involvement in the affair of the Priscillianists, an obscure sect condemned by Rome as heretics:

Priscillian and his supporters had fled, and some bishops of Hispania, led by Bishop Ithacius, brought charges before Emperor Magnus Maximus. Although greatly opposed to the Priscillianists, Martin hurried to the Imperial court of Trier on an errand of mercy to remove them from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. At first, Maximus acceded to his entreaty, but, when Martin had departed, yielded to the solicitations of Ithacius and ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded, the first Christians executed for heresy. Deeply grieved, Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius, until pressured by the Emperor.

For insisting that the Church had no business using the power of the secular state to enforce matters of belief, Martin of Tours deserves to be the patron saint, not only of soldiers and beggars, but also of secularists - that's if secularists can have patron saints.

Mind you, Christians named Martin are not short of right-on patron saints to choose from. The other popular option is the Peruvian St. Martin de Porres, who has the additional coolness factor of being the first black saint in the Americas, as well as all the usual stuff about dedicating his life to the poor. Not only that, he's probably the only saint to have a piece of music written about him by a jazz legend: Mary Lou Williams' 'Black Christ of the Andes'.

Williams, who played with some of the jazz greats in the '20s and '30s, underwent a conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s and went on to write three masses, as well as the hymn to St. Martin. Friday quiz question: which other jazz legend converted to Catholicism more recently? Answer: Dave Brubeck, who became a Catholic in 1980, reportedly after a musical setting of the 'Our Father' came to him in a dream.

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