‘So what is a chaplain then?’ – Inspiration from St Martin

As the chaplain at YMCA Liverpool and YMCA St Helens, I am often asked this question by residents.

Stained glass window of St Martin of Tours, from St Martin’s Church, Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire.

I have found it helpful to share the story of St Martin, a fourth century bishop and former soldier, who gave us the origin of the words ‘chapel’ and ‘chaplain’, and whose life was an example of chaplaincy in action.

St Martin of Tours (316 – 397 AD), whose feast day is 11th November, is credited as the founder of Christian chaplaincy. A legend associated with him provides a direct source for understanding hospitality as it relates to chaplaincy today.

Unlike many early saints, about whom we know little , we know quite a bit about St Martin of Tours, thanks to a writer named Sulpicius, who devoted his life to following Martin, talking with those who were involved in his life, and writing a biography of him before the saint died.

Sulpicius recorded that Martin was a bishop in Gaul (modern-day France) who shunned the privileged status of that role to live in a monk’s cell in the wilderness. Before Martin became a Christian, at fifteen he was forced to join the army of the occupying Roman Empire.

One day Martin was on duty in Gaul when he noticed a beggar, freezing in the cold. Martin, moved with compassion, went to his aid. He took off his thick army cloak and cut it in two with his sword. One piece he wrapped around the beggar and the other he kept for himself.

This act echoes the ‘Golden Rule’ common to many spiritual traditions, which Jesus called one of the two greatest commandments: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’(Mark 12:29). I have written elsewhere about how this has become the basis of my understanding of chaplaincy for residentst and staff at the YMCA. This story reveals that it is at the heart of all chaplaincy everywhere.

That night Martin had a dream in which he saw the beggar with the piece of his cloak on his shoulders. But in his dream the beggar was Jesus. Sulpicius records that in Martin’s dream-vision, Jesus said to the angels, ‘Here is Martin, the Roman solider – he has clothed me.’ This recalls the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew’s gospel: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40). So chaplains are called to honour each person as a beloved child of God, made in the image of God (though they may not know that for themselves), as if they were Jesus among us today.

This vision of Jesus as the beggar transformed Martin, convincing him to give his life in service to the poor and neglected in his society as a monk. Finally he was able to leave the army to take up his calling, becoming a fierce advocate for the powerless to whom injustices were easily done.

The people loved Martin and wanted him as their bishop, but Martin wanted to remain a monk and refused to take the office. So they tricked him by sending someone to beg Martin to come to visit his supposedly sick wife. When Martin arrived in the city, he was carried by the crowd into the church, where bishops had gathered to consecrate him. The bishops were repelled by this dirty, dishevelled man and thought his unkempt appearance proved him unfit for the office. But the people insisted – they hadn’t chosen Martin for his outward appearance, but for his compassion, humility and commitment to justice. Overwhelmed by the acclamations of the people, the bishops consecrated Martin as bishop of Tours.

Martin’s activism for the poor and love of people was matched by his commitment to solitude and prayer. He developed regional spiritual communities as places of hospitality for anyone, regardless of background, who sought direction or sanctuary. He instituted the practice, which continues today, of the bishop making pastoral visits to each of his communities at least once a year. This visitation was significant at a time when those in authority, who lived in the towns and cities, often neglected country people.

He lived simply and humbly, resisting status-seeking for himself. When he died, Martin was buried at his request in the cemetery for poor people. The Frankish Kings kept Martin’s half of the cloak he had shared with the beggar as a precious relic. The guardian of this cloak became known as the capellanus in Latin, derived from the word cappa, meaning a cloak or cape. Cappelanus came to the English language via Old French as ‘chaplain’. The place where the relic of Martin’s torn cloak became known as the capella, which is the origin of the word ‘chapel’. The values and example of St Martin began to provide a legacy for the work of chaplains since the inception of the early European universities.

St Martin of Tours, reputed as the founder of the vocation of Christian chaplaincy, is the chaplain’s prototype. He often travelled to the countryside, meeting ordinary people neglected by town officials. So chaplaincy today is also a fluid occupation, not confined to a desk and appointment schedule, but mobile, unobtrusively engaging with people in their everyday life, particularly those in need of support. Chaplaincy is defined by the same compassionate impulse as the incident of Martin with the beggar, and chaplaincy sees such acts as sacred.

The hospitality of St Martin changed the lives of the people he met. To sustain their transformed lives, he encouraged them to form communities of hospitality, in which Christians offered hospitality to each other as a context for hospitality to others.

That’s the understanding of chaplaincy I aim to live out today.

St Martin, pray for us whose ministry takes your life as a template for unconditional love of others. Amen

Adapted from various sources, particularly The Legend of St Martin of Tours, 316 – 397 CE, Patron Saint of France by Geoff Boyce.

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