St. Martin of Tours: A Saint for Garment Justice

St. Martin of Tours, whose feast is November 11, was born in Pannonia around the year 316. He was baptized as an adult after forsaking military life, founded a monastery in France under the direction of St. Hilary, and was later chosen bishop of Tours. He was known during his lifetime as an exemplary pastor who educated the clergy, founded monasteries, and preached the gospel to the poor. He died in 397 AD.

The iconic depiction of Saint Martin is as a soldier mounted on a horse sharing his cloak with a poor man. His father, also a soldier, enlisted Martin in the army at the age of fifteen. Young Martin was stationed at Amiens, in Gaul, when the incident occurred which tradition and art have rendered so famous. As he rode towards the town one winter day, he noticed near the gates a poor man, thinly clad, shivering with cold, and begging alms. Martin saw that none who passed stopped to help the miserable fellow, an ancient version of “globalized indifference,” to use Pope Francis’ term. Martin had nothing with him but the clothes he wore. Drawing his sword from its scabbard, he cut his great woolen cloak in two pieces, gave one half to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other. The following night, Martin in his sleep saw Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels, and dressed in the half of the cloak he had given away. A voice bade him look at it well and say whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say to the angels, “Martin, as yet only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.” Sulpicius Severus, the saint’s friend and biographer, says that as a consequence of this vision Martin “flew to be baptized.”

At the end of his next military campaign, Martin found the duty incompatible with the Christian faith he had adopted. He asked to be released from the army, saying: “Hitherto I have faithfully served Caesar. Let me now serve Christ.” Accused of cowardice, he offered to stand unarmed between the contending armies. He was imprisoned, but released when peace was signed. He then went to Poitiers, where the renowned Hilary had been bishop for many years. Hilary gladly received this early “conscientious objector” and ordained him deacon.

Much could be said of his life as monk and, later, bishop, but let’s focus on his moment of conversion in “clothing the naked.” Where others were indifferent to this man at the gates of Amiens, as the poor are so often invisible, St. Martin saw him and his need and acted. He not only clothed the man in wool, but he clothed him in dignity. The iconic moment of St. Martin’s life reiterates the reality that Jesus is present when we serve those who are most poor and vulnerable. As the Gospel tells us, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are reminded of our permanent call to live the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Recently, Pope Francis, in a Wednesday audience at the Vatican, reflected on this corporal work of mercy:

And the other thing is to clothe the naked: what does it mean if not to restore dignity to one who has lost it? Certainly giving clothing to one who has none; but let us also think about the women victims of trafficking, cast onto the streets, or of other many ways of using the human body as a commodity, even that of minors. Likewise, not having a job, a house, a fair wage are forms of nakedness; being discriminated against on account of race, of faith, are all forms of “nakedness”, to which as Christians we are called to be attentive, vigilant and ready to act. [Full text is here.]

Pope Francis invites us to see anew the relationship with this corporal work of mercy, clothing the naked. It is not only about providing a layer of cotton or polyester protection for those poorly clad; this corporal work of mercy calls us to clothe all people in a genuine human dignity.  For us, it is joyful news that Pope Francis directs our gaze to those other forms of nakedness as our concern here at The Human Thread for the garment industry finds concrete expression in seeking the dignity of a living wage for those who make our clothes and the freedom of so many people who are trafficked in the clothing supply chain.

St. Martin of Tours, cutting his cloak, gives us an iconic expression of how we need to change our relationship with our clothes to live in solidarity with those most poor and vulnerable.

St. Martin of Tours, pray for us.