November - Marcian, Martin and Cecilia
In an age of conformity is not easy to be different, to be the odd one out. This seemed to have been no problem to Marcian, a fourth century hermit who, in spite of being a genuine oddball, had much fame and many followers. Apparently he was given to living always in the same place, a cell so small that he could neither stand up nor lie down. His diet was similarly unadventurous, being mainly bread. From him we may come to appreciate that it is OK to be different, provided we are true to who we are meant to be. Even if we do not stand out as different, as Marcian did, we are all unique and need the courage to be the unique individual we were created to become.
Martin, born in Pannonia (present day Poland), was a man whose faith and practical compassion always seemed to land him in trouble. At the age of 10 he became a catechumen, with the aim of becoming baptised a Christian. This was not sympathetically received by his pagan parents and, as soon as Martin was old enough, he was dispatched to 25 years service in the Roman army by his father who was a military tribune. Martin was 18, in military service and not yet baptised, when the event for which he is most famous took place.
During the more than usually severe winter of 334 AD Martin was dressed in a simple uniform and approaching the gate of the city of Amiens. There he met a poor man with nothing but a few rags to keep out the cold. After vainly entreating many passers-by to have compassion on the fellow, Martin cut his cloak in half and shared it with the destitute man, going home very cold himself, since he had already given away much. In a dream that night he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to a multitude of angels and saying "Martin who is still but a catechumen clothed me with this robe."
In 356, when Martin was 40, he left the army and was at last baptised and studied under St Hilary. After years of wandering he began to establish hermitages, including one at Ligugé where he is credited with at least two resurrection miracles (typically as the champion of the underdog, a catechumen and a hanged slave) and eventually the first monastery in Gaul.
In 371, responding to a deputation from the city, he was elected Bishop of Tours but decided to live in a wooden hut outside the walls rather than the Bishops palace. He also sat on a three-legged stool instead of a throne when performing episcopal duties. Never a good preacher, Martin was better with the poor and sick, for whom he always seemed to have time.
This concern for the unfortunate nearly cost him his life. A bishop called Ithacius was busy putting heretics to death while Martin felt that excommunication was quite enough. When Martin asked the emperor Julian to spare the life of a heretic, he faced accusations of the same heresy from Ithacius, but fortunately the latter could not make his charges stick.
When we do acts of kindness it is very human to hope for our actions to be favourably received. Martins story is a salutary one that good works can have bad consequences for ourselves. Virtue is often not only unrewarded but can even be condemned. We can think of Martin as the patron saint of underdogs, but also as patron of advocates of unpopular causes. There may be times when we have shared this sort of experience with him, but probably there have been many more when we dared not.
It may seem odd to celebrate a saint about whom one knows next to nothing, but Cecilia is one we do celebrate mainly with music. The reason why is lost in antiquity, but possibly because she listened to the voices of angels, she was aware of the way poetry and music can give glory to God. She has long been the patron saint of music, musicians and poetry. This is illustrated very beautifully in the Hymn to St Cecilia, composed in 1942 by Benjamin Britten who was born on St Cecilias Day. In this work, a setting of a WH Auden poem, the singers hint at the sound of instruments and almost imitate them.
Nothing but legend is known about Cecilia which mystery makes her interesting, since she has long been revered as a martyr. She is said to have allowed the Church to meet at her house in Rome, at considerable risk to her own safety. A church dedicated to her was later built on the site.
There are some charming, but wholly unreliable stories told about her. Among them is of the occasion when she was promised in marriage to a non-Christian called Valerian. She told him that she was protected by an angel who would appear to him if he were to be baptised. Apparently he was baptised and the angel duly appeared, after which Valerian became as enthusiastic in his faith as his new wife.
Cecilia can encourage us to be enthusiastic about whatever we do, and about our faith. We can also come to feel that when we engage with music or poetry we are dealing in the language of angels, a language whose only purpose is to glorify God.