St. Martin of Tours, like many of the saints, led a fascinating life. He was allegedly pressured into becoming a bishop, a job he really didn’t want, when a goose started honking as he tried to hide. The goose revealed his hiding place and the jubilant crowd dragged him off to church to ordain him. This is why, in a highly ironic joke, Martin’s official symbol is a goose.
Before that incident, he was a young soldier who famously cut his cloak in half with a sword so he could share it with a beggar. From a warrior, he transformed in his old age into a legendary peacemaker, even allegedly once turning the devil into a donkey. His feast day every year is November 11, the day the combatants of the first World War chose to sign the armistice to end the fighting, which in the United States has also become Veterans Day. Coming as it does at near the end of the harvest, St. Martin’s Day, also called Martinmas, was a day of feasting and enjoying the bounty of the earth before the winter set in. Many medieval Catholics would help Martin get his revenge on geese by enjoying a delicious roast goose on Martinmas.
Today, goose is probably not on your Thanksgiving menu, and for us in the United States the feasting has shifted a few weeks later to Thanksgiving. The goose’s gain is the turkey’s loss, but whatever you’re eating or however you celebrate, the example given to us by the life of St. Martin can change our perspective on celebrating Thanksgiving. Here are three ways his life can inspire us when it comes to being grateful.
First, gratitude is personal.
When I was a young boy, Thanksgiving was mostly important to me because I knew I would be allowed to indulge in several different kinds of pie and my parents wouldn’t be monitoring my sugar intake. Now that I’m older and (slightly) wiser, I don’t actually eat all that much at Thanksgiving because I’m too busy enjoying my family. My celebration has shifted from food to people. Really, aren’t our family and friends what it’s all about? The food is important because there’s something special about sharing a meal together, but as I reminisce about past Thanksgivings I don’t remember the food as much as I remember playing with my cousins, board games with my aunts and uncles, and spending time with my grandparents.
In the famous incident in which he cut his cloak in half, St. Martin implicitly understood that the object itself was far less important than the person. If we are thankful for what we have, that gratitude is best expressed between two people. This might mean that sometimes you are the giver and sometimes you are the recipient. Either way, thanksgiving is personal, an expression of genuine human connection, and it is the basis for building up a community or a family. In other words, the more thankful we are, the more we will appreciate these gatherings of family and friends.
Second, gratitude is a free choice.
Legend has it that Martin was essentially forced to become a bishop by popular demand, but I’m sure that if he had absolutely refused, there was no way he could have been made a bishop against his will. At some point, he made the decision of his own free will to offer the gift of his leadership and spiritual wisdom to the people who needed it.
No one can be forced into enjoying Thanksgiving. No one can be guilted into the holiday spirit. At some point, if we really want to get the most out of the holiday, it’s our choice to make. Sure, your family situation may not be the best and Thanksgiving brings up lots of conflicted emotions. Maybe it’s been a hard year and there’s not a whole lot to be thankful for, but every day, even if we can’t change the events of the past, we have the opportunity to make a choice what kind of life we’re going to lead.
Third, gratitude exists only with respect.
This means that, in order to be truly thankful, we should have a healthy respect for those we’re celebrating with. In the life of St. Martin, we see this clearly in his respect for the beggar he encounters. He sees him as a person worthy of his time, worthy of sharing with. It seems a small thing, but for him to stop, get off his horse, and share with that man was shocking to those who saw it, so much so that we’re still talking about it to this day.
For some of us, the idea of respect at Thanksgiving is easy because we love spending time with our family. For many others, though, families aren’t so simple. They’re damaged by strife and feuds and past hurts, which is why I know more than a few people who stress out around the holidays. They know that spending time with their parents and siblings brings out the worst in them. It seems impossible to figure out how to be grateful for such a situation. What I’ve learned over the years is that I cannot change my family, they are who they are, but I can take a hard look at myself and see how I may be contributing to holiday stress. I can accept my family members for who they are, and allow myself to discover their good points. That respect for them can translate into gratitude for the chance to spend time with them.
To me, St. Martin is the perfect patron saint for Thanksgiving. Not only is his feast day traditionally set aside for actual feasting, but his life was lived with generosity and gratitude. Because of this, he was beloved everywhere he went. He treated everyone like family, and I’m guessing that if he ever had people over to his house for a holiday, they all had an amazing time.
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