Saint Martin of Tours

Day 28 of Walking Out of the World. Some reflections on the charity of Saint Martin of Tours. Gospel charity is unwittingly exercised through the pilgrim, as the Good News that “prisoners shall go free” comes to pass outside Tours central police station. The guardian angel finds the only whisky bar in Tours and the pilgrim meets other pilgrims on foot and in a cart.

(Previous post: Day 27 Château-Renault to Tours.)

Saint Martin of Tours (photo courtesy of our reader Dr Simon Cotton.)

I went straight from waking up in the Benedictine pilgrim accommodation of the Basilica of Saint Martin of Tours (24 euros a night without sheets) through the internal doors, down to the very relics of the Saint in the crypt. Our reader and pilgrim, Simon kindly provides good quality photographs. There I spent a good while on my knees before this holy man of great charity, whether he provided sheets or not in those days, and I said the Jesus prayer in the sincere hope that the Saint’s help might provide foundations for a good day’s pilgrimming on my first day on the Via Turonensis continuing south.

Basilique Saint-Martin
(Dr Simon Cotton)

I received a certain spiritual nourishment at this shrine and felt emboldened to turn to God in a fairly direct manner, as I could not help wondering… “Lord, shouldn’t pilgrims have some choice in their angelic guide, rather than have a green-uniformed Guardia Ángel thrust upon them without an opportunity to select from, let’s say for example, three candidates?”

I continued this prayer once in the basilica itself, to attend the sisters’ morning prayer. It is impossible to join in the singing of the psalms – even with the breviary opened at the pages indicated by a helpful sister – when they pitch the tone so high! So I further developed my silent petition. “I’m not suggesting, Lord, that I would be more welcoming of a pre-Raphaelite angel, if one of those was on offer; or even a wise-looking actor in an threadbare overcoat and protruding feathers, as in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, who quotes random bits of Old Testament prophecy. I think it would just be good to have some choice in the matter.”

The reading at morning prayer followed, read by a sister at a very slow pace, with * a * slight * pause * between * each * word.

I don’t know if this Benedictine sister deliberately borrowed the method, but it was exactly the Carthusian pause. In the Charterhouse church where hermit-monks gather for prayer, the reader at the central lectern placed between two facing rows of brothers in choir stalls will read deliberately slowly in this way, tasting each word. It is not an affectation, it is learnt and has been passed on for eight hundred years, or maybe before that from the desert tradition of Syria or Egypt. It leads to a very different experience of the Bible word. You might try it as you read the passage, with a slight pause between each word. It is not easy and takes practice but try it and get a sense of it. This passage in particular, when read in this way, will stop you in your tracks.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Saint Paul: his first letter to the people at Corinth, chapter thirteen.

I imagined for a moment that I was now hearing these words in the first church of Tours when it was founded in the middle of the third century. That would have been on the opposite river bank from here, in the grottos that would have been in the hillside above the riverbank where the pilgrim route of the Via Turonensis from Paris now passes, and from where I came in the previous day. There were two grottos cut in the hill above the Loire, opposite Tours, and held to have been the first sanctuaries where Saint Gatianus – missionary apostle sent from Rome – celebrated the Liturgy.

The gothic cathedral of Tours – pictured on arrival in yesterday’s blog – is dedicated to Gatianus, the first bishop of Tours, whose episcopate lasted fifty years. I first found myself thinking of him more than the Saint for which Tours is better known, Saint Martin, whose tomb and relics I had started the day kneeling before and who came a century later. But Saint Martin needed my attention too, as a pilgrim in Tours, and he is patron of the poor, soldiers, conscientious objectors, tailors, and winemakers. He was a Roman soldier – so those of us who have served in the military find him a fellow soul – but became the first recognized conscientious objector, because of his new found Christian faith, refusing to fight in battle. The account of his life shows him to have been a monk and hermit, a missioner and fighter against early church heresy, and a reluctant bishop of Tours – for the people had to drag him to his ordination! – but above all one who stood up for the poor, the conscientious objector and the wrongly accused.

On leaving the basilica much later than the early start I planned, I was instrumental in the Gospel call to “set the prisoners free”! I do not know what part Saint Martin had in this, but my guardia ángel’s part in it was clear: he was asleep on the job. Outside the Sange Verte – some kind of shrine to whisky in Tours – there was a statue of Saint-Johnny-le-Walker and my Guardia Ángel Coronel Pablo Pedalo emerged with glass in hand and said, “I catching up with you later, señor peregrino.” I said I needed his guardian angel help in finding the map shop, for it was here I needed to buy a guide to the GR655. I had been told there was a specialist map shop. “I know nothing,” said Pedalo. “Ask a policeman.” And he went back in the Sange Verte from whence came sounds of wild laughter. I glimpsed a woman in a leather motocycle jacket wearing Pablo Pedalo’s Guardia Civil tricorn hat at a jaunty angle.

“Lord, even one of those rather miserable surrealist angels in Cecil Collins’ paintings,” I said, as I walked along a wide road past the central Tours police station, a rather imposing modern building only a few blocks away from the basilica. Luckily, there were two young police officers just outside the police station and facing away from it. They appeared to be the officers on guard. It was the main Hôtel de Police for the city. I explained about the map shop I had been told was nearby and I showed them my little tourist street-plan of the city.

You will find that wherever there are two Frenchmen and one geographical question, they soon became involved in a heated argument about the matter and develop two opposing geographical theories within a minute. The shop was not far away but they could not agree exactly which street it was in and they were both competing to hold the little leaflet with the streetplan, until I feared it would be torn in two.

At that moment, looking over the policemen’s shoulders, who had their backs to the police station over which they stood guard, I watched in amazement as a man in handcuffs came fleeing out of the front door and ran off at great speed, running in a curious manner, as a running man in handcuffs – without the balance from freed arms – looks curiously wonky in his flight. Seconds later two policemen in shirtsleeves, then two more, came bounding out and running after the escaped prisoner.

The two gendarmes with their backs to all this, arguing about my map shop, could have rugby-tackled the fugitive with ease, had they not been deeply engrossed in the argument about the map shop. They could have stopped the man immediately. A moustachioed detective officer – looking a little like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau – came bounding out of the Hôtel de Police revolving door and angrily shouted abuse at the two astonished gendarmes telling them what they had just missed.

They looked very glum and red faced, and they also had to admit they had no idea where the map shop was either. “Je suis désolé, monsieur,” said one of them, a phrase which I think translates as ‘sorry’, but I’ll manage without French corrections just now, thanks.

I explained that I too was sorry for distracting them: the careers of these officers might now not progress beyond foot patrol in the shopping quarter of Tours.

Vous n’dérangez pas, monsieur,” said the other, a phrase which translates as “Don’t be deranged, sir.”

Meanwhile, a troupe of perspiring gendarmes returned red-faced to the police station without the prisoner, who had disappeared. Luckily, one of these officers knew where the map shop could be found. It was a hundred metres away in the next street, he said, with a scathing look at the two rookies who knew nothing about map shops or stopping criminals. But on the bright side – thanks to a holy pilgrim looking for a map shop – Saint Martin of Tours had once again exercised his famed charitable mission, proclaiming the Good News “and setting the captives free.”

The map shop had a copy of Sentiers Vers Saint Jacques de Compostelle (see picture below of guide and matching balisage on the outskirts of Tours. A more up-to-date copy can be found here and I believe there is a downloadable version now, so you can simply print off the maps and instructions you need, and not carry the whole volume with you. I will occasionaly mention points of interest concerning the map, but from now on – since this very comprehensive guide is referenced – I will not comment too much on route directions, as the guide gives it all clearly.

Sample page from the GR655 guide referenced above

Walking out of Tours involves a long section of suburbs and some parkland when crossing the river and islands, see just above (2) on the GR655 guide above, where I met my first fellow pilgrims on the Via Turonensis. This was quite an exciting moment. Sometimes you walk for days before seeing any sign of other pilgrims to Compostela, then two come along at once!

Martin Breukers is pictured here with his lovely little pony and cart that he has driven from Holland. He expects to arrive in Santiago de Compostela in two months and then he will give the pony and cart to a children’s charity in Spain. We discussed charities and I shared with him my Whizz-Kidz charity (donate now, folks: I forgot to mention them for a while!) We will see Martin again and his story will be another strand in our story on this pilgrimage, as will the equine theme which soon begins to emerge more personally. I had no experience of horses, ponies, mules, whatever! In a few days time all that would change.

Martin said, “A pony requires a lot of daily attention and it will need to be re-shod before reaching Spain.”

“Bon chemin!” I said, as he signalled the pony forward. “You’re the first pilgrim I’ve seen on the Turonensis!”

He shouted back: “There’s another one behind you, coming up fast! Belgian!”

I watched the back of Martin, a big man in a miniature cart pulled by a small creature aspiring to be a horse. Not like Saint Martin, pictured as a small figure in a flowing cloak on a great big Roman military horse. Maybe this was the saint saying hello to me, via another Martin? “Well done, pilgrim: you set the captives free!”

But no, I’m not given saints. I just get a wonky guardia ángel called Colonel Pedalo, or is the green-uniformed Pablo still in the Green Monkey whisky bar? I decided it was time for a short snack stop, and sat down in the park. I took out a pre-packed sandwich bought from an epicerie in Tours, and a can of Coke. The sound of metallic clicking drew near and I looked up. It must be the Belgian pilgrim that Martin had mentioned. He was wearing khaki military shorts, double pocketed military shirt, compass dangling from his belt and a tropical-style khaki broad-brimmed soft hat, with chin-strap. He held a pair of Norwegian telescopic walking poles, sprung to reduce impact, and they clicked the ground as he approached and the springs squeaked. Just imagine two thousand kilometres of that racket! Yuk!

“How much does that weigh?” he asked, stopping and pointing at the bourdon. The paused walking poles were now resting at an angle, tied to his wrists with thin webbing loops. The metal poles glinted in the sunlight, like H.G.Wells’ menacing tripod machines from the first Martian attack in War of the Worlds, but now resting in a suburban park after a hard morning’s exterminations and a sighteeing visit to the cathedral in Tours.

“One kilo and about 900 grammes: call it two kilos when sopping wet,” I replied.

“Two hundred grammes!” He proclaimed, triumphantly holding up his pair of lightweight metal Norwegian-style walking sticks. “How far do you walk each day?”

“Thirty five kilometres,” I replied. “Forty some days up in Normandy and the Eure valley.”

“It is too much,” he scowled disapprovingly. “You will not survive.”

“I feel fine,” I said. “I’m in my fourth week… all the way from Worcester!”

“How many kilos do you carry?”he asked.

“Twelve, including the tent.”

“It is too much,” said the gloomy Belgian. “You won’t get there.”

“I have a good guardian angel,” I said, trying to invoke all I had left against this litany of despair. “I see you have no gourd?”

“What is gourd?” he began to look slightly alarmed that he did not have all the necessary kit. This was the end of my eagerness to meet another pilgrim on the road. The long lonely days on the Chemin des Anglais now seemed entirely bearable. I pointed to his metal walking sticks. “Do you know, last year a pilgrim was walking in this region with sticks like those, and he was struck by lightning!”


I didn’t know the Belgian’s name, but he strode ahead and it would be days before I saw him again. At the campsite by the river Indre, just before Veigne, there was a tent next to mine and closed up for the night, with a pony eating straw, a blue cart carelessly parked near the riverbank, and the sound of laughter from a bar by the river bridge. Was Pedalo in there now?


3 thoughts on “Saint Martin of Tours

  1. Thanks again for the photographs, Simon. When I saw the inside of the basilica, it jogged my memory of the Benedictine sister reading the lesson with the Carthusian pause. Funny how the memory works with visual images. Synaesthesia.

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