St. Martin the Veteran

Today is Veterans’ Day, instituted first as Armistice Day after WWI, then Veterans’ Day after WWII (although my mother occasionally still called it Armistice Day) as a tribute to veterans of both world wars. It’s also the Feast of Martinmas, which is less well known in this country, although having been raised Catholic I grew up familar with the story of Saint Martin of Tours. It seems somehow fitting that Veterans Day is celebrated on the festival of a former Roman soldier.

Martin was born in the 4th century in what later became Hungary but what was then Pannonia, a province of the Roman Empire. His father, an important officer in the Roman army, naturally expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Martin had been named for Mars, the god of war, presumably to encourage that military spirit. But apparently young Martin was an easy-going, sociable fellow, more curious about strangers, and generous with handouts, than aggressive toward them, so to get him into the army his father arranged for his kidnapping and forcible enlistment by his soldiers, hoping that Martin would grow accustomed to military life through daily exposure. I bet Dad didn’t get many loving letters from the front. Today this method of recruitment is frowned upon.

However, there was Martin, a soldier at last, obliged to serve the Emperor for three years, outfitted with a Roman uniform and a sword. Even in the army, Martin was open-handed, and his military salary usually found its way into the hands of the unfortunate. His unit was sent to Gaul, as part of an ongoing attempt to civilize the native barbarians. Civilization in Gaul was eventually attained at a level far beyond their wildest dreams, but that’s another story.

One winter day, the story goes, Martin arrived at the gates of Amiens, where he encountered a poor ragged beggar shivering by the side of the road. Martin had already given away all his extra clothing, but, taking pity on the beggar, Martin unsheathed his sword and cut his warm woolen (army-issue, uh-oh) cloak in half and wrapped one half around him.

That night, Martin dreamed that Jesus appeared to him wrapped in Martin’s half-cloak saying, “Martin has covered me with this garment.” This made him determined to leave the army permanently, at the end of his term. When he attempted it, however (inconveniently during a barbarian invasion), he was accused of cowardice, in response to which he offered to advance alone against the enemy. Instead he was imprisoned. Eventually he was released at the conclusion of an armistice, and was finally able to pursue his vocation, settling in Gaul, founding an order, living very simply and developing a reputation for feeding the hungry and healing the sick.

Over the years our homeschooling group celebrated Martinmas (sometimes in combination with Diwali, Festival of Light, which can occur at around the same time—this year it falls on the 14th) with storytelling, a night-time walk in the park carrying lanterns and singing songs about light, and afterward gathering to share dessert. Happy Martinmas! Happy Diwali! Happy Veterans Day, everyone!

(A re-post from an earlier year.)

Chocolatrium

How could we resist a visit to the Chocolatrium, where Cluizel manufactures its fabulous and fanciful chocolates? Its small museum offers exhibits on the history and production of chocolate and glimpses of chocolatiers at work; its workshop holds demonstrations and monthly chocolate-based cooking classes (in December the feature was a bûche de Noël); and its shop displays confections as if they were gemstones.

We spent a long time choosing gifts for friends and family, and it wasn’t until after returning home that I discovered Cluizel has a sister Chocolatrium in New Jersey.

Bryant 

Miraculous Abundance

Before traveling to France, I had read about this years-long labor of love by a couple who gave up their careers as international lawyer (hers) and documentary-creating sailor (his) to raise their children in a healthy environment. In 2006 Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer set out to create an organic farm (La ferme biologique du Bec Hellouin) in a small Norman village, knowing zero about farming. At first they floundered (“We made many mistakes”), but doggedly researched and experimented, discovering and embracing permaculture* as their underlying farming philosophy.

Today, from gardens totalling around 1500 square meters, they produce an abundance of vegetables, fruits, and herbs—over 800 varieties—without chemicals or fossil-fuel-powered tools, in an incredibly beautiful 20-hectare (49-acre) jewel of a farm that includes water features and tiny bridges, orchards, a greenhouse, flower-edged footpaths, and free-ranging animals. Their tremendous success has brought a stream of international visitors seeking to follow their model or just inform themselves and maybe buy some peas. This month Jim and I were among them, and my sketches fail to capture the magic of this place. Miraculous Abundance is the title of their book, now available in English.

The admirable larger goal of the Hervé-Gruyers: “To nourish humanity while healing the planet.”

*FYI: Definitions of permaculture, from the practical to the poetic.