A couple years ago I was reading through a book of Christian history, and I came across a story explaining the origin of chapels. The legend begins with St. Martin, a roman soldier from the mid-300s who was traveling through, what is now, France. He had been from a Pagan family, focused mostly on his military career. He was approaching the city gates of Amiens after a long conquest. As he entered the city, he spotted a homeless man shivering in the cold and rain. Martin was overcome with emotion. He approached the man and slowly removed his long red cape which was part of the Roman uniform. He removed his sword and split the cape in two, giving one half to the beggar in hopes of keeping him warm.
That night, as the story has been told through history, Martin had a vision in his sleep. In his dream the man who he had covered with his torn robe revealed himself as Christ. Christ then said to him, “Martin [who did not know me] clothed me with his robe.” Martin was so moved by this encounter, he immediately left to find a Christian church to be baptized, pledging to become a member of the clergy.
What does this have to do with refuge and what does this have to do with chapels? As far as the word chapel- the old language word for cape was “Cappellanu”. Christian buildings, supposedly containing pieces of that original cape were constructed and called, “Capellas”. Over time that word would morph into the word “Chapel”. The word chaplain would also descend from “Cappellanu”.
How this ties into refuge is more theological. Chapels that dotted the countryside were smaller than churches, they tended to be open twenty-four hours a day. They also usually had a caretaker present to help those who came unannounced. Chapels became the symbolic representation of that torn cape that clothed the homeless shivering man. That cape provided refuge in a cold world. A random act of kindness from a stranger. Chapels served as places for people to come in out of the cold, people might have even found food there. Chapels were there to serve the stranger- just as Christ had done so long ago.
We are in a world where many still need refuge. Refuge from what is left to be defined by the person needing it. In reflecting on the actions of St. Martin we see a clear moral point to be made. When we help the stranger we will encounter Christ, so much so that we will be reminded that Christ was present with those in need, long before we ever gave a moment’s thought towards it. But digging a little deeper another question begins to arise- are we behaving as churches or are we behaving as chapels?
One of the ironies of chapels is that as they were first beginning to spread, they were thought of as less important than established churches. However people began to seek out chapels more than churches. People knew they could find nourishment from a chapel, where they might find everything else from a big church. They needed refuge and a chapel provide that, no questions asked. They were a literal refuge, a torn cape for a needing soul.
As we begin to move into a hectic time of the year, I find myself needing refuge from the constant. Perhaps you can relate. There is certainly a rush in the air, an urgency to do—anything, or something anyways. Meetings, gatherings, events, cleaning, shopping, planning, the list goes on. I find myself asking, am I feeling nourished or am I in need of refuge from the hectic? As we saw with St. Martin and the man in need, we encounter Christ in the refuge. It is difficult to find a nourishing, spiritual, relationship with God when we are focused on just getting through the next week. It is in refuge where we actually hear the answers to our prayers, or find discernment in what we are to do.
From time to time most Christians will find themselves in a period of discussing the topic of “refuge”. Perhaps we say this to describe the relation we have with Christ- we find refuge in him. It may be a word heard on the news in discussion of Ukrainians seeking refuge from war, or immigrants at our Southern boarder receiving refugee status. Just as common, you might be finding yourself in a state where you are needing refuge. It is my hope for all of us, that we find ways to be still during the holiday season. In what areas are we needing a piece of a torn cape? Better yet, where are areas in our life that we can cut off and share with a stranger- Just as St. Martin did so long ago?
Pastor Paul Freeman