St. Martin – A Model Veteran

Statue of St. Martin

Statue of Martin, Bishop of Tours, in Odolanow, by Jerzy Sobocinski. He is known to have insisted “I am a soldier of Christ, it is not permissible for me to fight.” He was accused of cowardice despite offering to be sent to the front lines at Worms in 336 CE.

November 11th is Veterans Day in the United States. In many countries this day is still celebrated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. Prior to the slaughter and the destruction of Western Europe known as World War I (and before France existed as a nation), November 11th was celebrated
throughout modern France, and much of Europe, as the day St. Martin was buried at the city of Tours.

Named after Mars, the god of war, young Martin was forced to enlist in the Roman army at the age of fifteen, an obligation he inherited through his father’s vocation. Military service was not particularly desirable for the boy, as he had grown very fond of the Church by age ten, when he became a catechumen, over the protests of his parents.

To his favor he was placed in a cavalry unit that served as the personal body guard of Caesar. The scholae imperatoris, imperial guard, was a position of honor and distinction. He would ride a powerful war horse and wear the recognizable white chalmys or cape lined with lambskin as the uniform of the elite guard. He and his comrades would be known as the “men clothed in white.” It was this cape that distinguished him as a body guard of Caesar himself.

On a cold night during a harsh winter, riding through the town of Amiens, in modern day France, Martin happened upon a homeless man shivering in the cold. The elite guard had sympathy for this poor man, but what was he to do? He had nothing but his splendid uniform. He decided to draw his sword and cut his magnificent chalmys in half and give a portion to the shivering man.

This was not an easy decision for Martin. He had naught to pass the poor helpless man, for doing so was to disobey Christ, nor destroy his imperial cape, which would surely incense his Roman comrades. It was at this point that he realized that at times his allegiance to Christ trumped that of his unit, Caesar, and the whole of the Roman Empire. Shortly thereafter, he was baptized into the Church.

It wasn’t long after this event that Martin’s imperial cavalry unit was called up to fight the Gauls in the city of Worms, against tribes that had invaded the Empire. It was custom that the night before a battle, Roman soldiers would report one by one to their commander (Caesar Julian, in Martin’s case) to receive a monetary gift to inspire their dedication and loyalty to the Empire. Martin believed it to be dishonest to accept the gift, since as a Christian, he could not draw blood on the battlefield.

According to Sulpicius Severus, Martin’s biographer, he said to Caesar: “I have been your soldier up to now. Let me now be God’s. Let someone who is going to fight have your bonus. I am Christ’s soldier; I am not allowed to fight.” The Emperor did not take kindly to this request, and Martin was promptly imprisoned for cowardice. Behind bars, in response to the charge, Martin offered to be sent to the front lines. His jailers leapt at the opportunity, thinking it a fitting consequence for this seditious young centurion.

Overnight, the Gauls would successfully negotiate a treaty, and no fighting would take place. Dejected, his former comrades discharged him from military service. Shortly thereafter the life of Saint Martin the hermit, monk, priest, and bishop began. He would trade in his patriotism for piety.

As Americans we somberly remember the millions of our countrymen and women who have died in our country’s wars. As people of the Christian faith we can remember St. Martin, who saw the shedding of blood and serving Christ as contrary to one another. He chose courageously to lay down his sword and take up his cross, even in the face of certain death.

- Commentary by Zach Cornelius