This is the final post of my #10saints10days series, counting down from the Feast of All Saints to Veterans Day. I hope that the lives profiled here will inspire you to continue to ask better, deeper questions about faith and service. Share them with me in the comments!
Martin of Tours – Soldier, Bishop, Saint
In times of war, like the last decade or more, debates about peace, politics, and statecraft can get bitter and protracted; lines get drawn, sides get selected, and champions get chosen. Rational argumentation sometimes gets marginalized in favor of who has the more noteworthy and therefor credible spokesperson or representative. Names get dropped instead of reasonable claims being made; the older and wiser the better. But some very old, and very wise people do not take sides. Some saints refuse to be put in a box to fit our expectations about Christian faith and military service. Martin of Tours is one of these people.
Martin was born to a proud veteran who named his son after Mars, the Roman god of war. As a military brat, Martin was required to enlist as well, and was so dashing in appearance and prowess that he was assigned to the unit protecting the life of Caesar himself. From a young age, he was interested in Christianity but never took the plunge of baptism. He was attracted to the life of humble piety he saw in Christians he encountered, which, when he imitated on duty, fielded odd looks and mumbled questions from his comrades; “Why does Martin wash his servant’s feet, speak to beggars, and refuse to go to the baths with us?” Many Christians of his day, including Martin’s own biographer, would have been just as confused and embarrassed as were his compatriots, for the military was definitely not the place to practice, much less find, the one holy, universal, and unbroken faith of the Church.
Martin defied the stereotypes of his day and the assumption by Christians that the military was (or is) inherently no good. Though some think his episode in Amiens, where he famously split his cloak and offered it to a freezing beggar, marked his speedy departure from the military, in fact Martin remained in the security service another two decades. It was at the battle of Worms in 356, after a full 25 year term in the Roman military as a bodyguard, that Martin finally refused to fight as an infantryman, for he was a soldier of Christ. He guarded the emperor’s life gladly, for even the king’s life bore the image of God. But the battlefield is different than his duties as a bodyguard, and he would not take part. We know he was dishonorably discharged because he went to live in a cave after Julian had him expelled from the military, and Roman veterans were given a sum of money and a plot of land; the colony at Philippi was a popular place for retired soldiers.
To Martin, military service was neither morally compelling nor inherently evil. He helps us see that there is little to no use in thinking in terms of supporting “the troops” as though it were one homogenous blob. There is no community without individuals; there is no “church” without Christ and the members of his Body, and there is no military without GIs Joe and Jane. Strictly speaking, Martin was neither an absolute pacifist nor an apologist for war. He was a conscientious participant who held in tension the dual loyalties to God and to country for twenty five years. Although he became a Christian shortly after his military service began, his ministry took off only after he had been stripped of his martial reputation, becoming at first a simple exorcist (he refused to be a priest because, like David, his hands were not clean), and eventually a charismatic healer and mendicant. On July 4th, 370 AD, loyal followers asked him to the center of the city of Tours under the auspices of ministering to a sick person. When he arrived, they instead cried out that he be made their bishop. He served that city, and the church universal, for another 27 years before his body expired on this day over 1,600 years ago.
November 11th is the feast of Saint Martin, the champion of chaplains, soldiers, and all other weary souls waiting for that day when all hostilities cease and every tear is wiped away, when the world no longer trains for war.
God, grant us the courage to follow the example of Martin, who refused to carry both the sword and the cross at once, who knew he was protected by the sign of the cross, not by helmet and shield. Your will be done. Though we have fought the good fight long enough, give us the strength, if you bid us continue in your service, to never beg to be excused for failing strength. While you alone command, we will serve beneath your banner, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Follow me on Twitter to keep the conversation going, or work backward by reading the series intro. Learn about Martin and more than 45 other #SoldierSaints in my book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. Prayer reprinted by permission.
Are you or do you know a #ChristianSoldier wrestling through faith and service? Get in touch through my contact page!