Soldier Saints: Martin of Tours
Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.
Martin lived during the fourth century in and around Rome, a centurion named in honor of Mars, the Roman god of war. His own father was from modern-day Hungary and became a prestigious military officer who intended to groom his young son to become a great soldier himself (an enforceable practice in the Roman Empire). Sometimes, however, it can be a good thing when we don’t meet our parents’ expectations.
Martin had been religiously inclined since his childhood, indicating at an early age his interest in being baptized. This obviously conflicted with his eventual military occupational specialty, which was to be a part of the Praetorian Guard, the personal security detachment for Caesar Julian. Members of this elite unit were all bestowed with an elegant white lambskin cape, which signified their assignment to guard the emperor.
One of the best-known tales about Martin concerns his splitting in half the cloak in order to clothe a freezing beggar. He is often depicted upon a great steed, another symbol of his special placement, bending down to hand half his cape to a half-naked beggar.
According to Martins friend and biographer, Sulpitius Severus, the event took place just a few years into his service. That night he had a dream of Jesus, who said to the heavens, “Here is Martin, not even baptized, who has clothed me.” Needless to say, Martin was baptized the very next morning.
Many soldier converts, upon their baptism, renounced their service and were subsequently tried and often executed. (1) Some have assumed that this was the case with Martin as well, but it is not so.
Preparing for battle against the Franks nearly twenty years after Martin’s baptism, Julian lined his men up to distribute generous gifts intended to secure their loyalty in combat. Martin knew he could not accept combat pay, given his Christian convictions. As Julian approached him, he said, “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 a soldier of Christ; I am not allowed to fight.”
Julian flew into a rage, accusing the young soldier of cowardice. He had Martin locked up while he considered what to do with the seditious centurion. From his cell, Martin offered to be put on the front lines, without his weapons or armor. The emperor jumped at the chance to send the offending centurion to a certain death, and preparations were made.
Miraculously, the Franks petitioned for peace and the battle was averted. What was the emperor to do? Martin was discharged the next day and immediately devoted himself to the religious life, becoming a monk for a time before he sought instruction from a wise theologian in Poitiers (in what is now France). He acquired the title “of Tours” when the people of that town dragged him into the city center and appointed him bishop by acclamation. (2)
In spite of all the expectations people held, his parents, the beggar, and his commander, Martin proved his duty was first to God. When he lay down his sword before God by being baptized, he knew he could not again pick it up for Caesar. He served his governing authority to the extent that his conscience allowed and volunteered his to be used by God.
After his death, the cape he split in half became a cherished relic in France, and the monks responsible for guarding it became the earliest “chaplains.”
God, grant us the courage to follow the example of Martin, who refused to carry both the sword and 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 from failing strength. While you alone command, we will serve beneath your banner, through Christ our Lord. Amen. (3)
1. Nearly every soldier convert prior to Martin was martyred (Pachomius is a notable but rare exception), but in Martin’s time it could go either way; the open persecution ended in 312 CE with Constantine I, but sporadic incidents continued to occur as Romans adjusted to the newly legalized religion. For example, Saints Juventinus and Maximinus served under Julian in the Praetorian Guard with Martin, but suffered martyrdom after being exposed as Christians as late as 363 CE. Victricius, on the other hand, fifteen years Martin’s junior, was beaten severely but spared execution. In fact, Victricius went on to become Bishop of Rouen and involved himself with many of the same theological disputes in which Martin engaged.
2. Ironically, the patron saint of soldiers, a conscientious objector, was acclaimed bishop on July 4, 370 CE-1,400 years before the birth of the United States of America as a nation. For men who felt that a standing army was “the bane of freedom,” this anecdote might have made them chuckle in approval. The best biography of Martin was written by the French historian Regine Pernoud, which you can ,find in English as Martin of Tours: Soldier, Bishop, Saint (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006), based on the fourth-century document by Martin’s close friend Sulpitius Severus, titled simply The Life of Saint Martin, which can be found online at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3501.htm.
3. Adapted from ‘’Letters of Sulpitius Severus (Undoubted),” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume XI, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, Ml: Eerdmans, 1997), 22-23. I shared this prayer at the commissioning of an icon of Martin that our student group commissioned Father Bill McNichols to create for the After the Yellow Ribbon conference, held November 11-12, 2011. You can download most of the seminars from the conference at http://www.sites.duke.edu/aftertheyellowribbon/schedule. You can view the prayer card produced for the icon online at http://loganmehllaituri.com/2012/02/08/martin-soldier-of-christ-icon-commentary.