This veteran’s day we venerate and celebrate the service rendered to our country by many through their duty for military service. That is a noble and honourable veneration given the level of sacrifice involved. Today is also “Martinmas” or Saint Martin’s day in which we venerate another type of soldier.
Saint Martin was born is what is now Szombathely, Hungary, and grew up in Pavia, Italy. He lived most of his adult life in France.
His father was a senior officer (tribune) in the Imperial Horse Guard, a unit of the Roman army, later stationed at Ticinum (now Pavia), in northern Italy, where Martin grew up. The date of his birth is a matter of controversy, with both 316 and 336 having rationales.
Conscripted as a soldier into the Roman army, he found the duty incompatible with the Christian faith he had adopted and became an early conscientious objector.
At the age of ten he attended the Christian church against the wishes of his parents, and became a catechumen. Christianity had been made a legal religion (in 313) in the Roman Empire. It had many more adherents in the Eastern Empire, whence it had sprung, and was concentrated in cities, brought along the trade routes by converted Jews and Greeks (the term ‘pagan’ literally means ‘country-dweller’). Christianity was far from accepted amongst the higher echelons of society; among members of the army the worship of Mithras would have been stronger. Although the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the subsequent programme of church-building gave a greater impetus to the spread of the religion, it was still a minority faith.
While Martin was a soldier in the Roman army and stationed in Gaul (modern-day France), he experienced a vision, which became the most-repeated story about his life. One day as he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, he met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” (Sulpicius, ch 2). In another version, when Martin woke, he found his cloak restored to wholeness. The dream confirmed Martin in his piety, and he was baptised at the age of 18.
Sulpicius Severus, his biographer, reports that just before a battle in the Gallic provinces at Borbetomagus (now Worms, Germany), Martin determined that his faith prohibited him from fighting, saying, “I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.” He was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response to the charge, he volunteered to go unarmed to the front of the troops. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was released from military service.
Martin declared his vocation, and made his way to the city of Caesarodunum (now Tours), where he became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers, a chief proponent of Trinitarian Christianity. He opposed the Arianism of the Imperial Court. When Hilary was forced into exile from Pictavium (now Poitiers), Martin returned to Italy. According to Sulpicius Severus, he converted an Alpine brigand on the way, and confronted the Devil himself. Having heard in a dream a summons to revisit his home, Martin crossed the Alps, and from Milan went over to Pannonia. There he converted his mother and some other persons; his father he could not win. While in Illyricum he took sides against the Arians with so much zeal that he was publicly scourged and forced to leave. Returning from Illyria, he was confronted by the Arian archbishop of Milan Auxentius, who expelled him from the city. According to the early sources, Martin decided to seek shelter on the island then called Gallinaria, now Isola d’Albenga, in the Ligurian Sea, where he lived the solitary life of a hermit.
Saint Martin presents a different kind of “Veteran” to us. He presents a very Christian side of service. Not one of service to a political cause or chief but rather to the service of Our Lord Jesus. His service was to the poor, the oppressed and those who society has “cast out”. Even though the battle of Borbetomagus was never fought consider: Was the offer of Martin to meet the enemy with nothing more than the sign of the cross a decisive act in bringing about peace, and what would have happened had he not been courageous enough to make that offer? Do we have opportunities to present to our enemies Christ’s love rather than the violence and hatred of a material world?
I offer here a prayer for venerating St. Martin:
This the Confessor of the Lord, whose triumph Now all the faithful celebrate, with gladness Erst on this feat-day merited to enter Into his glory.
Saintly and prudent, modest in behavior, Peaceful and sober, chaste was he, and lowly, While that life’s vigor, coursing through his members, Quickened his being.
Sick ones of old time, to his tomb resorting, Sorely by ailments manifold afflicted, Oft-times have welcomed health and strength returning, At his petition.
Whence we in chorus gladly do him honor, Chanting his praises with devout affection, That in his merits we may have a portion, Now and forever.
Glory and virtue, honour and salvation, Be unto him that, sitting in the highest, Governeth all things, Lord and God Almighty, Trinity blessed.