Saint Martin of Tours, patron saint of soldiers and conscientious objectors?

Saint Martin of Tours, whose feast day is November 11th (tomorrow) in the West, as well as being something of a big noise in France, is also officially the patron saint of soldiers, but might I reckon  just as well be the patron saint of conscientious objectors.

He was around in the fourth century AD, and was a real European, born in Hungary, growing up in Italy and ending up in France.

Martin, a forced conscript at the age of 15 into the Roman army in which his father had served as an officer, was hardly a model soldier.In fact there was not much that Martin of Tours modelled which had anything to be said for it in worldly terms.

Martin of Tours was a youngster when he decided that against the ways of his family, he wanted to join the Christian church. He secretly became a believer, and when in his mid teens he was conscripted into the legion, he apparently had to be chained up before he would take the oath.

Once taken though, Martin felt he must uphold his oath, and faitfully carried out his mainly ceremonial duties as a soldier, albeit an unconventional one.

One of the most famous stories concerning Martin’s unusual behaviour is from his time as a soldier, it has the young officer riding out on his horse when he saw a beggar half frozen in the street. Instead of ignoring the man and riding on like his fellow officers, Martin jumped down and slashed his own cloak in half, giving one half to the poor man, and keeping the other half for himself. It seems as if this was a turning point for him, he is said to have dreamed that night that he had given the cloak to Jesus, in a stark reminder of the words of Jesus…

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

It was about two years after this time that Martin was finally sent out to war, when nomads invaded and he was called up to fight in the front line. His previous determination to fulfill the oath he had made seemed to have waned and become replaced with a determination to follow Jesus’ ways, and rather than fight he said:

“Put me in the front of the army, without weapons or armor; but I will not draw sword again. I am become the soldier of Christ.”

It was with these words that he became for me, the patron saint of the conscientious objector. Not a coward, not a desertor, just someone who refused to fight.

He went on to become a sack-cloth clad monk, and to live his life in a way that should stand as an example to all of us, eventually being buried in a paupers grave despite his family’s social standing.

Among other things he can be credited with is the establishment of monasticism in Gaul (France) and a missionary career marked by going to meet people in their homes, rather than demanding they come to him in a church or temple.

Martin of Tours was faithful to his beliefs, famously he got things wrong and wasnt always well recieved, but he was faithful and carried on anyway.

All of which reminds me of a prayer which Mark Berry posted the other day, written by another soldier of Christ, Thomas Merton, which neatly sums up the attitude which I think we each should take to this life of Jesus following:

My Lord God I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

(Thoughts in Solitude.  Thomas Merton)

Visit either of these two sites for more of a biography of Martin of Tours.


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