Heavenly Military Service & Divine Heroism: St. Martin of Tours

Josh Florence

Heavenly Military Service & Divine Heroism: St. Martin of Tours

This upcoming Veteran’s Day brings with us a great sentiment of duty, honor, and loyalty for our nation. My family is not unlike many American families in that we count among us veterans, from multiple branches, who have taken part in our country’s military engagements. I have found myself most personally attached to the Marine Corps, not only because they are “The few and the proud” but because my grandfather served as a Marine during World War II and The Korean War.

My grandfather never shared a single story with me of when he was in combat. I can say with much certainty, that during his time serving in the Pacific Theatre, he must have confronted his enemies and experienced what military strategists refer to as the “fog of war.”

In battle, it’s the goal of your intelligence team to know exactly where the enemy is located, how many of them there are, and whether or not you have the necessary resources to defeat your enemy. Generals will scour reconnaissance photos and study troop movements to calculate risk and reward. Regardless of the best laid plans, there is always the possibility for the unknown to happen. The weather changes unexpectedly, a Trojan horse arrives at your gates, the enemy you’ve been pursuing is really a phantom.

A good commander will be able to change the mission, rally their troops, and set them on a new objective. Our ultimate enemy, being Satan, always desires to cloud our hope and puncture our peace. Fighting these battles, be they spiritual or physical, one man to whom we can ask for intercession is St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of soldiers and whose feast day is November 11th.

St. Martin of Tours

St. Martin was born near present day Szombathely, Hungary in 316 AD to pagan parents. His biographer, Sulpicius Severus, tells us that his parents were neither destitute nor extremely rich in the eyes of the world. St. Martin’s father was a soldier and had worked his way up through the ranks to become a military tribune. Meaning, he commanded a legion of soldiers.

St. Martin spent his formative years in present day Pavia, Italy. The move for his family may have been attributed to his father needing to be with his legion. Martin received his early education in Pavia and began to expose himself to men and women of faith in the town. Just a few years earlier, in 313 AD Constantine had made Christianity legal. Therefore, throughout the empire one could find a mix of people following Christ along with those who worshiped local pagan deities. 

At the age of ten, against his parents’ wishes, St. Martin sought refuge in a church and asked to be made a catechumen. He seemingly had made a plan at such an early age as to how he would seek out our Lord and grow in holiness.

Then, quite literally, the fog of war set in. St. Martin needed to adapt his plan and desires for the monastery. The Roman Empire sought to reassert a law which had lapsed in practice requiring military service of the sons of veterans. St. Martin did not hide from this call but accepted it courageously, even though he heard calls from the Lord for another direction.

He entered a corps d’elite, the cavalry of the Imperial guard. This unit had a ceremonial role utilizing ornate uniforms in official processions. It is from this time period that one of St. Martin’s best-known actions transpired. 

While stationed in present day Amiens, France on a winter day Martin was inspecting various posts throughout the city. He suddenly came upon a beggar at the city gates, completely naked. Seeing that everyone passed by the man’s pleas, St. Martin understood this man as reserved for him to help. At the time, St. Martin had only his weapons and a simple military cloak. Taking his military cloak, he split it in two and offered half of it to the beggar. Some of the bystanders laughed at him since he looked odd with only half of his cloak. Others in the crowd quietly admired the act, for they recognized that they could have much more easily offered the man this kind of compassion without having to degrade themselves. St. Martin, in a dream later that night, saw an image of our Lord in front of him dressed in the cloak he had given.

He led in this quiet way throughout all of his military experience. His men grew to admire his loyalty and steadfastness. He would give away his earnings and allowed himself to only keep what was needed for his essentials. Being an officer, he was allowed an orderly, who was usually a slave, to serve him. St. Martin however, would find ways to serve his servant, in documentation by  Sulpicius Severus, St. Martin  “pulled his slave’s boots off and cleaned them, and when they took their meals together it was more often Martin who served at table.” Seeing his generosity and his magnanimity endeared him to many of his fellow soldiers.

St. Martin had to show courage in the face of battle. Barbarians had invaded Gaul in present-day France. Caesar Julian gathered his army to go to war and was to offer his soldiers a bonus which the Caesar was to dispense of in person. St. Martin, who wished to ask for his dismissal from the army, thought it would be just to request his discharge in front of the emperor before receiving his bonus. He is quoted by his biographer as saying “Up till now I have fought for you; allow me now to fight for God. Let someone who intends to fight accept your bonus. I am a soldier of Christ, I am not allowed to fight.”

When the claim was brought before St. Martin that he said this out of fear of battle he responded “If you ascribe this to cowardice rather than to faith, tomorrow I shall stand unarmed before the front lines. With neither shield nor helmet but with the sign of the cross to protect me, in the name of the Lord Jesus I will push my way into the enemy’s formations without being harmed.” He was thrown in jail that night to guarantee he had just such an opportunity. God, as the commander of any battle, did not require the act. For the next day enemy envoys had arrived to sue for peace.

After leaving the army he spent time in formation with St. Hilary of Poitiers. After spending time with St. Martin, St. Hilary wished to progress him towards the priesthood and made him an exorcist, which was looked upon as a humble position. St. Hilary knew that St. Martin would only accept a lowly position since he displayed such great humility.

Eventually, St. Martin built a shelter not far from Poiters where he could live out the monastic life he had dreamt of. With time, other men, wishing to learn from such a holy man joined him. His holiness became so well known that he became the Bishop of Tours. St. Martin, not enjoying living in Tours, built a small community of brothers just two miles outside of the city.

Even though St. Martin had left a military life. He still needed to defend his flock against the ultimate enemy. He had, I believe, many of the 14 qualities which are listed in the U.S. Marine Corps Leadership traits. Among these are courage, decisiveness, dependability, endurance, enthusiasm, initiative, integrity, judgment, justice, knowledge, loyalty, and unselfishness. Not only will a leader possess these traits but he will instill these traits into his subordinates and desire their greater good.

Several of the men who lived in St. Martin’s community became bishops themselves. As Sulpicius Severus wrote “For what city or church did not long to have a priest from Martin’s monastery?” As one account is told in the biography by Severus, one of St. Martin’s community, Clarus, was able to spot and apprehend an agent of Satan, who had posed as a pious monk in the community.

Years after the saint’s death, which took place on November 8th 397, he is still remembered for prayerfulness, his piety, and his fervent defense for his flock. Having not read anything in-depth about this saint before, I was captivated by the multiple miraculous accounts that have been attributed to him. I know that I will approach his feast day this November 11th with a new appreciation for this holy man of God.

Since I was only able to touch upon some of the events of St. Martin’s life in this article, I would highly recommend reading the biography written by Sulpicius Severus. Severus was a contemporary of St. Martin, documented his visit with St. Martin, and speaks of the research he partook to verify the accounts of his life. Severus wrote his biography of St. Martin so that “It would serve to rouse the enthusiasm of its readers for the true wisdom, for heavenly military service and for divine heroism.” With St. Martin’s example to inspire us, may we destroy the gates of hell and charge forward to our heavenly home.