For ninety years or so, 11 November has been observed in many countries as Remembrance Day, honouring members of the armed forces and sometimes others who have died in war. For far longer, however, it has been St Martin’s Day (sometimes known as Martinmas or Martinstag). St Martin of Tours was a soldier who became a champion of peace. Though he lived in the fourth century, he remains highly relevant to today’s world.
Accounts suggest that he was born in Hungary, the son of a senior officer in the Roman Army. Martin was named after Mars, the Roman god of war, and following family tradition, became a soldier too. But against the wishes of his parents, he had decided he wanted to be a Christian and was a catechumen receiving instruction in preparation for baptism. He became known for his kindness towards and affection for his fellow-soldiers, and his humility – though an officer he did not give himself airs, and reputedly even cleaned his servant’s boots.
One bitterly cold winter day in Amiens, where he was stationed, he saw a beggar who was almost naked. Moved by compassion, Martin cut his own cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, he dreamt he saw Jesus, who was wearing the half of his cloak he had given away, and who told the angels around him, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”
He was baptised, but stayed in the army for almost two years. He had managed to avoid being called on to kill. However in Gaul, as the enemy approached and battle was imminent, he asked Emperor Julian if he could be discharged from military service, declaring “I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight." Julian was furious and accused Martin of cowardice, but he offered to stand unarmed in front of the battle line, protected only by the sign of the cross. He was imprisoned overnight, but the next day the attackers decided to settle peacefully.
Leaving military service, he sought the guidance of Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, who tried to persuade him to become a priest, though Martin felt he was unworthy. He founded a monastery, where he was joined by others seeking to lead a simple life of devotion.
The Christians of Tours in France decided they wanted Martin as a bishop, but were almost certain he would refuse. So a local man came to him claiming that his wife was sick and asking him to visit. Martin was too kindhearted to turn him down, but when he got there he was surrounded by local people, who demanded that he become their bishop, and he reluctantly gave way.
Martin continued to live a simple life, seeking to win people to Christianity and campaigning to free prisoners. Though strongly opposed to what he saw as unorthodox teaching, he opposed state persecution of heretics, arguing that excommunication by the church was punishment enough. When Priscillian, whose teaching went against that of the mainstream church, and his followers were arrested and another bishop asked for them to be put to death, Martin pleaded with Maximus, who by then was the emperor, not to harm them. He thought that their safety was secure, but afterwards they were tortured and executed. Martin was appalled and at first refused communion with the bishops who had acted so cruelly, though he was persuaded by the emperor to soften his stance in return for the freedom of some prisoners.
On 11 November it is especially fitting to celebrate the life and witness of Martin, who cared for his fellow-soldiers yet chose a path of non-violence and who set an example of compassion, sharing and simplicity of lifestyle which can help create lasting foundations for peace.
Also from Ekklesia: ‘Re-imagining Remembrance’, by Kare Guthrie - http://ekklesia.co.uk/research/reimagining_remembrance
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in health and social care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate.