Frank Doerr, Senior Director of Religious Education, Fort Benning Religious Support Office /
Recently celebrating the 241st Anniversary of the founding of the Chaplain Corps on 29 July, the life and work of a Roman soldier who could be considered a precursor to today’s Army chaplains, presents an interesting discussion topic.
Martin of Tours was born about A.D. 316. His father commanded a Roman Legion, so Martin was reared as an army brat.
Fortunately, his biographer Sulpicius Severus was an eyewitness. Severus wrote about the first time he met Martin. He was surprised when he offered him a place to stay, but instead of an elaborate well-kept villa or palace, Martin lived in a monk’s cell in the woods!
Just as interesting, Martin washed the hands of Severus before meals and even washed his feet before retiring for the evening. This was a common practice that Martin performed for anyone of humble birth.
Severus later became a follower and friend, and recorded much of his life from other eyewitnesses before writing a biography about him.
While often little is known of the heroes of Christianity from the Early Church, we are fortunate to have reliable information about an early light of the faith who was not a martyr.
Martin was reared in Italy and followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military at the age of 15. He served in a very special unit of the Imperial Guard, the Cavalry, whose pomp and circumstance was second to none at the time.
After four years of training, he was attached to a combat unit and ordered to Amiens, in present day France. As an officer in the Cavalry, he was given two horses and an orderly. It may come as a shock to some, but Martin’s biographer stated that he switched places with the orderly and served him.
While in Amiens, a well-known event happened about 1,700 years ago. Martin was covered in a magnificent white cloak worn by the Imperial Guard in winter. After making his night rounds, he noticed a beggar at the gate to the city. Martin took off his cloak and cut it in half and gave it to the poor man. Later that night while sleeping he heard a voice, “Martin covered me with his cloak.”
After this event he was baptized and became a Christian, and no longer wanted to be a soldier in the Roman Army, which presented quite a difficulty. About the year 340 he asked for a discharge from his service.
Martin’s commander (the emperor Julian) then accused him of cowardice, so to prove his courage, he offered to enter an impending battle with a German tribe near Worms, Germany, unarmed and alone.
The “offer” infuriated the emperor, and Martin was imprisoned. Spending the night in prayer, it is claimed that in the morning the enemy asked for terms of peace.
Soon after he was given his discharge, and then went to an island in the Mediterranean Sea and became a recluse.
Around the year 360, he founded a religious community in present day France (Gaul) that was the first monastery in the Western Roman Empire, and his example and encouragement led to the founding of several other monasteries. So he is often referred to as the father of monasticism in Gaul.
In A.D. 370, Martin was appointed bishop of the City of Tours, also in France. Several legends exist concerning how he was “tricked” so that he could not refuse the desire of the people for him to become their next bishop. One of these is that upon hearing that he would be asked to become bishop, he hid in a barn. However, the ever-watchful geese spotted a stranger, and wildly doing what they do best, made a fuss and loudly squawked. Needless to say, they revealed his hiding place.
In memory of Martin and his episode with the pesky birds, goose is commonly eaten on Nov. 11 in Europe. The day the church has set aside to recall his life of holiness.
Martin was responsible for several civil duties as bishop. It is said that he was fair and impartial and was highly praised. He was also a very active missionary. His preaching could be easily summed up by the phrase, “preach the Gospel and if necessary use words.”
Many miracles were witnessed both during and after his lifetime, which served as a sign of his dedication to the truth of the Gospels. His approach to bringing people to follow the teaching of Christ was unique.
He would travel from house to house and talk to them about God. He would then organize a group of believers into a community led by a presbyter. He would continue to visit the communities regularly by showing his love and care for them.
Conversion was a theme and passion that drove him to do some interesting if not questionable deeds.
On one occasion where Martin seemed unable to convince the townspeople to remove a tree that was held in high esteem, he agreed to sit where the tree was expected to fall. To make things more interesting, the tree had a lean to it, and that is where he would sit until it fell. As the tree began its decent to the ground, Martin made the sign of the cross and the tree slowly changed its fall toward those who were watching. While no one was hurt, many came to believe on that day.
Toward the end of his life, Martin had a disagreement with another bishop that he severely regretted. He brooded over this for a long time until he received a vision and counsel from an angel. He was told to take courage and become the man he was.
The advice from the angel that Martin should not dwell on past mistakes is advice we can all use at some point in our lives.