St Martin and Remembrance Day

I always think that it is a notable fact that the famous saint whose feast falls on Remembrance Day is not Demetrius or Theodore or George or Louis or any of the other soldier saints, but a saint who gave up soldiering for the monastic life.

St Martin of Tours was a soldier in the service of the Caesar Julian (future emperor called “the Apostate”) when, at Tours, he abandoned his military career because he felt that soldiering was incompatible with his Christian calling. When you consider the atrocities the Romans performed back then, including Julian on campaign against the Alemanni about a year after Martin’s departure, it is not unlikely that military service in the Later Roman Empire was not an easy thing for the Christian conscience, even if firmly convinced of just war theory (which was in its infancy in St Martin’s day, anyway).

Anyway, in the eleventh month on the eleventh day at the eleventh hour, we remember the signing of the armistice that ended the calamitous First World War — at the time, thought to be the war to end all wars. It was not, so we also remember the horrors of the Second World War.

We do not remember these conflicts to glorify war or to propagandise current conflicts. We remember them because, sadly, the British and Commonwealth war machine was a bloody necessity to protect freedom, not only for ourselves but elsewhere as well. Young men fought and died believing that to do so was necessary to protect their families, friends, and freedoms.

But what World War I showed us was just how horrible war can be. The follies of generals, the unpleasantness of trenches, the killing ability of mechanised warfare, the use of airplanes, the ability to photograph it all — and the endless dragging battles. The Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien and Hitler fought on opposite sides and where the future philologist lost good friends, lasted four and a half months. World War I was a descent into Hell.

And then World War II showed us what total war really looks like, as Allied Forces liberated nations stripped of their Jewish populations and then literally could not believe the stories of death camps until they saw them with their own eyes.

St Martin is a fitting saint as we remember the men and women who sacrificed so much so that we could live free from tyranny and oppression. War is an inglorious thing, even when necessary. We, like St Martin, like my grandfathers who did their part as well, are called to by the Prince of Peace to wage love and to die to ourselves, to die for our friends, to die for the only true King, Jesus Christ.

St Martin left the army and became a hermit, although his life by Sulpicius Severus has many mentions of “brothers”. This higher calling, this rejection of all worldly glory and worldly values, led him to seek a life of pure prayer and holiness, fighting for the salvation of souls amongst the pagans of Gaul, fighting the demons, and fighting his own temptations.

The last great war is always being waged — in the name of a poem from soon after St Martin’s death, the Battle for the Soul.

So today, honour the memory of those who fought and died. Read some war stories and war poems. And then thank God for His blessings, joining St Martin in the battle for the human soul.

St Martin’s Day (Lest We Forget)

Today is Remembrance Day. The eleventh day of the eleventh month. And at the eleventh hour, a moment of silence will be taken to remember the war dead, especially of the First World War and the Second World War. It is an event and moment forged in the aftermath of a bloody, destructive conflict that ran 1914-1918 and that many considered the war to end all wars. I wear a poppy to remember the dead, as well as the survivors, and to be thankful that I grew up in a Canada and live in a Europe free of war. May God keep it thus.

It is also the Feast of St Martin of Tours (316/36-397). St Martin is the western, Gallic, proto-monk. One of the first of his kind in the Latin West. He was not always a monk.

He started a soldier.

St Martin, according to his hagiographer Sulpicius Severus, was converted while on campaign in Gaul, serving under Julian Caesar. He felt that he could no longer maintain his career as a soldier and hold up his Christian profession because of the shedding of blood, the violence, the killing of humans.

So St Martin left the army and ended up become a monk, and later bishop.

I am not arguing for pacifism here. But war is terrible, even when fought for just reasons. (And when you read about some of the things the Romans did against the Alemanni in the fourth century, you question the justice of it all.) It is a hard, harsh reality.

It is thus fitting that on this day, when we remember the 17 million dead in WWI, that we also remember St Martin.