Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin 3

Happy Epiphany!

Well, okay, I'm a little late, but Epiphany is frequently translated to the nearest Sunday at my church, so close enough.

This week, I'm posting the third installment of my St. Martin series. In this passage, we start into the narrative per se with an account of St. Martin's childhood. It struck me as I was starting to work on the translation that it was vaguely appropriate to read this passage today. After all, Martin was born to pagan parents, so it is oddly appropriate on this day on which Gentiles first worshipped Jesus we begin the tale of Martin's early conversion.

So, let us begin.

Martin was born in Sabaria, a town in Pannonia, but he was raised in Ticinium in Italy. His parents were not of the lowest class in the world’s ranking, but were pagans (2) His father was, at first, a soldier; then, a military tribune. Martin himself pursued a military career in his youth among the imperial cavalry guards under Emperor Constantius. Then, he served under Julian Caesar. He did not serve however, of his own will because, from nearly his first years, the holy infancy of the famous boy aspired to divine service instead. (3) When he was ten years old, he fled, without the permission of his parents, to the church and demanded to be made a catechumen. (4) Then, he was converted completely to work of God in an amazing way. When he was 12 years old, he desired to be a hermit. He would have performed the appropriate vows, if the infirmity of age had not prevented him. Nevertheless, his spirit was always intent on the monastery or the church and he, at his young age, meditated on what he vowed and later fulfilled. (5)After an edict was published by the emperors that the sons of veterans should be enrolled into military service, his father, who begrudged him his happy ways, betrayed him when he was fifteen years old. He was seized, chained and entangled in military service. He was content with one slave as a companion whom he, the master, served in turn to such an extent that he would quite often remove his slave’s shoes and clean them. They would eat together and Martin would serve him rather more often. (6) For nearly three years before his baptism, he served in the army. Nevertheless, he was free from those faults with which that type of men are accustomed to be associated. (7) His kindness to his fellow soldiers was great , his love astonishing, and his patience and humility beyond human measure. There was no need to praise his thrift which he practiced to such a degree that, at that time, he was thought to be a monk, not a solider. For this reason, he won over all his fellow soldiers so that they adored him with astonishing affection. (8) Although he was not yet reborn in Christ, he performed good works like a candidate for baptism in by helping those who suffering hardship, bringing help to the miserable, feeding the needy and clothing the naked. He held back nothing from his military pay except for his daily meals. Since, he was not an inattentive listener to the Gospel, he was not accustomed to think about tomorrow.


Martin's origins are interesting because it is clear almost from the first sentence that his family was tied to the military. Certainly, one of the major recruiting grounds in the fourth century for the Roman army was border districts such as the region of Pannonia. His father clearly rose through the ranks, so this would suggest that he did not start among the privileged elite who would have had tribuneships from their youth. Yet, as Severus points out, having attained this rank, his family could be regarded as having some social distinction.

The law enrolling veterans' sons automatically into the army is likely one of a series of edicts dating from the 320s and continuing for the next few centuries which attempted to maintain the size of the Roman army in the face of widespread attempts by the sons of the military class to escape service. This has to be seen in the light of the growing burdens of the Roman state on its people and the consequence attempts to evade the onerous service imposed by the state. The preferred status of Christianity in the empire at this time opened yet another means to escape these demands: service in the Church. Presumably, this law was designed to close this door. The fact that it was repeatedly re-enacted over the next few centuries would suggest it didn't work very well

Martin's early encounters with Christianity are most notably for his early zeal. Indeed, his zeal is so great that Martin's story includes certain veiled allusions to Jesus' own life, especially in that, at the age of 10, he flees to the Church and demands to be made a catechumen (comparable to Jesus in the temple?). Similarly, his attempt to take vows as a hermit at 12 shows a similar degree of precocious faith. This is all the more remarkable because Martin was born and, presumably, raised pagan. Indeed, we can conclude that Martin's father remained pagan because he seems to have seen the law enforcing military service on veterans' sons to be an opportunity to separate Martin from the Church. It doesn't work, but the opportunity would have been tempting.

Martin's military career is, of course, striking. There is, for instance, no mention of actual fighting which, given the instability of the Danube border in the 340s and 350s, is a little surprising Both the Emperors Constans and Constantius fought several campaigns in the region against German and Sarmatian invasions; not to mention the revolt of Magnentius in which the decisive battle was fought at Mursa in Illyricum in 353 AD. We get no impression of Martin fighting in these battles, although he must have in some.

The image we have is rather of a soldier in peace, exercising Christian virtues. Likely, Martin (and Severus!) had in mind the advice of John the Baptist to soldiers that they should 'not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Luke 3, 14. NRSV). Martin, in these areas, is exemplary, but he goes farther and applies the standard of monasticism to his behavior both to his own slave and his fellow soldiers. Remember he still is a catechumen, so has not been baptized, but he is acting in the way that one would expect him to before his baptism. Given the temptations of the military life, this standard is all the more remarkable.

This image of Martin as soldier strikes me as interesting because of my own pacifist leanings. What fascinates me here is the implied contrast between the soldier of Christ like Martin and the regular, everyday soldier. With Martin, there is no violence or power, but rather there is a stress, as is appropriate to the soldier of Christ, on the Christian virtues: humility, service and faith. One wonders if we all acted like that soldier of Christ whether wars would even be possible.

Anyway, what do you think?


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