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Christian Valor Amidst Pagan Persecution

by John P. Bequette

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  • Description:
    St. Martin of Tours challenged a dying Roman culture by presenting a radical Christian counter-culture, rooted in Christian valor. Today, we must also act with valor as we build our own distinct, living culture amidst the secular imperium.
  • Larger Work:
    Crisis Magazine Online
  • Publisher & Date:
    Sophia Institute, November 8, 2012

Much like our own woeful Republic, the Roman Empire in late antiquity suffered from moral exhaustion and was beginning to show signs of its eventual collapse. Amidst that decay, St. Martin of Tours (c.336-397) embodied the Christian valor necessary to sustain and rebuild authentic Christian culture.

For centuries, the most important Roman moral quality was virtus. While the word is most readily translated as “virtue,” for the Romans virtus connoted fortitude, or better, valor. The word also shares a common root with the Latin word for man (vir). Thus, to act with virtue or valor was, for the Romans, to act in a “manly” way. This manliness or valor had provided the sturdy, rugged ethos of the Republic and, when inculcated in her soldiers, enabled Rome to rise to the status of an empire.Yet this same characteristically Roman trait had degenerated by the mid-fourth century. The Roman populace had lost its traditional civic devotion. Their readiness to endure hardship and sacrifice for the res publica had evaporated, now replaced by an impoverished attitude of hedonism and self-promotion. This same loss of valor was felt in the Roman legions, which had become undisciplined, effete, and now began to cower in face of the hardier barbarian peoples who were crossing the frontier in increasing numbers. The cultural foundation of Rome was disintegrating, and since political life follows culture, Roman civic life was collapsing.

The Church in the fourth century was cultivating an alternative culture and an alternative civic life. Her culture was rooted in the Christian mystery, and her civic life was manifested in the Church. She built her cultural and civic edifice by taking and transforming what was good in the Roman legacy. Sulpicius Severus, Martin’s biographer, represented this cultivation. He prefaces his Life of Martin by contrasting pagan and Christian valor, the former being rooted in vanity, the latter, in humility.Pagan authors had celebrated Roman valor by writing about the lives of famous men. In doing so, they were seeking a kind of immortality. But their writings, Sulpicius tells us, “win a glory that must perish with the world” and inspired their readers to seek “that silly valor” (stultae virtutis). By contrast, Sulpicius writes his Life of Martin in the hope of “enduring life rather than enduring remembrance,” presenting Martin as an inspiration for “heavenly warfare,” for “divine valor” (divinam virtutem). In his Life we learn that Martin was truly an agent of cultural transformation, who challenged the Roman virtue of human valor with a corresponding valor rooted in Christian humility.

We see this Christian valor in three areas of Martin’s life.

The first was when Martin was a Roman soldier stationed in Gaul. Martin came from a career military family, his pagan father having been a junior officer in the Roman army. In fact, Martin’s father named him after Mars, the Roman god of war (the name Martinus means “little Mars”). His father enrolled Martin in the army while Martin was still a boy. Yet even at such a young age, while nominally committed to the pagan ideal of military prowess, Martin sought to cultivate the Christian valor of monasticism. At age ten he became a catechumen and, at age twelve, Sulpicius tells us, he “longed for the desert … his mind, ever fixed on hermitages and the church.” He displayed Christian humility toward his fellow soldiers to such a degree that he was considered “a monk rather than a soldier.” It was also during this period that Martin performed a corporal work of mercy that became the basis of later iconography.

One day during a particularly harsh winter, Martin came upon a beggar outside the city of Amiens. Taking pity on the man, Martin divided his cloak with him: “He took the sword he was wearing and cut the cape in two and gave one half to the beggar, putting the rest on himself.” Many of the witnesses, we are told, laughed at and mocked Martin upon seeing him wearing a mutilated garment. His heroic charity for the beggar affects Martin in such a way that his appearance elicits public contempt. Martin was a Christian soldier wielding an earthly sword to “strike a blow,” as it were, for charity. As a good soldier in Christ Jesus, Martin was able to bear this humiliation. That night, Christ appeared to Martin in a vision, clothed with the half of the cloak he had given to the beggar.

Soon thereafter, Martin was baptized, and continued to present a personal challenge to pagan valor. This challenge became intense during the reign of Julian “the Apostate.” On the eve of a battle with the barbarians, Martin respectfully requested a discharge from the army, saying to Julian, “I am Christ’s soldier; I am not allowed to fight.” Julian, having completely repudiated the Christian faith into which he was born, accused Martin of cowardice. Martin, however, stood firm in his commitment, proving his Christian valor in a most unusual way. Sulpicius writes: “But Martin was undaunted (intrepidus); in fact, he stood all the firmer when they tried to frighten him.” He then offered to stand before the enemy unarmed and unprotected, “protected by the sign of the Cross instead of by shield and helmet.” Thus Martin demonstrated his “undaunted” valor as a soldier of Christ. The next day, the barbarians sent emissaries suing for peace, thus vindicating Martin’s commitment. Martin was then discharged and embraced the monastic life.

As so often happens in the history of the Church, those who are most devoted and stalwart in religious life, those who most embody supernatural valor, are conscripted into the active life. Martin was soon persuaded to become a deacon, and eventually was made bishop of Tours. As bishop, he undertook a strenuous campaign against paganism, razing their shrines and felling their sacred groves. On one occasion, having demolished a pagan temple, Martin proceeded to cut down the sacred tree nearby. The pagans protested, challenging Martin to stand in the way of the falling tree. Martin accepted their challenge. He “waited, undaunted (intrepidus), relying on the Lord.” As the tree was coming down upon him, Martin “met it with the sign of salvation” and sent the tree spinning like a top in another direction, nearly crushing the pagans, many of whom then converted to the faith. While his weapon in the episode involving the beggar was an earthly weapon re-directed to a spiritual purpose, now Bishop Martin employed a weapon distinct to the Church: the “sign of salvation.” Martin thus demonstrated supernatural Christian valor, against which the dark errors of paganism were powerless.

Martin also exhibited Christian valor in his dealings with Emperor Maximus. Maximus was not a pagan. He was a Christian, and represented the conclusive triumph of Christianity after the death of Julian. He had commanded Roman troops in Britain, invaded Gaul, and ultimately met his own demise when he tried to wrest Italy from an imperial rival. Thus, despite his professed Christianity, Maximus represented the pagan ideal of military valor in his treatment of his opponents. In his relationship with the Maximus, Martin again challenged pagan valor a Christian alternative. Sulpicius tells us that most of Martin’s episcopal colleagues were mesmerized by the power of the emperor: “The foul fawning of all of them upon the sovereign was much remarked, and the dignity of the priesthood with unworthy weakness lowered itself to win imperial patronage.” He tells us that Martin alone “retained apostolic authority.” Whenever he petitioned the emperor of someone’s behalf, “he commanded (imperavit) rather than requested.” We see here in the person of Martin the superiority of the office of bishop over that of the emperor, the preeminence of a spiritual over a temporal ruler, a superiority rooted in apostolic authority. Martin’s authority was such that he gave orders to the emperor as to a subject. Sulpicius’s use of the word imperavit is significant. It is a form of the word impero, meaning “to impose or command,” which in turn gives rise to the word imperium, representing the authority of the emperor. The pagan Roman value of imperial supremacy was continuing to pollute and corrupt the Christian holder of the imperial office; Martin’s non-deference to the emperor was a direct challenge to the pagan ethos, reflecting yet again Christian valor over against its pagan counterpart.

Martin of Tours challenged a dying Roman culture by presenting a radical Christian counter-culture, rooted in Christian valor. As a supernatural virtue, this Christian valor was essentially natural valor infused with grace and re-oriented to the building up of the Body of Christ. This re-orientation saved what was truly worthwhile of Roman culture and give it new life within the emerging Christian culture. As Christians, we have a responsibility to build a distinct, living culture in the twenty-first century, just as our forebears had the same responsibility in their time, a culture which will manifest itself in education and humanitarian institutions. The crucial difference between our time and late antiquity, of course, is the socio-political status of Church. In Martin’s time, the Church came to enjoy official status and was able to command the deference of the imperial authority. In our age, the Church is increasingly under attack by a new, secular imperium whichwould strip the Church of her right to evangelize, educate, and minister. This new imperium is possessed of the same ferocious hostility that beset the Church in reign of the pagan emperors. In the face of this new, militant paganism, may God grant us the full measure of the Christian valor of Saint Martin of Tours.

John P. Bequette is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His interests include medieval Christian thought, the lives of the saints, and Christian humanism.

© Crisis Magazine

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