S OUR COUNTRY observes Veterans Day today, we, as a Church, celebrate the patron saint of soldiers, St. Martin of Tours. I have long felt a special connection to St. Martin.
As a child, I read a short book about Martin, and his story absolutely captivated me. Years later, I found myself praying to him (among other saints) during my training as a Navy chaplain.
The magnificent chapel of the college seminary in Philadelphia (pictured at right) is known as St. Martin’s Chapel. It was in this place that my life of prayer was formed and deepened. It was also in this chapel that I first sang in a choir and played the organ. It was ultimately in this chapel that I was ordained a deacon.
Whenever giving a tour of the seminary to a group of visitors, on entering the chapel, I would always point out the small, stained glass windows set inside the huge, wooden doors (pictured below). On the left door is a depiction of Martin as a soldier, and on the right door is an image of Martin as a bishop, representing the two major phases of his extraordinary life.
On reaching the sanctuary with the tour group, I would point out the paintings in the apse, which portray important scenes in Martin’s life. The left-most painting captures a remarkable story of his encounter with the Lord, and it seems like a story worth retelling today.
The story begins when Martin was a teenager, a catechumen, and a soldier in the Roman army. He came one day upon a beggar who was shivering from the cold. Moved with compassion for the fellow, he took off his cloak—part of his uniform—and cut it in two, giving half of it to the poor beggar.
I have often wondered why Martin did not give the beggar the whole cloak. That certainly would have been a nice thing to do and a great act of charity. But it also would have sent a very different message than what he actually did.
Had Martin given away his whole cloak, he would have sent the message that: “You’re needy, and I’m not. I can give you my cloak and go get another one for myself. I’m giving, and you’re taking.”
By tearing his cloak in half and sharing it, though, Martin sent a very different message. His message was: “We’re brothers. You’ll be a little bit cold, and so will I. Your problems are my problems. We’ll suffer together.” By doing what he did, Martin not only addressed the physical needs of the beggar, but, more importantly, established a real sense of fraternity with him.
The story about St. Martin goes on, because, some time later, he had a dream in which he had a vision of our Lord. In that dream, Jesus appeared to him wearing the half cloak he had given to the beggar. This was a very concrete symbol of Christ’s words, “Whatever you do to the least of My brethren, you do unto Me” (Matthew 25:40).
Even more than that, though, our Lord was sending the same message to Martin that Martin had sent to the beggar. Our Lord was saying, effectively: “We’re brothers. Your problems are My problems. We’ll suffer together.”
The message our Lord delivered to St. Martin of Tours is a message He shares, also, with us.
Martin’s cloak, thereafter, was treated as a most valuable relic, and pieces of it were frequently carried into battle. The relics were often cared for by priests, who came to be known as capellani. Eventually, all priests serving with the troops in battle came to be known by this name, from which the English word “chaplain” derives.
As we honor our veterans today, let us pray for the intercession of St. Martin of Tours upon all those in military service. In serving their country, may they serve, also, the Lord!