Saint Martin of Tours and the Mythos of Militarism

Saint Martin of Tours and the Mythos of Militarism November 12, 2013

Attending daily Mass this morning, I was reminded of two observances taking place today, in an ironic intersection of liturgical and national calendars.  For the Catholic Church, it is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a 4th-century convert who experienced an irreconcilable tension between his Christian faith and his career as a soldier.  Meanwhile, in the United States, Veterans’ Day is being celebrated, and along with it the broader mythos that is a formative part of the culture – and cultus – of any major world military power.

The irony of this juxtaposition would not have been evident from this morning’s Mass had I not been looking for it.  The priest (who, to compound the irony, is Ugandan) began his homily with a biography of St. Martin, mentioning his departure from the Roman army by telling us simply that he was “discharged” and told his former commander that he would now be serving him in a different way.  The priest then transitioned into a list he had taken from the internet of 10 ways to observe Veterans’ Day – which, need we be reminded, is not a liturgical holiday and is of course not observed by the universal Church.  It took me until number two, “display the American flag”, to decide I could not listen anymore.  Not all this.  Not in church.  I am generally not in favor of walking out of Mass in protest, believing instead that the catholic thing to do is to give precedence to my devotion to the Church over my personal complaints.  But as catholicity was already being drowned out by more nationalistic priorities, I recognized that this was one of those rare cases in which it would have been dishonest of me to continue to participate.  So I went out.

By the time I had prayed a couple decades of the rosary to calm myself down, the Mass was over, so I went back inside and spoke to the priest, asking him why he had devoted all that time during Mass to the observance of a military holiday.  He asked me for further explanation and listened kindly and attentively.  We talked for awhile, prayed together, and wished each other peace.  But something in our conversation, some aim at understanding one another, was missed.

When he spoke of the people he sometimes visits at the VA hospital, their sufferings in body and mind, and their need for compassion rather than condemnation, I told him I completely agree.  And I do.  The difference I tried inadequately to articulate is between the Church’s ministry of compassion to those who have been wounded by war and other violence (including by actively participating in it, which can leave the deepest wounds of all), and the sacralization of a nationalistic narrative that glorifies the beast that wounded them.

That difference exists precisely because the Church professes the intrinsic and inviolable dignity of every human being, even – or perhaps especially – if they have known profoundly dehumanizing experiences.  I would no sooner deny military veterans (a few of whom I count as friends) the respect owed to that human dignity than I would anyone else.  I can even see some good intentions in the mythic stories repeated on days like this, as we want so badly to derive some meaning from their woundedness that we dress it in vaguely heroic language and tell ourselves they have sacrificed for some nobler cause.  But is romanticizing the altar of militarism on which so many of our fellow citizens have been sacrificed really the best way to honor their humanity?

St. Martin represents a different kind of sacrifice: following his conscience at the cost of his career, giving the needy (literally) the shirt off his back, living in humble simplicity – in short, the life-giving sacrifice of service to Christ and his presence in others.  It is this example that the universal Church, across all nations, exalts today.

St. Martin of Tours, pray for us.  Oh, pray for us.

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