Letter from St. Paulinus of Nola: An appeal to a soldier to leave the military

Saint Paulinas of Nola (354 - 431) was a distinguished lawyer who held several public offices in the Roman Empire. After the death of their son, Paulinas and his wife Therasia gave away all of their property and riches and dedicated their lives to the poor. Paulinus was chosen bishop of Nola by popular demand. Among his close friends was St Augustine of Hippo.

Paulinus' writings include a letter to Crispinianus, a soldier in the Roman military. Paulinus exhorts Crispianus, a Christian, to leave the military and devote his life to God. His letter is below.

Letter 25, to Crispinianus

1. Though I am unknown to you personally, I already know you in spirit. Victor, my dearest son in the Lord, ensured that I knew you, though distance separates us, by telling me of your scrupulous life. So I have begun to love you as a future comrade in Christ, for Victor recounted to me how he was an associate and attendant of your mess in that worldly military service in which you are still occupied. This has induced me to take the liberty of writing to you through him. For I hope that you will come to the true path by the same road as he, since in him you have sent one of your comrades ahead to us, and the Church holds him as your pledge that she may gain you after him.

There is nothing, my blessed son, which can or ought to be preferred to Him who is the true Lord, the true Father, the eternal Commander. To whom is it right to devote our lives more than to Him from whom we received them, and for whom we must preserve them to the end, because we live by His kindness? If we have been a soldier for Him in this world, we shall then deserve to pass over to Him. But if we love this world more, and prefer to be a soldier for Caesar rather than for Christ, we shall later be transported not to Christ but to hell, where the cause of the princes of this world rests.

2. So we ought not to put loyalties or fatherland or distinctions or riches before God, for Scripture says: "The fashion of this world passeth away." And those who love this world will also perish with it. This is why the Lord Himself speaks these words of the Gospel in witness: "He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever doth not take his cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple."

Of the riches of this world, which some embrace and love as the highest and necessary good, He says: "Treasuries shall not profit wicked men, but justice delivers from death." Again He says through a prophet: "All were destroyed who were exalted with gold and silver." In the Gospel, too, He cries out in condemnation of the rich men of this world: "Woe to you rich; for you have your consolation. Woe to you that are filled; for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh; for you shall mourn and weep."

3. Therefore do not any longer love this world or its military service, for Scripture's authority attests that "whoever is a friend of his world is an enemy of God." He who is a soldier with the sword is the servant of death, and when he sheds his own blood or that of another, this is the reward for his service. He will be regarded as guilty of death either because of his own death or because of his sin, because a soldier in war, fighting not so much for himself as for another, is either conquered and killed, or conquers and wins a pretext for death-for he cannot be a victor unless he first sheds blood. So the Lord says: "You cannot serve two masters," the one God and mammon, that is, Christ and Ceasar, even though Caesar himself is now keen to be Christ's servant so that he may deserve kingship over a few peoples. For it is not some earthly king who reigns over the whole world, but Christ God, for "all things were made by Him and without Him was made nothing. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. Whatever He pleases He does in earth, in the sea, in the deeps."

4. Let us follow Him, then. Let us be soldiers for Him. The soldier who wears armour for Him is never unarmed. On them that fight for Him He bestows the glory of eternal life, the distinction of the heavenly kingdom, the riches of His inheritance, and an everlasting share in the knowledge of God. But Scripture says: "He that loveth money shall not be justified," and "he that seeketh after earthly possessions shall become entangled in them." So divine Wisdom speaks through the mouth of Solomon in Ecclesiasticus: "Many have been brought to fall for gold, and the beauty thereof hath been their ruin. Gold is a stumbling block and casts down those that follow after it. But only fools shall perish by it." So flee from it, my son, as from the appearance of a serpent. Trust in Christ, who in the Gospel solemnly states to all men: "A man's life doth not consist in the abundance of things which he possesseth."

5. Perhaps, however, the confidence of youth, your family tradition of distinctions, and your increased riches prompt you to say: "I am still young and have time to complete my army service, marry, have children, and afterwards serve God." You are answered not by me but by the Lord speaking through His prophets and apostles. The prophet says: "Delay not to be converted to the Lord, and defer it not from day to day, lest His wrath come on a sudden." The Gospel indicates with what eager haste we should seek conversion when it says: "From the days of John the Baptist until today, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away."

Such violence is welcome to God, for it disturbs no one and is achieved without harm to any. Direct your hands to the plunder which is sinless and brings salvation. Why should you trouble about the provision of solders' pay which involves the violence you loathe, when doubtless your integrity makes you mild in levying even the regular taxes? Whereas without rousing anyone's hatred and with God's grace you can be violent in seizing the kingdom of heaven. When it "suffereth violence," Christ rejoices at being attacked, because with His abundance of love and power He is capable both of donating what He holds and of retaining what He gives. For when He allows His saints to reign in His kingdom, He will reign amongst those whom He has adopted as comrades in His heavenly kingdom. Scripture says that God's kingdom will be shared with His saints and that those saints are themselves God's kingdom. If God is good and you are converted, you will discover this by reading, and understand it by believing.

...(Paulinus discusses the difficulties of family life)...

8. Listen, then, my son, and give me your ear. Break off all ties which bind and entangle you in this world. Change your secular military service into something better-start being a soldier for the eternal King. I hear that you now help and protect civilians; I pray that you may become the count of Christ. Again, you in secular military service are wont to pray for advancement to the rank of protector, but if you prove yourself before God, you will begin to have Him as your Protector. See to what kind of military service I invite you as a comrade, for God will be to you what you hope to be to a man. Once you begin to follow Him, you begin your service as a count, and the end of your service will be kingship not on earth or in time, but in eternity and in heaven.

Source: Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola. Translated an annotated by P.G. Walsh. (Westminster, MD: Newmann Pres: 1966-67).