St. George: A Saint to Slay Today’s Dragons

COMMENTARY: Even though we don’t know what the historical George was really like, what we are left with nevertheless teaches us that divine grace can make us saints and that heroes are very much not dead or a thing of history.

Miniature from a 13th-century Passio Sancti Georgii (Verona).
Miniature from a 13th-century Passio Sancti Georgii (Verona). (photo: Biblioteca Civica / Public Domain)

Sometimes we choose the saints, and sometimes the saints choose us. There are those heroes of our faith with whom we identify and whose intercession we seek. They become fast friends on our way to glory. But other times, for whatever reason, Providence puts certain saints in our path. We don’t find them; they seem to find us. 

St. George is a saint who has found me.

Although there is relatively little that we can assert with historical accuracy about St. George, he is such a larger-than-life figure that he remains a part of the common life of the Church. Sadly, he is not the object of much devotion in the United States, but we are just about the only country to be so lacking in awareness of this saint.

George died at Lydda in Palestine at some point before Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313 and was so loved that testimonies of pilgrimages to the site of his martyrdom and churches dedicated in his honor date from shortly after that time. Even Pope Gelasius in 495 wrote a document attesting that he was one of those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.” But that didn’t stop storytellers from telling all kinds of stories about his life. The most famous story, of course, is “St. George and the Dragon.” 

According to the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), a 13th-century collection of hagiographies of saints, a dragon was terrorizing a village called Silene in Libya, demanding tribute of trinkets and livestock, and when the people couldn’t pay, the cruel creature demanded the blood of a princess. The valiant George came to the rescue and slew the dragon. The town and the grateful young lady were saved. 

Now, if you are familiar with classical mythology, this all sounds very much like Perseus or Jason and Medea. And if you are familiar with the Wild West of early Christian saints, this all sounds like Demetrius and Theodore. But, however you slice it, the man, the myth and the legend took on such a life of their own that devotion to St. George spread all over the Christian world. It was said that George made the Sign of the Cross over the dragon before killing it, and the red cross of St. George, taken up by Richard the Lion Heart, became a staple of imagery during the Crusades, and has been the standard of England ever since. 

There are so many stories about George in the towns and countries that have adopted him as their patron that it would take days to recount them all. In the East, St. George is easily the most popular saint after the Virgin Mary herself. Just as St. John Lateran in Rome is home to the pope, the patriarchal cathedral of St. George is home to the patriarch of Constantinople, and even the local Greek Orthodox cathedral in my town is named after him, one of the thousands of churches named in his honor. There is even a nation, Georgia, in the Caucasus, named after him. 

I have never consciously adopted a devotion to St. George because I tend not to gravitate toward saints we know so little about. But I have received from my parishioners more gifts of pictures, holy cards, icons and statues of St. George than any other saint. Obviously, someone up there thinks I need him.

Even at the level of my parish, St. George has staked his claim. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the papal order of chivalry dedicated to the protection of Christians in the Holy Land, has found a spiritual home here, as has the order of knighthood for the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies, the Constantinian Order of Saint George. This venerable and noble order has its remotest origins in Constantinople itself. Clearly, St. George has inspired knights for centuries in their defense of Christian truth and culture, all the way down to today and my own parish. 

St. George hailed from Cappadocia in modern-day Turkey, where the Cappadocian Fathers like Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzen did some of the deepest theology in Church history. When I was studying Turkish in Istanbul, it was obvious that Greek and other Eastern Christians loved St. George. He was everywhere. 

What surprised me is that he is the only Christian figure, apart from Jesus and Mary, who is venerated in Islam. Many Muslims, especially in Turkey, are devoted to him. They light candles and ask for his intercession, believe in his power to grant miracles, and even celebrate his feast day along with Christians, some even kissing icons of him, which is a miracle in and of itself, as Islam prohibits images of living beings and anything human that could even possibly be associated with the power of God.

One day a Muslim friend invited me and a classmate to the Princes’ Islands off the Bosphorus. She wanted us to hike up a small mountain on a very hot day to show us something beautiful, without telling us what it was. As we kept walking and walking, we noticed the route had this thick rope all the way up with countless ribbons of different colors. I assumed it was some kind of primitive safety feature to prevent us from falling off a cliff. But when hours later we arrived at the summit, the place was teeming with hundreds of people, Muslims and Christians, crammed into a chapel dedicated to St. George. For centuries, Istanbulites of all religions and no religion have tied ribbons representing their prayers onto the rope they grip as they go on pilgrimage to a miraculous image of St. George. Prayers to find true love and a partner in life above all.

It was in that chapel that I began to finally realize why devotion to a saint that we know very little about is still actually a good thing. 

Modern rationalism seeks to empty religion of anything supernatural; it seeks to make us materialists concerned only with worldly desires. It traps us in that endless cycle of individualism that divides us against each other for a million reasons. St. George may look from the outside as a mere relic of a superstitious past. But he is most definitely not. He survives as a model for true masculinity, bravely fighting to protect and provide, in an age where manhood is dismissed as being toxic. He remains a sign of the bravery of a prophet in proclaiming true religion against the idolatrous paganism of every age. He remains a force capable of uniting Christians, East and West, Muslims and even nonbelievers, through the shared culture of what it means to be truly human, to seek love and to pursue justice. 

This godless age with its technology and hedonism can’t produce any of that. That is why there are so few heroes anymore. 

Even though we don’t know what the historical George was really like, what we are left with nevertheless teaches us that divine grace can make us saints and that heroes are very much not dead or a thing of history. We need those kinds of people in our lives, and so we welcome St. George among us. He has found us, and maybe it’s because we need him. So let us ask him to pray to God for our needs:

Faithful servant of God and invincible martyr, St. George; favored by God with the gift of faith, and inflamed with an ardent love of Christ, thou didst fight valiantly against the dragon of pride, falsehood, and deceit. Neither pain nor torture, sword nor death could part thee from the love of Christ. I fervently implore thee for the sake of this love to help me by thy intercession to overcome the temptations that surround me, and to bear bravely the trials that oppress me, so that I may patiently carry the cross which is placed upon me; and let neither distress nor difficulties separate me from the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Valiant champion of the Faith, assist me in the combat against evil, that I may win the crown promised to them that persevere unto the end.

 

 

Father Christopher Smith is pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Taylors, South Carolina.

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