06 May 2009

'Thou Wast Magnified as a Good Soldier of Christ'—St George

As should already be clear (see here and here), today, 23 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Great Martyr and Victorious Wonderworker, St George the Trophy-bearer. In the Orthodox Church, St George is venerated primarily as a Martyr of the Church who suffered under Diocletian in 303 AD. Here, for example, is the account of him in the Prologue from Ochrid (the account in Bulgakov’s Handbook is similar):

This glorious and victorious saint was born in Cappadocia the son of wealthy and virtuous parents. His father suffered for Christ and his mother then moved to Palestine. When George grew up, he entered the military, where in his twentieth year, attained the rank of a Tribune and as such was in the service of the Emperor Diocletian. When Diocletian began the terrible persecution against Christians, George came before him and courageously confessed that he is a Christian. The emperor had him thrown into prison and ordered that his feet be placed in a stockade of wooden hobbles and that a heavy stone be placed on his chest. After that, the emperor commanded that George be tied to a wheel under which was a board with large nails and he was to be rotated until his entire body became as one bloody wound. After that, they buried him in a pit with only his head showing above the ground and there they left him for three days and three nights. Then George was given a deadly poison to drink by some magician. But, through all of these sufferings, George continuously prayed to God and God healed him instantly and saved him from death to the great astonishment of the people. When he resurrected a dead man through his prayer, many then accepted the Faith of Christ. Among these also was Alexandra, the wife of the Emperor Athanasius, the chief pagan priest and the farmers: Glycerius, Valerius, Donatus and Therinus. Finally the emperor ordered George and his wife Alexandra beheaded. Blessed Alexandra died on the scaffold before being beheaded. St George was beheaded in the year 303 AD The miracles which have occurred over the grave of St George are without number. Numerous are his appearances, either in dreams or openly, to those who have invoked him and implored his help from that time until today. Enflamed with love for Christ the Lord, it was not difficult for this saintly George to leave all for the sake of this love: rank, wealth, imperial honor, his friends and the entire world. For this love, the Lord rewarded him with the wealth of unfading glory in heaven and on earth and eternal life in His kingdom. In addition, the Lord bestowed upon him the power and authority to assist all those in miseries and difficulties who honor him and call upon his name.

But of course there is also this interesting story of the dragon (told briefly, with some hesitation, here). Although he doesn’t mention it in the brief Life in the Prologue, St Nicholas does refer to the dragon in his ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St George:

Saint George on a tall horse
Saved the maiden from the dragon,
On his lance, the sign of the Cross,
Holy weapon, invincible,
With that weapon, the dragon he slayed,
The spared maiden, to the father he returned,
With his goodness, he indebted God Himself
With a wreath of glory, God repaid him.

The Life of St George published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, relates a very full version of the dragon story with no caveat, introducing it with the following words (The Passion and Miracles of the Great Martyr and Victorious Wonderworker Saint George [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1976], p. 33):

We must not fail to mention the glorious miracle of the slaying of the dragon performed by the Great Martyr Saint George close to his native country of Palestine, in the land of Syro-Phoenicia, in the city of Beirut on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, not a great distance from Lydda where St George’s body was buried.

The Jordanville Life ends with a reference to the Church built at the spot ‘in honour of Saint George the Victor, who guards with his help the Church of Christ and every right-believing soul from the invisible devourer in the abyss of hell, and also from sin, as from a deadly dragon, just as he delivered the maiden from the visible dragon’ (pp. 33-4).

In keeping with the simplicity of the Jordanville narrative, I seem to recall, but cannot currently locate, a comment by Fr Seraphim (Rose) of blessed memory concerning his admiration, and emulation, of a Russian nun’s simple acceptance of the dragon. (The kind blogger from Incendiarious has pointed out in a comment below that, while there is no mention of a nun, Fr Seraphim is decidedly on the side of accepting the dragon in his article 'The Theological Writings of Archbishop John and the Question of "Western Influence" in Orthodox Theology', The Orthodox Word, Vol. 30, Nos. 2-3 [175-6], March-June, 1994, pp. 142-58. See pp. 150-3 for the passages quoted below.) But on the other hand, it is interesting to note that in the account on his website, Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of Buenos Aires of blessed memory has the following to say:

In the history of our Church, we find a myth related to a dragon and Saint George. This dragon threatened the idolaters in the area of Atalia. The people were forced to live inside the walls of their city. This prevented them from tending their fields and grazing their sheep. Every year, they would sacrifice a young girl to the dragon. When Saint George arrived in this area, the King’s daughter was about to be sacrificed. After subduing the dragon, Saint George placed a rope around its neck. He then gave the rope to the princess so that she could lead the beast back to the city. Thence, he slaughtered the terror and subsequently baptized thousands of the city’s inhabitants.

It is from the icon of Saint George that this myth came about. The icon depicts the Saint as an equestrian slaying the dragon with the princess in the background. The first iconographers of Saint George were probably trying to depict Satan as the dragon and Saint George conquering evil. Another explanation of this icon is that the artists were trying to depict Diocletian as the dragon and Saint George conquering him. The princess in the background could have been the Empress Alexandra who watched Saint George as he triumphed. She could also symbolize Christianity, or the Church itself. When the Crusaders journeyed through the Byzantine Empire, they saw this icon and from its depiction they interpreted the legend which they spread throughout western Europe.

I for one am ready to believe that the story may have taken place—that either a bona fide dragon (whether spiritual or natural) or dragon-like creature (the Antiochians suggest a python or crocodile, while John Masefield’s play [look for a post later!] makes it a fearsome pirate known as ‘the Dragon’) really was slain by the Saint. But I do not feel that the integrity of the hagiographical tradition is threatened by interpreting the story allegorically or as a narrative account of the scene in the icons.

The title of this post is from Ekos 12 of the Akathist to St George (Book of Akathists to Our Saviour, the Mother of God, and Various Saints [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994], pp. 226-7):

Hymning thy glorious end, by which thou wast magnified as a good soldier of Christ, we pray thee, O passion-bearer George: be a helper in all good for us and hear us, as we fervently cry unto thee:
Rejoice, for by thee the Church of the faithful is enlightened!
Rejoice, for thy name is praised even among the infidels!
Rejocie, wondrous glory of the confessors!
Rejoice, lofty praise of the martyrs!
Rejoice, healer of our bodies!
Rejoice, intercessor for our souls!
Rejoice, Saint George, great trophy-bearer!


Anonymous said...

The following from Fr. Seraphim's article "The Theological Writings of Archbishop John" may be what you're thinking of:

We read in the Lives of Saints that a dragon came and began tempting the Saint, like St. Marina and St. John the Much-Suffering. What are we to think of this? You read this text to people who live here in Platina or San Francisco or anywhere in the modern world, who are not totally raised in the spirit of Orthodox piety, and they will tend to laugh at you. You try to give an explanation: "Well, there really were dragons," and they say, "Oh, don't fool us, you're making up things. This is superstition. You mean you really still believe that?" What do you answer them? Or if any of your children read at home the life of a saint and then go to school and talk about it, the people there will laugh them to death. "You mean you read these silly stories?" they will say. "Dragons occurring with big smoke?" In the Lives of Saints, the hair of St. Marina and the beard of St. John the Much-Suffering are actually singed by the dragon with fire coming out of his mouth. How are you to understand that? St. Marina was in prison; how did the dragon get by the guard, how did he get through the locked door? What's going on? Is there such a thing as a dragon in the first place? If you are very simple in your faith, you will say, Well, I believe it because that's what the Holy Fathers handed down to me." And they will say, "Oh yes, but you have to gather the writings of the Holy Fathers and correct them and throw out things like that." And in fact, if you look at the Roman Catholic Church today, you see that they do exactly that. They think that St. Nicholas or St. George do not even exist; they throw them out because they say this is superstition. ... As a matter of fact, we do have arguments. There are those who have read the Lives of the Saints and believe them because the Holy Fathers have handed them down, and who at the same time have gone through college and understand what goes on in the Western mind. ... Today, we have a situation in which Orthodoxy, having gone through this Western learning, is able to answer people from the West on their own grounds. That is, we are just as sophisticated as they are; we are just as aware of modern science and modern learning; and we will not be in the position of the simple villager who simply does not know what to say when someone starts criticizing dragons. 

On the contrary, now a person who reads stories about dragons will be very good about finding out the Patristic teaching on this: how it is that a devil who is immaterial can singe a beard. We know that, according to St. Macarius the Great and other Fathers, the devil is not entirely immaterial. Only God is immaterial; and the devils and angels have actual bodies, although they are much more refined than our bodies. That, of course, was the case with those dragons which tortured St. Marina and St. John the Much-Suffering. They were not beasts, but were demons who took forms in order to frighten ascetics. We know this for various reasons, especially because when the Saint made the sign of the Cross or prayed, the dragon disappeared. It is obvious that this was an apparition of the demons. 

There are other cases, such as the dragon of St. George, in which it looks like a real dragon was involved, some kind of real beast. Such beasts have existed; in fact there are records of them. Even recently--thirty years ago in Monterey--one was dragged up on the beach: a very unusual beast resembling what we would call a "sea monster." This, then, is a different matter, when there are actual beasts which do not disappear when you make the sign of the Cross and when you actually drag their bodies through the streets as St. George did.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you, sir! I do remember reading that, and it is probably in part what I was thinking of. But I thought I also remembered something about a nun!

Anyway, I'm adding the reference to the post.

Felix Culpa said...

I think you're likely combining this account in your mind with the opening paragraphs of Fr Seraphim's introduction to St John of SF's essay on the veneration of the Theotokos. There he speaks of how the nun insisted on accepting literally the account of the Apostles being brought on clouds to the scene of the Dormition:


The nun Fr Seraphim mentions was Schema-Abbess Ariadna of the Convent of Our Lady of Vladimir in San Francisco:


Aaron Taylor said...

Wonderful! Thank you, Father. The mystery is solved!

Actually, not only did I mentally combine those statements, I also thought I had read them in article, 'A Prologue of the Orthodox Saints of the West' published in Vita Patrum. I read it through once and skimmed it a second time, but was overcome with frustration when I didn't find it. My once pristine memory for the sources (and sometimes the wording) of things I've read is fading fast! I'm afraid my posts will continue to suffer due to this difficulty.

Felix Culpa said...

Yes, I know the feeling exactly. I think it's both a question of age and of information overload, particularly with the introduction of the Internet. I used to have something like a photographic memory for print sources (even if I couldn't remember the exact wording, I could at least remember precisely where I had seen something written), but that sort of memory seems to have been scrambled by too many hours staring at pixels.

Aaron Taylor said...

It sounds like we're not so different, you and I.

Anonymous said...

Glad to be of assistance.