St. George, Martyr

(c. 303 AD)

St. George the Martyr has been venerated for centuries by Christians of both East and West. It is commonly thought that he met his death at Lydda in Palestine early in the fourth century. By the early Middle Ages his tomb at Lydda was a center of pilgrimage, and many churches were given his name. But as early as 496 A.D. a list of recognized saints put out under Pope Gelasius frankly called him one of those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”

You may ask, “How could a saint’s life be so unknown, even less than two centuries after his death?” There are many possible reasons. The main reason, perhaps, is that while he was great in God’s eyes, he was not so important in human eyes to have left any personal records. Furthermore, in a society where few people are literate, what records there are often perish.

A parallel may help us understand. I ask readers who are interested in their family trees, “What do you know about the lives of your ancestors before they left the old country?” Next to nothing, I’ll bet.

Now, when a barely-known person becomes famous, the spinners of tales often try to fashion a biography of him. This was especially true of ancient Christian saints. Composers of legends seemed to think that so long as the fictions they devised were edifying, their historical truth did not matter.

St. George proved to be a real challenge to many creators of legends. The full-fledged popular “life” of St. George appeared in the “Golden Legend,” a highly popular collection of saints’ legends edited in the 13th century by the Italian, Bl. James de Voragine.

According to the Golden Legend, George was a knight who lived in the Mideast. One day when he rode into a Libyan town called Sylene, he found the townsfolk in a panic of fright. A fierce dragon dwelt in a nearby swamp. They had tried to kill him, but his fiery breath fended them off.

Finally he became their master, demanding to be fed by them. When they ran out of sheep (two per day), he insisted on human victims. These victims were chosen by lots, and on the day of Sir George’s arrival the short draw had gone to the king’s own daughter, who was even then walking to her doom.

George set out at once to rescue the princess. He attacked the beast fearlessly and skewered it with his spear, wounding it severely. Then he asked the rescued princess for her sash girdle. Having put it around the neck of the dragon, he told her to lead it back into town. The old wounded dragon went along meekly, no longer breathing flames. St. George told the Sylenians not to fear. He said he would put the monster out of its misery if the king and his subjects would agree to accept Christianity. They were all happy to comply, so over 15,000 were baptized then and there. Then the knight dispatched the dying animal. It took four carts to carry off the four quarters into which his body had to be cut. The King of Sylene then offered George the richest rewards; but he declined any recompense, advising the monarch to apply the money instead to Christian purposes.

This dragon episode was a late addition to the Georgian legend. Earlier narratives represented him as being saved miraculously from three earlier attempts to execute him; and as achieving by prayer the collapse of a pagan temple upon its votaries. The Roman magistrate was able to have the saint beheaded, but after having done so he himself was struck dead by lightning. All this melodrama marks the whole narrative as a folk tale. The Walt Disney producers could have made a good movie out of it!

The real saint, however unfamiliar, had meanwhile gained in popularity. Perhaps because he was thought to have been a military man, he became a favorite of the Western knights engaged from the eleventh century on in the Crusades. Today he is patron saint of (Russian) Georgia, Portugal, Aragon, Lithuania, and particularly, England, where his feast was once even a holy day of obligation. Six British monarchs have borne his name, and his red cross is a part of the British flag.

When we pray to the saints, therefore, we don’t need to know their life stories. Friendship with them is a person-to-person affair.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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