Battling dragons, taming wolves, befriending lions

[a chapter from Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment by Jim Forest (Orbis Books); note that footnotes have been removed]

St George & Dragon - Vladislav Andreyev
illustration by Vladislav Andreyev for “Saint George and the Dragon”

Among traditional Christian stories that challenge the Gospel According to John Wayne are tales of saints and beasts, the most well-known of which is the legend of Saint George and the dragon.

If we search for the elusive figure of the historical Saint George, we quickly discover that he never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. It’s even possible he was a farmer rather than a soldier — the name “George” means tiller of the soil; for this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

Saint George, born late in the third century, was one among many martyrs of the early Church. What made him a saint especially loved and remembered was the fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce anti-Christian persecution initiated by the Emperor Diocletian in February 303. George was among the early victims. Over an eight-year period thousands were tortured and many executed while others were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. Most Christians did what they could to avoid being noticed.

According to one ancient account, far from concealing his faith, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gods of the pagans are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this daring action Saint George was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded in the town of Nicomedia, in the northwest of modern Turkey. His body was brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda and today as Lod in modern-day Israel. His witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

In 311 the persecution ended. With Diocletian in retirement, the emperor Galerius (ill and close to death) published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

A period of persecution ended but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh and challenging. Icons of him were painted and hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed he became the patron saint of cities and whole countries.

In early icons, made long before a dragon became attached to his name, George was depicted as a soldier holding the cross of martyrdom. Perhaps he was in the army, but he may also have been shown in military clothing because he so perfectly exemplified the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith. However such symbolic use of a Roman soldier’s equipment does not rule out the possibility that George was in fact a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.

It was only centuries later that the dragon legend emerged. The most widely circulated version is found in a medieval text, the Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend), a collection of saints’ lives written by Blessed James de Voragine in about 1260. More than a thousand hand-written copies from the age before printed books have survived; it was a bestseller in its time. In the book’s chapter on George we meet a dragon which had been terrorizing the local people. In their fear they sacrificed their children, chosen by lot, to appease the creature’s appetite and protect themselves. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. As related in the text by Blessed James:

Then did the king array his daughter as if for her wedding and embraced and kissed her, gave her his blessing, and then led her to the place where the dragon was.

When she was there Saint George passed by, and when he saw the lady asked what brought her to this place. She replied, “Go your way, fair young man, so that you will not perish also.”

Then said he, “Tell me what the matter is, why you weep, and fear nothing.”

When she saw that he insisted on knowing, she said to him how she was delivered to the dragon. Then Saint George said, “Fair daughter, have no fear for I will help you in the name of Jesus Christ.”

She responded, “For God’s sake, good knight, go your way and leave me here, for you cannot rescue me.”

While they were talking, the dragon appeared and came rushing toward them. Saint George was upon his horse. Making the sign of the cross, he rode bravely against the dragon which and struck him with his spear, wounding him badly and throwing him to the ground.

Then he said to the maid, “Take your belt and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afraid.”

When she had done so the dragon followed her as if it were a meek beast and debonair, leading him into the city.

The legend ends with George calling on the local people to be baptized. The king agrees, also promising to build and maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and be generous to the poor.

From the point of view of history, the story is pure myth. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated — the ruthless power of an emperor — than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and, in embracing martyrdom, was victorious over a dragon-like adversary whose methods terrified and silenced most people at the time. We can understand the dragon as representing anything that makes us afraid and leads us to conform to a death-dealing society.

The white horse George rides in icons and paintings, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George in his disobedience to the emperor. It is the courage God gives to any Christian who would prefer to die rather than to collaborate with evil.

In many versions of the Saint George icon, the lance the hero holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God rather than the strength of man that overcomes evil. The lance is usually shown as being pencil thin and often has a small cross at the top, thus stressing visually that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the life-giving Cross — the Cross that opens the path to the resurrection. Similarly, even in his battle with the dragon, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face serves to remind the viewer of Christ’s commandment that his followers must love their enemies even in resisting them.

In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes from before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s parents watch all that happens. Icons sometimes show Elizabeth leading the defeated dragon on a leash made of her belt, the enemy made tame — a symbol of victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town provides us with a powerful image of transformation. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster or financial reward for successful combat but the inspiration George gave to unbelieving people to embrace conversion. The time of worshiping dragons and sacrificing one’s children to them is over.

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends become compressed into myths, as the tale of Saint George bears witness, but there are many stories of the encounters of saints with beasts that may stand on more solid historical foundations.

St Francis icon - FlorenceOne of them concerns one of the greatest medieval saints, Francis of Assisi. Toward the end of his life he received an appeal for help from the people of Gubbio, an ancient Umbrian walled town north of Assisi. Their problem was a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves as if for combat before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

What the townspeople expected of Francis is not clear, but when Francis said he intended to meet the wolf face-to-face, they sought to dissuade him. They had no desire to cause the death of a neighbor who had long since sworn off the possession or use of any weapon. What chance could an unarmed man wearing a cloak of rags have against a wild animal? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life:

Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp … and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

While keeping a safe distance, some local peasants followed Francis. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running as if to attack. The story continues:

The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God … stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf came up to Francis, lowered his head and then lay down at his feet as though he were a pet dog. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into his deadly enemy. Francis said:

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the nervous local populace met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said “calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf which can only kill the body.” He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” Pledging himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf,” Francis assured them that the wolf would now live in peace with them, but that they were now obliged to feed him every day.

After living harmlessly within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”

Is the story true in the journalistic sense? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for the effect Francis often had on violent, wolf-like men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend of ours, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that, during restoration work, the bones of a wolf were found buried within a church in Gubbio.

St Gerasimos and the lionAnother saint remembered for peaceful relations with wild animals is Gerasimos of the Jordan, shown in icons holding the paw of a lion. The story behind the image comes down to us from Saint John Moschos, a monk of Saint Theodosius Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book written in the course of journeys he made in the late sixth century. It’s a collection of stories of monastic saints, mainly desert dwellers, and also can be regarded as a very early example of travel writing.

In the fifth century Gerasimos was abbot of a community of seventy monks who lived in the desert east of Jericho, a mile from the River Jordan. The monks slept on reed mats, had cells without doors, and — apart from common prayer — normally observed silence. Their diet consisted chiefly of water, dates and bread. Gerasimos, in ongoing repentance for having been influenced by the teachings of a heretic in his youth, is said to have eaten even less than the norm.

One day, while walking along the Jordan, Gerasimos came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw. Overcome with compassion for the suffering beast, Gerasimos removed the splinter, drained and cleaned the wound, then bound it up, expecting the lion would return to its cave. Instead the creature meekly followed him back to the monastery and became the abbot’s devoted pet. The whole community was amazed at the lion’s apparent conversion to a peaceful life — he now lived on bread and vegetables — and its devotion to the abbot.

The lion was given the special task of guarding the community’s donkey, which was pastured along the Jordan. But one day it happened that, while the lion napped, the donkey was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The brothers concluded the lion had been overcome by its instinctual appetite for meat. As punishment the lion was given the donkey’s job of carrying water each day from the river to the monastery in a saddle pack fitted with four earthen jars.

A year later, it happened that the same trader was coming along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the trader ran away. Taking its rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey back to the monastery with the camels following behind. The monks realized, to their shame, that they had misjudged the lion. The same day Gerasimos gave the lion a name: Jordanes. The repentant trader afterwards delivered an annual gift of olive oil to the monastery.

For five more years, until the abbot’s death, Jordanes was part of the monastic community. When the elder fell asleep in the Lord and was buried, Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring its grief and beating its head against the ground. Finally Jordanes rolled over and died on the last resting place of Gerasimos.

The narrative touches the reader intimately, inspiring the hope that the wild beast that still roars within us may yet be pacified, while the story’s second half suggests that, when falsely accused of having returned to an unconverted life, vindication may finally happen.

The icon of Saint Gerasimos focuses on a moment of physical contact between monk and lion — an Eden-like moment with an act of healing at its core. By the river of Christ’s baptism, the Jordan, an ancient harmony we associate with Adam and Eve before the Fall is renewed. Enmity is over between man and creation, at least for a time in the small island of peace brought into being through one man’s merciful action. The icon presents us with an image of peace — man and beast no longer threatening each other’s life.

But again the question arises: Is the story true? Certainly Abbot Gerasimos is real. Many texts refer to him. He was one of the participants in the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451 AD. Soon after his death he was recognized as a saint. The monastery he founded lasted for centuries, a center of spiritual life and a place of pilgrimage. He is remembered as one of the great elders of the Desert. But what about Jordanes? Might the lion be just a graphic metaphor for the Gerasimos’s ability to convert some of the lion-like people who came to him? Or might the story be as real as any event in today’s news reports?

Unlikely stories about saints are not rare. Some are so remarkable — for example the legend of Saint Nicholas bringing back to life three murdered children whose bodies had been hacked to pieces and then boiled in a stew pot — that the miracles related in the four Gospels seem not so impressive by comparison. Yet even the most far­fetched legend usually has a basis in the character of the saint: Nicholas was tireless and resourceful in his efforts to protect the lives of the defenseless. On one occasion he prevented the execution of three young men who had been condemned to death. In icons that include biographical scenes, we find him grasping an executioner’s blade that was about the fall on one prisoner’s neck. It’s a story that has the ring of truth in the most prosaic sense. The miracle here is the saint’s courage in saving lives while endangering his own. Christ’s mercy shines through Nicholas’s act of intervention.

A Gerasimos-like story comes down to us from the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, one of the towering figures of eighteenth-century Russia. In some icons he is shown feeding a bear at the door of his log cabin. Living deep in the Russian forest, visitors occasionally found Seraphim sharing his ration of bread with bears and wolves. “How is it,” he was asked, “that you have enough bread in your bag for all of them?” “There is always enough,” Seraphim answered. He once remarked of a bear that visited him, “I understand fasting, but he does not.”

It’s not unlikely that Jordanes was as real as Seraphim’s bear. In the fifth century, lions could still be found in the wilderness along the Jordan. We can easily imagine Gerasimos as a man from whom all fear had been burned away by compassion.

Lions have a special place in the human imagination. From the classical world to our own era, the lion has chiefly been regarded as danger incarnate, the most iconic image of “nature red in tooth and claw.” And yet at times the symbol is transfigured. The lion becomes an image of beauty, grace and courage. In The Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis chose a lion to represent Christ. The handsome stone lions on guard outside the main entrance of the New York Public Library have always struck me as guardians of truth and wisdom.

Loving Our Enemies cover aThere is still one more wrinkle to the ancient story of Gerasimos and Jordanes. Saint Jerome, the great scholar responsible for rendering the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, long honored in the West as patron saint of translators, lived for years in a cave near the place of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem only a two-day walk from Gerasimos’s monastery. The name of Gerasimos is not very different from Geronimus, the Latin word for Jerome. Pilgrims from the West apparently connected the story told of Gerasimos with Jerome. Given the fact that Jerome sometimes wrote letters with a lionish bite, perhaps it’s appropriate that Gerasimos’s lion eventually wandered into images of Jerome. It’s rare to find a painting of Jerome in which the lion is absent.

The stories of the man-and-beast encounters of Francis of Assisi, Gerasimos of the Jordan and Seraphim of Sarov are parables of the conversion of enmity into friendship. For the would-be peacemaker, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have an icon of at least one of these saints somewhere in your home. Need an image to stimulate courage? Get an icon of Saint George battling the dragon.

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