Of the Dragon’s Party: St George’s Day 2020

Jost Haller - Saint George slaying the dragon, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar
Unterlinden Museum / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Audio version at the end.

Although I love England, I have never subscribed to the kind of nationalism that wraps itself in the flag or becomes misty-eyed whenever confronted with a member of the Royal Family. Still less would I assert that ‘my country is the best/greatest/most important in the world’. Love can be clear-eyed and is at its truest when most humble. On St George’s Day, therefore, my patriotism is of the low-key kind that delights in the beauty of landscape and seascape, the basic decency of the English people, and makes no absurd claims about ‘greatness’. We are not in competition with one another. We are all God’s children, and I have no difficulty acknowledging that many bad things have been done in the name of England as well as many good ones.

St George has not always been our patron saint. He usurped St Edmund in the Middle Ages. As a result, we have some splendidly dynamic art – and a few problems. Take the legend, for example. Our Syrian hero comes upon a young woman being held captive by a dragon, so he decides to free her by slaying the dragon. Cue general applause. Rescuing damsels in distress is unobjectionable, surely. But is there something more to consider? Deep in the male psyche I suspect there lurks the desire to do deeds of derring-do, and rescuing those weaker than oneself is an excellent excuse for feats of arms. It has been the pretext for countless wars almost since time began. But did St George stop to ask the damsel whether she wanted to be rescued? And did he have to kill the dragon to achieve his aim? That is where the applause becomes a little uncertain and a dilemma appears.

So many misunderstandings begin with good intentions and a failure to see another’s point of view. We make assumptions and forget that others do not share them. We may not be in a position to start a war or arrange a ‘regime change,’ but most of us can give others the benefit of our advice, blithely unaware that it may not be as necessary or useful as we think. I did so myself yesterday and was justly rewarded by being treated as an old ‘has been’. Those who know and love Paradise Lost will agree that Milton was of the devil’s party without realising it. Today, as I celebrate St George, I think I’ll try to be one of the dragon’s party — more modest in my assumptions, more honest about my own fallibility and vulnerability . . . more English perhaps.

St George’s nationality is much debated, although the concept of national identity was fluid at the time of his supposed birth. He is often said to have been born in Cappadocia, but was he Greek? Was he Syrian? Did the dragon he killed live in Libya? The different stories serve to remind us that the Church is bigger than national identities. In calling him Syrian, I am simply following the martyrology we use here — a reminder of our country’s involvement overseas and the complex issues that stem from it.

Audio Version


Words, Words, Words

Depending on your interests, today is remarkable for being Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary, the feast of St George (only it isn’t, because the Easter Octave takes precedence), or the day we read Luke 24.13–35 and our hearts burn within us as Jesus opens the scriptures to us. The connection between all three is words.

Words tumble from our lips, ooze out on the page, trip through our tweets and generally identify us as human — we are not so much homo sapiens as homo loquens. The trouble is, as Swinburne remarked, ‘words divide and rend’ as much as they unite. Misunderstandings, deliberate falsehoods, churlish or rude remarks, they all contribute to the world’s pain. Just as a word can illuminate, enchant, build up or otherwise contribute to another’s well-being, so a word can break down, destroy. The monastic practice of silence, the cultivation of ‘few and sensible words’, stems from a realisation that in Christ God has uttered the only word that is utterly loving, forgiving and redemptive. That is the Word we must embrace and allow to speak through us today.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Slaying Dragons

St George’s Day is a good day for slaying dragons. The Greek word drakon means serpent, and I have often wondered whether all the dragon-slaying and serpent-exiling saints of late antiquity and the early medieval period were, in fact, hagiographical manifestations of or identifications with our fear of evil.

It’s interesting that I lost many follows on Twitter yesterday when I wrote about the distinction between evil deeds and someone who is  intrinsically evil. It may be that some people prefer not to follow someone whose opinions they find eccentric or unpalatable, but I wouldn’t mind wagering that a few were disconcerted by what I said, even afraid of it — perhaps thinking I was playing down the seriousness of evil (though if you read what I wrote you will have seen that the opposite is true). Perhaps I sent a shiver down a few spines.

Why are we afraid of evil, even when we know that Christ has won the victory? I think myself that our fear, which is a salutary one provided we don’t allow it to overpower us, has much to do with our perception of evil as very clever — much cleverer than we are. The serpent in the Garden of Evil was very beautiful but also ‘the most subtle of all the beasts’. We are unsettled by the subtelty of others. We prefer (or say we prefer) plain speaking. The glamour of evil, the empty promises, the specious speech, wraps its obsidian coils around us; and we protest. Unfortunately, we forget the labyrinthine ways in which we excuse ourselves to ourselves. We may not cry out, ‘Evil, be thou my good,’ but we can be dangerously fond of the half-truth, the white lie and the shabby accommodations which seem to make life pleasanter for everyone — only they don’t.

Today, as we pray for England and all the other countries and people claiming St George as patron, let us also pray for ourselves: that we may be ready to put to death anything in us which is not straight or true. The dragons we need to slay may be much closer to home than Palmyra.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail