This month, we will celebrate the feast day of St. George. His history is warped, like an old piece of lumber left out in the rain. His story is lost to us in antiquity and we can no longer see the true beauty of its natural color or grain, nor its true age when it was first hewn and planed. What we’re left with is a foggy mist full of legend, mystery, myth, and a delicious temptation to make him into something he was not. I’ll try not to do that today, but I will try to do his memory justice because he is my patron and his story speaks to us still in a very real way.
Someone once asked me if I thought I was good writer. I said, “No, I’ve never been a good writer, but I’m a damned good story teller.” Being of Irish descent doesn’t justify this assertion, although it comes close. It was something my grandmother (we called her Nanny) told me. In the Great Depression, just to put a few coins into the family’s poor coffer, my Nanny used to read palms and tea leaves. People were anxious to know the future because the present was so dismal.
I know, I know, such practices are frowned upon, if not condemned, in our church. Yet, in certain Irish families this was an accepted ancient tradition and paranormal ability was passed on from generation to generation. My own mother has this “gift” and I call it that, not to vindicate or excuse, but because I think there’s a distinct difference between sorcery and a blessing of acute intuition. I’m just saying that the “gift” of prophesy has always been alive and well amongst the Irish, and that this was only done in extreme circumstances and not just for money or entertainment (my Nanny’s pastor chastised her for it, she confessed and never again took the few coins for her prognosticative capabilities).
Nevertheless, there are people who can “see” things that pass beyond the veil, which separates us from our brethren just across the river and may give us a little insight into the past as well as the future. There is no question in my mind that this “gift” runs deep in the roots of my family’s tree.
Well now, my Nanny looked at my palm one day, after we pleaded with her as grandchildren do, and said with uncharacteristic conviction “Georgie, you have the gift of the Seanchaí (bearer of old lore in the oral tradition; a village storyteller).” She also told me that my name was George for a reason. She said that I would be like a knight, as St. George was, and would fight for purity and love.
Hold on, this was my Nanny talking not yours. If it was your grandma she’d probably say something similar about you, okay?
Just think on what this would do to a young boy’s imagination: a knight? – an honest to goodness sword-in-the-hand knight atop a white steed, with both the horse and the handsome rider adorned in polished armor and a lance topped with a gilded cross of gold? Are you kidding me?
A Change of Heart
There are somethings the good Lord allows without equivocation although they may not seem quite right in the eyes of men. One of these is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. I have no idea if the Blessed Virgin Mary ever did this. But, since this is not a sin, and she was, after all, a woman, my guess is she did this to Joseph on a number of occasions.
My advice to newly married men is quite simple: if you paint the bathroom in a color close to what your wife specified, there is no sure guaranty this will be acceptable. Keep your brushes wet, because depending upon what time of day it is or if the lighting is not quite right, guess what, mission not accomplished.
When it came time for me to be born, my mother had a choice to make. It was Good Friday and the labor pains started with regularity signaling it was time to alert dad and get moving. Early the next morning, on Holy Saturday, mom was still lying on a gurney in the hall of the hospital because there weren’t enough beds available in the maternity ward.
This was in April of 1957: right in the middle of the phenomenon called the “Baby Boomer” generation: when the Sailors, Airmen, Guardsmen, Gyrenes and GI’s (I capitalize these in honor of their sacrifice), thankful for living through the world’s greatest conflagration, came home and promptly married their sweethearts. Pregnant woman were as common as a ten-penny nail.
Mom gutted it up. She once told me she felt privileged to endure the pains of my birth because it reminded her of the sufferings of Our Lord in His passion and crucifixion. And so it became mom’s Via Dolorosa. And, like Mary, and every woman who suffers through the pains of pregnancy and delivery, they bring to the world a new birth of possibility and redemption.
She promptly named me John, after her father-in-law. The birth certificate was issued and that should have been the end of that. But, it wasn’t. Mom had second thoughts. She took pen in hand (she has beautiful penmanship skills by the way; certainly a lost art) and struck a line through “John.” Then she wrote on top the name “George.” Thus, a knight was created and the cosmos changed – well, tilted a little bit – until the next boy born into the family arrived and was named “John,” to make it all better. No foul no loss.
Men simply do not understand a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. Governments, primarily controlled by men, certainly in the 50’s of the last century, did not either. Whenever I applied for anything: enter into a school system, get a social security card, try to pass my driver’s exam, travel to a foreign country and in need of a visa, the issue of who I really was came into question.
I should have left well enough alone. There’s a certain freedom in being off the books. I could have gone “dark” and the world would never have known. I could have committed crimes that would be blamed on my brother. But, no, I had to set things right.
Go figure, St. George had to do that, too.
There are a number of military saints that stand out in the two millennia since Our Savior walked this earth. St. Francis partially qualifies, but not quite. St. Martin of Tours certainly does. And, so too, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Joan of Arc, St. Longinus, Holy Michael the Archangel, St. Maurice, St. Sebastian, even St. Phillip Neri. Personally, I’d add St. Francis Xavier, for personal reasons, and because he was a brilliant tactician in the field to save souls.
Yet, no saint can muster as much military allegiance as does St. George. He was a soldier who would obey any command except deny Christ. And, that’s the measure of the man.
Before his martyrdom, legend has it that he was travelling one day, just minding his own business mind you, when he came upon a young damsel dressed in wedding attire. She was a princess who had just lost the local lottery. She explained to George that the town’s water supply was within the purview of a wicked dragon. The people tried to placate the beast by offering a couple of sheep, but this only increased the dragon’s appetite. The beast preferred people, especially young virgins. For lack of better words, the princess drew the wrong straw and would have to sacrifice her life. She pleaded with George to leave her presence, as the dragon was sure to claim his meal at any time. George, a faithful knight, stayed and tested his faith. He charged the dragon and using his trusty lance slayed the wicked creature to the delight of the princess and all concerned.
The story goes that St. George later joined the Emperor’s Guard and, in AD 303, refused Diocletian’s edict that every Christian soldier offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods or die. This was just another dragon. You see, the dragon is an allegory. It is really Satan or one of the demons in his legions, perhaps one our personal devils who plague us each and every day.
Dragons are nasty things.
They could be doubts or despair or, worse, depression.
St. George is honored in every nation and under every flag where the message of Christ has been planted and watered by the blood of martyrs who, like him, like Our Lord, himself, gave, as Lincoln said, “the last full measure of devotion.”
As you may know, Francis Cardinal George, of Chicago, has just joined the elect in the heavenly kingdom. What a knight he was. Remember his words. Remember his warning. And the next time we are called upon to sprinkle incense into the fire in order to pay homage to the gods of this world, remember the honor of St. George.
Thanks, mom. And thank you, O Lord, for a woman’s prerogative.