Monday, July 28, 2008

Catholic Saint: The Story of St. George

I'm going to tell you the story of the Saint who was more thought about and honoured in the old days than, perhaps, any other Saint who ever lived. He was from the very earliest times—in fact, from directly after his death—called "the Great Martyr." He became the patron of many countries and orders of knighthood, but specially in England was he loved, and his feast was kept as a great holiday, equal to Christmas. Already, before William the Conqueror came to England, our forefathers had begun to build churches in honour of St. George. But it was King Richard Cœur de Lion who specially spread devotion to St. George in England, because he took him as his own patron, and used his name as his battle-cry. "For God and St. George!" he would shout, as he swung his mighty battle-axe in the air and charged at the head of his knights toward the Saracen lines.

St. George several times appeared on a white horse, and led the Crusaders to victory when it seemed as if the enemy were going to put them to flight and come off victorious.

Many people think of St. George as a knight on a prancing horse, who killed a dragon and rescued a maiden in distress. But this is only a kind of parable or picture of the real St. George and what he did. The dragon is a picture of the wicked, heathen religion that tried to kill the beautiful young Church that Our Lord had made. St. George fought this dragon, and gave his life in the battle, but he rescued the maiden (who represents the Church); for his death seems to have rallied the Christians and filled them with new courage to fight bravely and stick to it, until at last the heathen dragon was overcome, and the Church of Christ was able to fill all the world with joy and truth and light.

Well, now I will tell you what the old books say about St. George; but we have not many details about his life, as we have about St. Francis's.

St. George lived a bit more than three hundred years after Christ. He was the son of a Roman soldier, a Christian, stationed in Palestine, which was a Roman colony. St. George was one of those brave, straightforward boys who are afraid of nothing—neither of themselves and their weakness, nor of other people and their unkindness. He practised "not giving in to himself," like a good Cub; and he thought a great deal of his honour, like a good Scout. And he knew that everything brave or good that he ever did was by the grace of his Captain, Christ, and not because he was any better himself than anybody else. He could ride well, shoot an arrow straight, and use a spear or a broadsword as well as any Roman boy. But it was not so much this as his way of obeying quickly, and keeping his word, and never giving in to himself, which made him rise from promotion to promotion when he joined the Roman army.

He was still very young when he was made what we should now call a Colonel, and given a great deal of responsibility. In fact, the Emperor thought no end of him, and people whispered that some day he would be head of the army and one of the most important men in the Roman Empire. This was rather wonderful, because the Emperor, Diocletian, was a heathen and hated Christians, and, as I told you, St. George was a very good Christian.

In those days the Christian Church was no longer hiding in the Catacombs, but had come out into the open, and nearly half Diocletian's Empire was Christian. But something—probably pride—made Diocletian hate the Christians, and he decided to do all he could to destroy the Church of Christ, and force the people back into the old religion, and worship a god that was really not very different from Cæsar, the Emperor, himself.

So he first tried burning down the churches, and then imprisoning the priests and bishops. But one day he suddenly got mad, and gave an order that if the people would not worship the Roman gods and offer incense to them, and swear that they no longer believed in Christ, his soldiers would kill them like beasts and leave them in the streets, as a ghastly warning to any other fools who refused to obey.

So the soldiers went forth, sword in hand, and every man, woman, and child who refused to give up Christ was killed, or wounded and left to bleed to death.

Now, no one had thought that Diocletian would ever go as far as this, and when the horrible news was brought to St. George he was filled with rage. The Emperor was, of course, his master, but there and then he vowed that he would not stay in the service of a vile murderer, a coward who could stain his sword with the blood of women and little children; and he prepared at once to go to the Emperor, and say straight out all that was burning in his heart.

Now, his friends knew that nothing would more enrage the Emperor than this, because he thought a lot of St. George, and yet he was proud and obstinate, and nothing would make him stop persecuting the Christians. If St. George spoke as he said he would, it would certainly mean no chance of promotion, no becoming head of the army; perhaps, even, it would mean imprisonment; possibly death. So they simply begged St. George not to go. But do you think he was that sort? Not much! The last thing he wanted was promotion in the army of a man who was the cruel enemy of Christ and the murderer of his fellow-Christians. So he set spurs to his horse, and rode off for the Emperor's Court.

Diocletian was surprised to see him arrive suddenly, travel-stained and apparently in a great hurry; and still more was he surprised when, instead of speaking with reverence and respect, he let the words almost burst forth from his full heart, and told the Emperor that it would be better if he paid honour to the God from Whom he had received his sceptre, instead of murdering the faithful servants of that God.

Diocletian was first surprised and then angry. But he tried to laugh it off, because he was really fond of St. George. Then he tried reasoning with the young soldier, and explaining that he had to keep the Christians in good discipline in case they might revolt or get proud and rebellious. But St. George would listen to no reasons or excuses, and, unbuckling his sword, he laid it down, resigning his commission in the army of a man who could act so dishonourably.

Then Diocletian got very angry indeed. He gave orders that St. George should be put in a dark dungeon, and loaded with chains until his pride should be broken, and he should be willing to humble himself before the Emperor. So angry was he that he made up his cruel mind that now he would even force St. George to give up the Christian religion himself, and that no pains should be spared to make him do this.

Alone in the dark, dank, icy-cold dungeon, St. George lay in his heavy chains, and wondered what was going to happen next. It was very horrible, down there, and he ached in every limb, and he was very hungry; but somehow he felt kind of glad inside, because he knew he was suffering all this for Christ's sake.

One day, when his gaoler brought him his ration of hard bread, he told him that he had heard a rumour that the executioner was coming to the dungeon, and that if St. George did not give a satisfactory answer he would be put to torture. The gaoler said it would, he thought, be a very painful kind of torture, and St. George had better be reasonable.

When he had gone St. George sat in the darkness with his heart beating rather fast. He wondered what sort of torture it would be, and if he would be able to stick it. Then he remembered that Our Lord had suffered awful tortures, and had foretold that His friends would have to, as well. So he asked Our Lord to give him grace to be able to stick anything the Emperor should do, and then he felt quite happy again.

Well, the hours dragged by, and at last St. George heard the tramp of feet on the stone stairs. Then there was a creak as the great key was turned in the lock, and bolts were shot back. The door opened, and there stood the executioner and two soldiers, one carrying a lantern.

The executioner, who had known St. George as a Colonel in the army, spoke respectfully. He gave St. George a message from the Emperor, saying that if he would come back and offer incense to the gods, and apologize for his proud words, he would get his liberty and be given back his commission. St. George laughed, and said he certainly wouldn't. Then the executioner said that in that case the Emperor had commanded that he should be tortured till he agreed to do all he was told.

The soldiers loosened his chains, and he was led out and up the stairs. The blazing, blinding sun dazzled his eyes after the dimness of the dungeon. The pavement of the courtyard seemed burning to his cold, bare feet. Soldiers looked curiously at him as he passed, but of course didn't salute, now. He was taken away to the horrible place of execution, and there a new form of torture was applied to him—a great wheel full of spikes into which he was thrust. When he was dragged out his body was one mass of wounds, and his blood dripped down on to the floor. He was carried on a stretcher back to the dungeon; and the executioner felt quite sure that when he was well enough to answer he would agree to do anything the Emperor wanted.

St. George was dazed with pain and loss of blood. His body seemed to burn all over. The darkness made his eyes ache, and he lay hour after hour, wondering how soon he would die. He had got to the point when he thought he simply couldn't bear another moment, when he heard a Voice in the darkness, and It said: "Fear not, George, for I am with thee."

His heart seemed to leap up, for he knew for certain that it was Our Lord's Voice—he could not possibly mistake it. And suddenly all the pain seemed a thousand times worth while, and he was glad he had had it; and he didn't feel lonely any more; and he just lay in the darkness and talked to Our Lord, knowing that He was near. And he forgot his pain.

Well, when a Roman officer came to receive his message to the Emperor St. George was able to laugh—rather weakly this time—and say he had no message for the Emperor, except that he had better stop murdering Christians, and beg God's mercy before it was too late.

The officer thought St. George was rather a fool, and a very brave man, and he went back to the Emperor.

A few days later the executioner arrived once more, and again led St. George across the sunny courtyard. St. George remembered the Voice of Christ saying, "I am with thee," and he was not afraid. This time they rolled a great heavy stone over his body, so that his bones were crushed and bruised, and then they carried him back to the dungeon.

When the officer came for his answer he could hardly believe that St. George dared still to refuse. He told the Emperor what St. George had said. The Emperor was surprised and sorry, for he saw that St. George must be a very brave man. He also saw that it was no good waiting any longer, or trying to force him, so he sent the executioner once again.

This time the executioner told St. George that his last chance had come. Either he must give up Christ, or he must face death. The words sent a kind of thrill through St. George—a thrill of horror at the thought of death, which turned into a thrill of joy at the thought of going into the presence of Christ, and hearing His wonderful Voice again, only this time seeing Him, too. And he rejoiced, also, to think he would really be a martyr. So he whispered faintly—for he could hardly speak now—that nothing in all the world would make him give up Christ.

So the soldiers took off his chains and dragged him up to his feet, and he walked slowly, with weak, swaying steps, into the sun.

"Fear not." He said the words over to himself. No, he wouldn't fear! "I am with thee." How wonderful! "And soon," he said in his heart, "I shall be with Thee!" And so he knelt down and waited.

And the executioner's great axe flashed in the sun as he swung it aloft, and the next instant the blood of "the Great Martyr" was streaming across the white pavement, as St. George's Cross streams scarlet across the white ground of his flag.

The soul of "the Great Martyr" had entered Heaven, where the angels rejoiced at his coming, when the Christians picked up his poor, broken body and carried it away. It was buried in a beautiful tomb, and before long a great church had been built over it. On every hand people talked of "the Great Martyr," and the Christians rejoiced at his courage, and cheered each other on to resist bravely. Many of the heathen, seeing that St. George could suffer tortures and die for his faith, began to believe in the Christ he loved, and were baptized. Diocletian himself began to fear a little, and the butchering stopped.

And so it was that the maiden in distress, the persecuted Church of Christ, was saved by her brave knight, St. George.

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