Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Saint George & the Dragon
Yesterday I saw the cover art for my fourth children’s book, “Saint George & The Dragon.” It features the most colorful dragon I’ve ever seen, painted by the iconographer Vladislav Andreyev. This is not a dragon to play with! Yet in this profoundly Christian legend the dragon is only wounded by George. After the battle the people in the nearby town, whose children had been his food, are given charge of caring for their former enemy.
Today I have been trying to recall when the writing of this story had its first inspiration and realize it was in July 1987, when Nancy and I were in Russia together -- Nancy’s first visit there.
One of the main events of our days in the Moscow region was driving out to the St. Sergius-Holy Trinity Lavra. Before we finished that visit, we were taken around the monastery’s small museum by a young priest monk, Father Alexei.
Mainly he wanted us to look closely at the icons, one of which was of St. George. He pointed out that the saint’s combat with a dragon was not meant to represent an historical event in George’s life. “The dragon represents evil,” he said. “But the icon makes clear that it isn't George who slays the dragon. If you look closely, you see he isn't really holding the spear, just touching it lightly. It rests in his hand. Also notice the calm dispassion in George’s face. The iconographer makes clear that this is a battle without enmity. Also notice how thin the lance is -- thin as a pencil, not at all suited for combat -- and see the cross at the top. St. George is fighting not with a military weapon but with the holy and life-giving cross. The icon show us that it is only the strength of God that overcomes evil, not our own strength."
An abiding devotion to St. George took root that day -- and this small book had its genesis.
* more about the book...
* a collection of icons, paintings and sculptures of St. George...
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Here is the entry about that day at the lavra that was published back in 1988 in Pilgrim to the Russian Church:
The most memorable part of our visit was the time we had with a young monk named Father Alexei. He spoke to us chiefly about the vital importance of mystical union with God through Christ: that it is possible, that it is worth one's total efforts, one's life, that indeed life is empty and pointless without it, and that it only happens within the community of faith, the Church.
"This Lavra is the center of the Russian Orthodox Church, and St. Sergius is the heart of the Lavra," Fr. Alexei said in welcoming us. "His heart encompasses the whole world."
As we stood before a model of the Roman catacombs where Christians worshiped during times of persecution, Fr. Alexei asked, "What caused this obedience to Christ? What caused believers to risk their lives but never to threaten anyone and never to defend themselves? The Christians could have taken up arms but instead they gave up their lives. They had the strength of obedience to Christ. Obedience is of the utmost importance, even obedience to death. They gave witness -- the Greek word for witness is martyr -- with their own blood."
As we stood before the oldest icon in the seminary collection, dating from the Ninth Century, he said: "Icons also are witnesses to Christ. It has been said that the fact that there is a Holy Trinity icon painted by Rublev is proof of the existence of God. Without communion with God, such an icon cannot be made. Without God we are not capable of such beauty. A lesser beauty has its roots in a greater beauty.
"Culture is based on cult. Culture forms us. In the Russian icon, the Russian recognizes his own culture, his self, because it is the Russian vision of God, something absolute. It comes from union with God. Western art is a big step down from this. It mirrors the culture only as an image of people removed from union with God. The state of the soul is reflected in what one paints and what one wants to look at.
"God teaches us how to get in contact with each other and how to treat the world. A useful way to understand our relationship to God and to each other is to picture God as the center of a wheel with ourselves at various points on the radii. As we approach God, the center, we approach each other, and as we move away from the center, we move away from each other. You cannot approach God without approaching others also. God asks us to love our enemies. That's difficult! But it is the way of perfection. We are called to achieve it. Someone isn't a saint because of his high morality but because of his communion with God. It is out of that communion with God that a saint loves his enemy. He cannot do otherwise. Love of enemies can occur only with love of God. The two happen simultaneously.
"Christ didn't say thinking is the way. He said love is the way. But sometimes it looks like madness. You have heard about the Holy Fools, the Fools for Christ. Some of the saints intentionally put on the mask of madness. Under their rags they often wear a heavy metal cross. Without a purified heart this wouldn't be possible. It is done to achieve the gift of humility without which it is impossible to love anyone.
"It is said that one of the Fools for Christ was taken into heaven where he saw many saints but not the Mother of God. He asked the angel guiding him where she was. 'She is on the sinful earth helping humanity.' He realized that the saints can enjoy all the gifts of paradise but they continue to be with us in our suffering.
"There are 700 basic models of icons, and far more models of sanctity. But in each case the perfected Christian has not achieved perfection through his own good works, but by faith, which can come only through the sacraments, only through the Church. We cannot be saved alone. We must be part of a community."
Looking at a fifteenth century icon of St. George slaying the dragon. Fr. Alexei pointed out that the saint’s combat with a dragon was not meant to represent an historical event in George’s life. “The dragon represents evil,” he said. “But the icon makes clear that it isn't George who slays the dragon. If you look closely, you see he isn't really holding the spear, just touching it lightly. It rests in his hand. Also notice the calm dispassion in George’s face. The iconographer makes clear that this is a battle without enmity. Also notice how thin the lance is -- thin as a pencil, not at all suited for combat -- and see the cross at the top. St. George is fighting not with a military weapon but with the holy and life-giving cross. The icon show us that it is only the strength of God that overcomes evil, not our own strength."
St. Paul, in a nearby icon, is shown holding the Bible with a powerful grip. "You see him full of life, ready to sacrifice himself. You feel his anguished love of his brothers and sisters so profound that he was prepared to be separated from Christ if that would draw others closer. The Bible is shown in reverse perspective. The Bible is smaller for the person standing in front of the icon than it is for St. Paul. You realize that you are only at the beginning of the road of faith. It is only in deeds for God's sake that we start on the way to God."
We stood before the relics of St. Sergius: two chalices made of wood, several small icons, one of his sandals, a tool he used in making wooden toys. (Zagorsk is still renowned for its wooden toys.)
Fr. Alexei said that there are still experiences at the Lavra of people encountering St. Sergius. "In one case a pilgrim came from a remote part of the country and had made no arrangements to stay anywhere for the night. It began to rain. An old man came up to him and asked, 'Why are you standing in the rain? Please join me.' They walked for fifteen minutes to a little cabin. The old man gave his guest bread and water and a bench to lay on. When the man woke in the morning, the cabin was gone. The pilgrim discovered he was under a for tree. He told the monks what had happened. They knew that once again St. Sergius himself had cared for another pilgrim."
We eagerly listened to everything Fr. Alexei said, like hungry people being fed. We could sense his excitement and the mounting enthusiasm he felt as he shared more and more with us. Finally, when we parted, he thanked us for our attentiveness, and said, "I think one day you will become naturalized Russian citizens."
[The prophecy has yet to be fulfilled, but in 1988 we became “naturalized citizens” of the Russian Orthodox Church.]
Fr. Alexei spoke so intently and with such clear devotion and intelligence that even our translator, Vasili, was impressed, "old hard-boiled egg though I am."
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