Saint George

“God for Harry, England and Saint George!” It is the 399th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, after a drinking bout with Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, and perhaps a few other old pals at a Stratford inn. It may also be the Bard’s 451st birthday, and — who knows? — perhaps the 416th anniversary of the performance of Henry V. Numerologists may further be reminded that, come Saint Crispin’s Day this year (October 25th), it will be the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

That play, incidentally — the concluding work in a tetralogy which offers an extended meditation on the nature of kingship in both world and soul — contains more ironies than the modern mind can keep up with. We are genuinely naïve if we accept Henry V as the model of a noble Christian hero. The resolution, in blood, of human inadequacy, has been undertone through all four plays, and the “patriotism” attributed to the dramatist in this case is very far from triumphal. As I’ve been teaching my young charges in the seminary, quite apart from paper evidence for his Roman affiliation, Shakespeare is a deeply Catholic thinker, a child of the lost world of Thomas More, and no Little Englander. For all the splendour of his love, chiefly for his native Warwickshire, his allegiance is consistently to the Far Countrie.


Saint George himself is much bigger than England; and patron in many other places beyond his native Cappadocia. Venerated both in East and West, he was a figure of holy significance in Palestine long, long before his red cross was raised on the standards of the Crusaders. A soldier in the retinue of Diocletian, born around 270 AD, he was “about the age of Christ” (as Robert Southwell put it) when he went to his death as many another Christian in the Middle East — dragged through the streets of Diospolis (now Lod) and beheaded. For he had ignored the instructions of his caesar, to persecute other Christians in that way, resigning his commission instead.

Diocletian was not an emperor to be toyed with. He was the tenth in the line of Roman emperors persecuting Christians, starting with Nero. To this day the Copts of Egypt count the years in their calendar from Gregorian 284 AD — the year of Diocletian’s ascension to imperial majesty. Many other Christians throughout the region mark with especial gravity, too, the great moulid of 23rd February 303. For this was the date of Diocletian’s most definitive Decree.

(Moulid means “birthday,” in this case the day a martyr is born, in Heaven. The Khedive Ismail formally imposed the Gregorian calendar on Egypt in 1875 — he was a modernizer — but in rural Egypt the Anno Martyrum calendar is still observed, not exclusively by Christians. It preserves the old procession of the year through the three seasons of the Nile — flood, planting, and harvest — in months named for ancient Egyptian gods, reflecting an order of life continuing from the Pharaohs.)

Note, carefully for justice, that this Decree came centuries before the launch of Islam, for the Muslims have never had a monopoly on monstrous behaviour. Then consider the details: All churches to be demolished. All scripture to be burnt. All suspected Christians to be removed from public office. All clergy to be arrested and tortured.

The Emperor Diocletian himself came to Egypt, to supervise the slaughter of Christians, vowing to remain until their blood reached the depth of his horse’s knee. Hence his especial infamy in Egypt.

Yet strangely enough, we and even they “owe” Diocletian. In a similar way, we owe the heretics for the development of Christian orthodoxy. It could not have been expressed with such spiritual depth and rational consistency had the antitheses not been stated with such force. Developments were inspired by the most painful “events.”

There is no evil in this world from which good cannot be drawn. The treasures of Egyptian and Syrian monasticism, and all that followed through that first Benedict, of Nursia, and even before him through the Irish saints (with their Egyptian contacts), and other coenobitic movements finally from all around the world, are indebted to Diocletian. This is because so many Christians fled his ministrations — were driven out into the deserts in pursuit of obscure wadis, and up into mountains beyond the pagan soldiers’ reach.

Only today, these eighteen centuries later, aided by modern Western inventions such as GPS, are the Islamist fanatics able to locate some of Diocletian’s monastic descendants, still out in the wilderness. I pray some may remain too far away for them to bother.


Martyrdom is ours, and births out of this world, but alongside runs the train of memory. Time and memory are elusive things, which, as Augustine explained, we may think we understand, until our thinking is examined.

In my experience, the people of the Middle East have long memories; not only the Muslims. I have myself a strange memory, for I experience flashbacks to moments in my former life, of a seemingly eidetic precision. (This dubious gift was inherited from my mother.) Often, in Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land wherein they overlap, I had the sense of whole cultures with this curious condition, able suddenly to refer to an event many centuries before, very much as if it had happened yesterday. How often, too, the papyrus fragments that wash up from the desert sands, seem to participate in the same “dream,” by confirming little details.

Saint George on his charger, rescuing the maid, is known as a European invention, an expression of our antique mediaeval whimsy. It is dismissed as so much poetical fluff. But it is the echo of something much older, of which I became aware in my travels. There is a bay just north of modern Beirut, where something like this event is said to have happened. It is recorded in speech, and also in the disintegrating frescoes of ruined Christian chapels, in the hills some miles inland. My mental archaeologist is still working on those details. In the narrative I think it was a small Christian boy whom Saint George rescued, descending from the skies. Not the earthly biological Saint George, but the posthumous one, if I understood correctly.

The saint is often invoked in this way, to this day, in Syria and Iraq. He acts out of a kind of whirlwind, comes from nowhere to intercede in the most fearful circumstances, as an angelic soldier — now retired from Diocletian’s command and instead in the retinue of Saint Michael. And as the satanic spirit of Diocletian has returned, so too that of Saint George — now as adversaries within this theatre of the battle that rages in the heavens as well as upon this earth. Many saints, many angels, many evangelists in many kinds, were once recorded on those walls, and illuminated in the monastic scriptoria — now fully eradicated from everything but memory. But nothing is lost, for that includes the infallible memory of God.


The tourists used to find such art in, for instance, the monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi (“Saint Moses the Abyssinian”), a wonderful elaboration of square-turreted masonry crooked into the hills, fifty miles north of Damascus. The ruin of it was meticulously restored — the roofs replaced; missing stonework patched with exactly matching stone-cutting methods; ancient frescoes patiently cleaned of coverings and reset in the traditional plaster; and all conscientiously recorded in modern scholarly form by Jesuits from Aleppo, led by the Italian archaeologist and priest Paolo Dall’Oglio. They made it into a retreat for “Christian-Muslim dialogue.” (A dialogue that had left off in the nineteenth century, when the paintings were whitewashed over, and the old Syrian monks fled, in deference to local Islamic sensibilities.)

A fine art historian, Erica Cruikshank Dodd, and her team, wrote a handbook of the history of Syrian Christian painting from the remains still traceable in that monastery — reflecting styles marrying Greek and Oriental traditions together, reaching back long before the Crusades. (Huge compositions such as the Last Judgement on the west wall of the monastic chapel have the quality of unfolding, as if from a grandiloquent Chinese ancestral scroll.) This work was published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto (2001). Robert Mason, an archaeologist with the Royal Ontario Museum, found evidence in the vicinity of its much longer history as a sacred site, going back to Neolithic times. Of course all this was cut off by the war.

Father Paolo, previously on the enemies list of Bashir Assad for his (rather pointless) peace activism, was captured by the Daish in July 2013, and not heard from after. An eyewitness reported that he was beheaded, and his body thrown into a hole with … many other bodies.

Having glimpsed this Deir Mar Musa myself, I have been eager to hear any news of its fate. The last mention I can find is a Christmas letter from 2013. A certain Sister Houda Fadoul confessed the bitterness, pain, and sadness in her heart, leaving us to guess at specific causes. Previously she had written: “Few of us come to a deep experience of faith other than through a profound depression. Often it seems that men are only capable to open themselves to the Lord through hopelessness and vulnerability of a complete disaster.”

Again, the Christians, in strident opposition to the wisdom of this world, look for good in the uttermost pit of evil, and beg forgiveness for their worst enemies, and seek deliverance from unseen places.

To which end we might pray, to Saint George on his “birthday.” For he is an old centurion, “a man under authority,” now under Christ’s, and thus like the faithful soldier to whom Christ said:

“Go! And as thou hast believed, be it done.”