I have seen St. George and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton eating, drinking, and playing games many times. That’s because both are favorites at All Saints Day costume parties.
St. George is the “red cross knight” who, legend has it, killed a dragon, and who has captured the imagination of poets, painters, and children for almost two thousand years. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the American girl who grew up to be a wife, mother, then widow, religious founder, and saint.
He is the remarkable saint of fantastic quests and romantic deeds. She is the ordinary saint of daily living and learning. They had nothing in common with each other except for Jesus Christ, and that means they have everything in common with each other — and with us.
St. George (280-303) is revered by both the Greek Church and the Latin Church, and he is the patron of countries as diverse as England, Portugal, Germany, and Ethiopia. The more fanciful stories of his life were grafted onto his biography centuries after he lived, but he was something better than a fantasy hero. He was a soldier who became a martyr, giving his life on the frontlines of the early Church’s spread throughout the Roman Empire, and the world.
St. Peter Damian (1007-1072), a bishop and Doctor of the Church, gave a famous sermon on St. George that gives the major lessons any Christian should learn from St. George.
The first lesson is that the Christian life is a battle.
“Saint George was a man who abandoned one army for another,” wrote St. Peter Damian. “He gave up the rank of tribune to enlist as a soldier for Christ.”
This leaving of a higher rank for a lesser rank is what each of us do in the Church. As Mother Seton described the Christian life to a family member, Jesus “has called you to so glorious a combat, and so tenderly supports you through it.”
“Beloved Child of Jesus — you shall have the victory, and he the glory,” she added.
St. George had to dress for battle in his new “army” not with armor, but with the cloak of poverty. “Eager to encounter the enemy, he first stripped away his worldly wealth by giving all he had to the poor,” said St. Peter Damian. “Then, free and unencumbered, bearing the shield of faith, he plunged into the thick of the battle, an ardent soldier for Christ.”
St. Elizabeth Ann offers the same advice:
“You will triumph, for it is Jesus who fights — not you my dear one,” she wrote. “Young and timid, weak, and irresolute, the Lamb could not stem a torrent, nor stand the beating storm — but the tender Shepherd takes it on his shoulder, casts his cloak about it, and the happy trembler finds itself at home before it knew its journey was half finished.”
St. Peter Damian sees great significance in the fact that St. George’s feast day has always been celebrated during the Easter season, the baptismal season.
“Anyone who wishes to offer himself to God in the tent of Christ, which is the Church, must first bathe in the spring of holy baptism; then he must put on the various garments of the virtues,” he said.
The best tales of the legends of St. George echo the Easter mysteries and incorporate the symbology of the sacraments. In Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, St. George is the Red Cross Knight who is revived by the Well of Life and the Tree of Life — symbols of Baptism and the Eucharist. His famous costume is white with a red cross emblem — a baptismal garment marked with the red of the blood of Christ.
For those already baptized, St. Peter Damian promotes confession to imitate St. George: “Truly we must be cleansed of the stains of our past sins and be resplendent in the virtue of our new way of life,” he said. “Then we can be confident of celebrating Easter worthily and of truly following the example of the blessed martyrs.”
When Elizabeth became Catholic as an adult, she saw the sacraments in the same terms.
She told her faith mentor Antonio Filicchi that as she approached her first Penance and Communion — “the day of Salvation for me” as she called it — “if like a coward I should run away from the field of battle I am sure the very Peace I seek would fly from me, and the state of Penance sanctified by the Will of God would be again wished for as the safest and surest road.”
St. George’s journey in legend is the same as his journey in real life, says St. Peter Damian — battling through obstacles to get to heaven.
“Let us not only admire the courage of this fighter in heaven’s army but follow his example,” said Father Peter Damian. “Let us be inspired to strive for the reward of heavenly glory, keeping in mind his example, so that we will not be swayed from our path, though the world seduce us with its smiles or try to terrify us with naked threats of its trials and tribulations.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton sees every Christian journey that way.
She told Antonio “your little sister is in a constant warfare,” and prayed that angels would guide her mentor in “your adventurous journey, and are still with you in the dangers that everywhere await a Christian especially one who fights to be as good as you.”
About that dragon, though — it’s hard to separate St. George and the creature that shows up in his iconography as consistently and prominently as the dragon.
St. Peter Damian himself mentions St. George’s battle with the ultimate dragon — the devil. But instead of the sword that boys love to add to their St. George costumes, he gives St. George an even more powerful weapon: the cross.
“Armed with the invincible standard of the cross,” he said, “he overcame the prince of all wicked spirits.”
Mother Seton agreed that rather than go out to meet him alone, the best strategy against the devil (who she nicknamed “Sam”) is to call on God.
“Sam offers his battles from time to time, but our Beloved stands behind the walls and keeps the wretch at his distance,” she said.
Her stirring advice to a Sister is great advice for us. “This is not a country my dear one for Solitude and Silence, but of warfare and crucifixion. You are not to stay in his silent agonies of the garden at night, but go from post to pillar to the very fastening on the cross.”
That is exactly what St. George did, to his glory.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Saint George and the Dragon, 1875, Villanueve-les-Bouloc, from Wikimedia Commons