Sr Mary Julian CHC on fighting the fight alongside St George and St Benedict
‘My choice withdrew you from the world.’ (John 15.19)
‘In every place it is the same Lord who is served, the same King for whom the battle is fought.’ (The Holy Rule of St Benedict, Ch. 61)
St George and St Benedict lived a couple of hundred years apart, and gave their lives to God in very different ways: St George in martyrdom, and St Benedict in the monastic life.
George is usually portrayed as the ideal soldier: wearing a glittering array of armour, with banners, weapons, and a magnificent caparisoned horse, and in the drama of the destruction of an evil and vicious dragon. Sometimes he is portrayed as George the Roman soldier: still with his armour, plumed helmet, and fine horse; but being martyred for being a soldier of Christ and refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor. He is impressive, exciting, and tragic: courageous in the face of suffering and death, and standing firm for Christ. Benedict, meanwhile, appears an unimportant looking figure: in a dark habit, belted with a simple strip of leather, sandals on his feet, fighting evil with the words of his Holy Rule.
These two dedicated Christians are utterly different from each other; but, as Benedict says, ‘in every place it is the same Lord who is served, the same King for whom the battle is fought’ (Rule of Benedict, 61). Both were equally dedicated to stamping out evil wherever they found it; and both are examples of faithfulness, steadfastness, and courage in the face of opposition. Both men were ‘chosen out of the world’ by God (John 15.19), and both are remembered for their self-giving: George in his martyrdom, and Benedict in his monastic life.
We are similarly chosen by God. We will not necessarily have a martyrdom to meet, or a monastic life to live; but we shall have our dragons to fight, and those around us to lead to Christ by our example. Those dragons try to prevent us giving our lives to Christ, by stealing our lives and our will for themselves. They are the dragons of the world, and they develop according to what we feed them. If we feed them on anger, jealousy, envy, and greed, then they turn into angry, jealous, greedy, and very dangerous dragons. Benedict says ‘While these temptations are still young ‘dash them against the Rock Christ’ before they grow. The dragon of self-interest is as old as Adam. It is the way people like us behave when we don’t put God and other people first in everything we do.
George the Roman soldier was used to self-control. Self-interest is a disaster in a soldier, and his army training would have taught him to stand firm with his men. But what he stood against first was anything that opposed the reign of Jesus Christ. Sacrificing to the Emperor would be a denial of his Lord.
Benedict, too, was a leader of men. His Holy Rule is a sure guide to all who follow in his steps. It is full of wisdom, gentleness, and a realistic approach to human nature: how to put God first, how to accept being ‘chosen out of the world’, how to ‘prefer nothing to Christ’. That is what cost George his life: he preferred nothing to Christ. Benedict also teaches us how to put others first: ‘always do what is best for another and not for yourself’, he says. A soldier must know how to keep army regulations and obey orders. A monk must know how to keep the monastic rule, love the brethren, and obey the Abbot.
If we look closely at Jesus’s disciples, we see among them the dragons of the world: we see them manoeuvring for position, criticising the brethren or other people, making envious comments. These are small dragons threatening to grow into bigger ones, even in those who lived close to Jesus. Sometimes the disciples behaved with astonishing self-interest and arrogance, despite being in the company of Him whose whole life and death was one of self-giving.
At the Samaritan village that didn’t want to receive Jesus, the disciples asked if they could bring down fire as a judgment (Luke 9.51ff). Think of the times when you and I want to shout others down.
James and John wanted the most important seats in the Kingdom (Mark 10.35ff). Were they asking for power, or just the chance to be seen as favourites? How often do we like to be ‘one-up’ on others, even our friends?
Judas, meanwhile, rubbished Mary’s loving action of anointing Jesus with the jar of costly ointment (John 12.3). Maybe there are times when we have been scornful of others actions.
Even after the Resurrection, we find Peter wanting to know what would happen to John (John 21.21). Was he wondering if John would get special treatment in the kingdom? Are we sometimes envious when we think others are being favoured?
Had the disciples stopped listening to Jesus? Were they running on auto-pilot and reverting to their previous way of living? Do we sometimes stop listening to Jesus and run on in ways that deny we ever knew him? Dragons develop according to what we feed them.
For all of us, there is a very loud call to slay the dragons before they grow. Anger, spite, pride, scorn, jealousy – they are all little dragons that dance around us all the time, waiting to be fed and fattened up. They can grow with us barely noticing. The only way to deal with them is to recognise them early, and keep cutting them back with the sword of St George, like unruly suckers spoiling a rose bush or a fruit tree; or as, St Benedict directs, to dash them against the Rock Christ before they grow. Our fruit will grow more vigorously with this pruning through confessing our sins, and asking for grace and strength to arm us.
What happens when people like us and those who followed Jesus do listen and respond to him? Instead of the dragons growing larger and fiercer, we ourselves grow more generous, kind and loving: we grow taller in the presence of Jesus. Zacchaeus was so short of stature that he had to climb a tree to see what was going on (Luke 19.1ff). But later he stands in his own house in front of Jesus, to tell everyone what difference meeting Jesus has made to him. He stands tall, and his dragons of deceit, fraud, and greed have been admitted and defeated. The words, the presence, and the free grace offered by Jesus have filled Zacchaeus with the good works described by St Benedict in his Rule.
What must we do? We must seek Jesus, invite him into our heart and pay close attention to His words, and be doers of that word. We must recognise our sins and faults, and stop feeding the dragons with those tiny titbits that help them thrive. We must feed on Jesus in the Eucharist, and be open to the grace that this brings. Like St George and St Benedict, we are ‘chosen by God out of the world’, ‘to serve the same Lord and fight for the same King’.
This is an edited version of an address given by Sr Mary Julian CHC on 23 April at St George in the Meadows, Nottingham. www.holycrosschc.org.uk
If you are interested in finding out more about the traditional monastic way of living, there is a Monastic Vocations Day in York on Saturday 1st October. There you will have the opportunity to meet Anglican monks, friars, and nuns, experience monastic worship, ask questions, and explore how the Religious Life is lived today.
For further details and to register please contact email@example.com