The Saints of November 23
Today I would like to write about three saints who, in one place or another, share this day: a bishop, a missionary, and a soldier.
November 23 is, here in the Republic of Georgia, a public holiday, the Feast of St. George or Giorgoba. Although Georgia does not actually derive its name from the saint, St. George is one of its best-loved heavenly patrons. According to legend, St. Nino, the evangelizer of Georgia and the country’s other major patron saint, was a relative of George, and established his feast day here as November 23; the rest of the Christian world observes St. George’s Day in April or May, and the Georgians have a secondary celebration then as well.
We decided not to go to church this morning, in part because we were warned that it would be unusually full of people. But our host father turned the TV to a channel showing the ceremonies at Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi, which happens to be one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Everything was red and white and gold. The ancient and bent Georgian patriarch Ilia II, an acolyte carrying the long red train of his mantle, slowly circled the church, censing the icons with trembling hands, while a large men’s choir sang hymns in traditional polyphony.
Later, our host parents drove with us into the hills behind our village. There is a crumbling road that runs along a ridge. Along it are placed a convent, cemetery, and series of shrines. The road ends at a hilltop monastery that commands the view in all directions. Today we stopped at a round stone building that was half-ruined, apparently an old shrine to St. George. Though there are few houses within easy walking distance, many people from the villages below had come, some even with live chickens to slaughter. They were coming and going, crossing themselves and burning candles. It was a unique look into local religious practice.
November 23 is a notable day in western liturgics as well, being the feast of “Pope” St. Clement I. St. Clement’s Day was at one time quite popular in England as a minor holiday, especially among metalworkers, who regarded him as a patron. It is also the feast of St. Columbanus, an eminent Irish Catholic missionary to Europe in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. The Orthodox Church observes St. Clement’s feast in a day or two, while St. Columbanus is little known in the east.
I will consider these two saints first, before writing about St. George.
St. Clement of Rome was perhaps the second or third successor of St. Peter as bishop of Rome. Tradition agrees that he knew Peter and was ordained by him before the latter’s martyrdom in the 60s. Little is known about Clement’s life, though some identify him with the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3. According to tradition, Clement was first exiled and then martyred around the year 99 during the persecutions of Trajan, by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.
Any discussion of St. Clement raises serious ecclesiological questions, primarily due to his role in the controversy over the primacy of the Roman see. His Epistle to Corinth (1 Clement), the only genuine letter of his we are confident we possess, was regarded as scripture in some areas of Christendom; it also implied Clement’s apostolic authority over other churches, which has been interpreted by Catholic scholars as an early sign of Roman primacy, i.e., the headship of the office that would develop into the Papacy. Orthodox and Protestant authors, naturally, interpret it more conservatively.
Regardless of such controversies, 1 Clement, in addition to being one of the earliest surviving Christian writings after the Pauline epistles, is a beautiful letter. St. Clement rebukes the Corinthians for tolerating sedition against their ministers. He cites many examples from scripture of men who served God well and so were saved. He insists, then, “let us come to the glorious and venerable rule of our tradition,” focusing on the saving blood of the Lamb, forgiving one another and living in harmony. Christians are called to live obediently in submission to God, not exalting themselves over the church and creating divisions.
The fruit of such a faithful life is the resurrection. Clement cites the legendary phoenix as a sign of the promise. With the resurrection before us, we must live in purity and holiness, turning away from all sin, doing “all the deeds of sanctification.” We are God’s workmen, and it is our duty to perform God’s work, as the angels do. All strife is opposed to this holy work; we must therefore learn to be subject to our neighbors, to care for and serve one another, always giving thanks.
On this rests the order of the Church, its appointed celebrations at the appointed times, the priests to do their part and the laity to do theirs. The laity should obey those appointed by the apostles as bishops and deacons over them; if such have ministered the rites of the Church faithfully and in purity, we have no right to depose them. We are one in Christ, and schisms not only hurt and discourage ordinary Christians, but are an affront to the reality of his body. For this reason Paul sternly rebuked partisanship.
Clement concludes by praising the divine love which we are to manifest among ourselves. A man of love would submit to any humiliation rather than cause division in the body. We should pray for and admonish sinners among us, who should take no offense, but return to the will of God. If those who are leading the sedition humble themselves in repentance, all will be forgiven. If not, they may harm the Lord’s flock and certainly themselves.
Clement is, of course, deeply relevant, not only as an historical testimony to the nondemocratic structure of the apostolic church, or as a point of controversy in the debate over Petrine authority. Clement’s teaching addresses the tragic schisms that originated in American revivalism and have contributed to the further fracturing of Protestantism. We have no right in our zeal for truth to oppose godly men in authority. As Clement says, if you look at the scriptures, it is the wicked and not the holy who persecute the righteous.
Clement’s symbol, the anchor, is anciently a Christian emblem of hope (see Hebrews 6:19-20). Prior to the decline of Roman persecution, it was more common as a sign of Christians’ resilient faith than the cross. The feast of St. Clement is a reminder to us of what we are as Christians, first and foremost, members of the body of Christ. He would have us call to mind the peace and order that is to prevail in the body, and the hope of its resurrection. If we are “anchored” together in Christ, we will be secure even in the waters of death.
St. Columbanus, whose name means “dove” (not to be confused with another Irish saint, Columba), was born in the early to mid sixth century in Leinster. He was tall and handsome and well-liked, but on the advice of a wise hermitess he became a monk at the abbey of Bangor. After decades following the strict monastic rule there, he and twelve others were sent by St. Comgall, the abbot, to be missionaries on the continent. According to legend, while in present-day France, Columbanus retreated at intervals into the wilderness, where a bear allowed him to sleep in its cave, and the animals attended to his needs.
Despite his missionary successes against pagans and heretics, Columbanus was not popular in his day with the Frankish bishops and nobility; the harsh monastic discipline and independence of the Celts did not go over well with those who had become too comfortable with a relaxed (and at times morally compromised) Gallic Christianity, and Columbanus was not shy about calling powerful men and women to repentance. When he eventually fled the kingdom of the Burgundians, Columbanus ended up in the domain of the Lombards, in present-day northern Italy. Though the court was Arian, the king and queen tolerated Columbanus’s Catholic proselytization, and gave him land for his monastery at Bobbio.
Columbanus attracted many followers as he traveled through modern-day France and Italy, founding monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil, Fontaine, Mehrerau, and finally Bobbio. Several (notably Luxeuil and Bobbio) flourished during the Middle Ages and continued into the modern period. He died in 615, passing his leadership to St. Gall. Many places in France and Italy today bear his name.
It is perhaps ironic that Columbanus, in addition to sharing a feast day with St. Clement, is also a person of interest in debates about Roman primacy. Columbanus followed the practices of the Celtic church, which were in some details (notably, when Easter is celebrated) at variance with the Roman tradition. Nevertheless, he appears in his letters to Rome deeply assured both of the authority of the Pope over Christendom, and that the Pope’s authority rests not only on his station as head of the Church, but also on his commitment to the principles of the faith.
Nevertheless, Columbanus is primarily remembered as one of Christendom’s greatest missionaries of the first millennium. He both spread Christianity into resiliently pagan areas, and awakened a more ardent faith in Christian countries that had settled into compromise with pagan or heretical ideals.
His “Boat Song” is his best-known surviving poem, includes the following lines:
Heia, men! Let the echoes resound with our heia!
To earnest effort, clouds and tempest yield;
Zeal and unceasing labor conquer all.
By virtues armed, defend yourselves with valor.
Let your souls, men, remembering Christ, cry heia!
Firm faith and holy ardor conquer all.
The ancient fiend, defeated, breaks his arrows.
Let your souls, men, remembering Christ, cry heia!
The Source of Good and Being, the Highest Power,
Offers the warrior and gives the victor prizes.
Let your souls, men, remembering Christ, cry heia!
Columbanus emblematizes a missionary faith, the zeal of faithful obedience. Some notable symbols include the sun (which his mother supposedly envisioned in her womb after he was conceived) and a fountain (for which he was miraculously responsible). But the bear is his principal attribute, as bears appear frequently in the legends surrounding his life, usually obeying him in some way.
George is one of the best-known saints worldwide. He was beloved by knights and chivalrous warriors in the Middle Ages. England’s flag still bears his cross, him having eclipsed Edward the Confessor as national patron around the time of the Reformation. He is likewise the chief military saint in Portugal. Even in Islamic countries, he is well-regarded, and associated by some with the legendary prophet Khidr. Certainly, after the Theotokos and possibly Nino, he is the most venerated saint here in Georgia. Giorgi is easily the most popular male name in the country.
Little is known for sure about the historical martyr George. He was probably born into a Greek Cappadocian family in the late third century, and according to legend, his father was a prominent Christian Roman officer who died while George was in his teens. George followed in his father’s footsteps and became a tribune in the Imperial Guard. Nevertheless, in 303 Emperor Diocletian issued an edict targeting Christians in the Roman military, threatening persecution if they did not convert. George vocally led opposition within the military to this order, resulting in his torture and execution in Nicomedia that same year. George’s witness resulted in the secret conversion of Diocletian’s wife, Prisca. His relics were laid to rest in Lydda, which became the center of his cultus.
At some point in the late first millennium, the legend of George’s encounter with a dragon cohered, in North Africa or Cappadocia or possibly even Georgia, where devotion to the saint was already strong. Crusaders and pilgrims spread the legend back to Europe, where George had not yet become a saint of particular importance.
George is immediately recognizable in his most dramatic incarnations as an armored man on a white horse, spearing a dragon. Often, he wears the red cloak of a martyr. His icons are reminiscent of the imagery of St. John’s Apocalypse. The dragon Satan is opposed by an armed man on a white horse (Rev 6:2); many icons, to increase the parallelism, include a crown descending to George from heaven and a bow and arrows.
George is thus an image of the victorious Christ. He is a militant saint, not a fiery missionary like Columbanus, but a staunch defender of righteousness and purity against the schemes of the devil. He represents victory through courage and longsuffering.