St. George: Saint for the Desperate

In the Middle East, St George is regarded as a saint of asylum, a protector of the desperate.

The Tomb of St. George of Lydda

Nesrine Malik
Friday 23 April 2010

The question: What do we want from St George?

Not only was St George not of white English, or even European, extraction, he is also claimed by more than one religion. There is a multifaith shrine in Beit Jala, Palestine, that is home to one saint, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. In this tomb allegedly lies St George, the martyred Christian warrior, the Jewish prophet Elijah, and al-Khader, a mystical bountiful character ubiquitous in Islamic mythology. Through the mists of time and due to the proximity of locations where accounts of the three played out, these figures, real or fictional, merged into one patron saint who heals the insane and makes the barren fertile. Indeed, in some parts of the Arab World, especially in the Coptic tradition, one is referred to as having “been sent to St George”, if signs of insanity become apparent.

The world is littered with shrines of holy men and women even though there are strong currents within all the Abrahamic faiths that frown upon elevating humans to any holy status. Apparently, people choose to pray in the dilapidated shrine in Beit Jala rather than visit the larger, more traditional places of worship in Jerusalem or Bethlehem. The pilgrimage to this location is testament to the fact that there is a universal need, across faiths, to appoint intermediaries between mankind and God.

Curiously, in a fractious political and religious environment, no group has attempted to claim exclusive ownership of the tomb or used it to discredit the other in the spirit, perhaps, of the sentiment that we all need all the help we can get. This lack of sectarianism is a manifestation of the shared socio-economic status of those who frequent the tomb, whatever their religion. In his study of “Georgic” cults, the Syrian historian Hassan Haddad described these believers as seeking a God “whom official religion has rendered too remote and abstract”.

It is ironic then, that in England, St George has become associated with an exclusive kind of patriotism. Not only does he heal the mentally unwell and the infertile in the Levant, he is the patron saint of several other countries, among them Ethiopia and Palestine. And as one familiar with St George in many guises before I knew of him as patron saint of England, the cross of St George was merely something to distinguish England football players apart from the others. But it seems even here the radical nature of the saint is still potent as the flag is appropriated by people who see themselves as marginalised by the secular equivalent of organised religion, the organised state.

The flag has almost taken on a an anti-establishment flavour then. It is no coincidence that football is where you see the flag most often. The sport is a leveller, as are poverty and desperation. But we shouldn’t conflate St George with his cross. A patron saint intercedes on behalf of an entire nation, a metaphysical ambassador in the heavens. What we can learn if we look for St George’s legacy outside of England, is that he is a uniting figure, one who throughout the centuries may have helped in promoting sanity by inspiring people to transcend differences which pale into insignificance in times of need.