Gustave Moreau, “Saint George and the Dragon,” c. 1889
With great power comes great responsibility – and what greater power is there than a share in the very life of God?
“The Christian and the hero are inseparable.”
~ Samuel Johnson
Like the rest of the world, you probably went to see Avengers: Endgame last spring, right? Even if you’d growing weary of the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe schtick, you felt compelled to take in the final chapter of the 10-year-old cinematic saga – if for no other reason than to find out how the MCU magicians were going to resolve the whole “half the human race dissolving into dust” conundrum.
Plus, what happens to Iron Man. And what about all those sneak previews of Thor with a beer belly?
Yes, yes, I went, too (and on the off-chance you didn’t, the DVD is available now), and, yes, it was a fun ride, although a bit overlong – and I’d say more than a bit ham-handed with the time-travel ex machina business. Still, it would’ve been tough for Marvel/Disney to mess up the wildly successful Avengers formula at this late date: An impossible task related to saving the world, and a team of heroes with special powers joining forces to defeat the enemy.
Each individual Marvel character possesses unique abilities and characteristics that are plenty remarkable on their own. We know this from their origin stories and sequelae that amply demonstrate what each brings to the Avengers table – including their personality quirks and tics. And most of us have a favorite. (Ant-Man is mine.)
Yet, the appeal of the Avengers movies themselves is that they feature camaraderie and cooperation. The group’s collective strengths compensate for their collective shortcomings, and you end up with a smorgasbord of extraordinary powers that are minimally impeded by human foibles. Even the seemingly invincible Thanos is no match for Captain America and company – go team! There was plenty sadness to go around at the movie’s finale, but essentially all was righted, and there were just enough arcs and unfinished business to keep us hooked in to whatever else Marvel will be dishing up down the line.
Shortly after my kids and I took in Endgame, I was in need of some late-night insomnia reading, and I snagged a copy of E. Nesbit’s The Book of Dragons (1901) off the shelf. It’s a collection of eight children’s stories involving dragons, peril and pugnacity, and just the ticket for the kind of light distraction that induces sleep.
The third tale is called “The Deliverers of Their Country,” and it stars two siblings, Effie and Harry, who have to confront a dragon swarm infesting their homeland. The beasts are gobbling up their loved ones and entire towns, and the scene couldn’t be more bleak. “Oh, I want to go home,” is how Effie reacts – a totally understandable reaction to the devastation around her. But Effie’s brother bucks her up:
“Don’t be silly,” said Harry. “Surely you haven’t forgotten about the Seven Champions and all the princes. People who are going to be their country’s deliverers never scream and say they want to go home.”
“And are we?” asked Effie. “Deliverers, I mean?”
“You’ll see,” said her brothers, and on they went.
I perked up – seven what? So much for sleep induction.
At the bottom of the page was a helpful footnote that clued me in to the identity of the seven. “The patron saints of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy and Spain,” it read. “Huh,” I muttered. “It’s a celestial Avengers.”
It turned out that I wasn’t that far off the mark.
A follow-up internet search revealed that the seven saints as a squad had been the invention of one Richard Johnson in his 16th–century fantasy, Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom. Picture St. George as a kind of sanctified Iron Man leading Ss. Andrew, David, Patrick, Denis, Anthony of Padua, and James the Greater into one impossible conflict after another.
Now there’s a blockbuster just waiting to happen!
Not surprisingly, Johnson’s book was quite popular in his own day, and it went through numerous reprintings in various forms well into the 19th century. “No work, perhaps, has been more extensively read, and more generally appreciated,” reads an unsigned preface to an 1861 British edition. “Indeed, it is impossible to tell how much this extraordinary production of a comparatively unknown author may have influenced the early literature of the country.” Shakespeare evidently knew it well, and John Bunyan referenced it disapprovingly. Later English writers knew Johnson as well: G.K. Chesterton, for example, made Seven Champions the basis of one of his toy theater plays.
For evidence of 20th-century influence, there’s E. Nesbit and her dragon story. The author had her would-be deliverers invoke the Champions’ legacy of fortitude and pluck, so she was clearly acquainted with Johnson’s vision of a saintly alliance. But don’t go looking to Johnson for anything approaching hagiography or inspiration. His accounts of the seven saints are entirely fabricated and romanticized – they are “saints in name only,” writes Jennifer Fellows, and “none of the adventures attributed to them here have any part in earlier, established versions of their legends.”
Indeed, as far as I can tell, there’s really little if anything that could be considered edifying in Johnson’s narrative, and, in the original version, there’s plenty that we’d deem unsavory today, inappropriate for younger readers. For, you see, Johnson takes those seven hallowed patrons and turns them into rough and tumble knights errant. Following the pattern of St. George’s meandering literary legacy, the band of blessed brothers are shown traipsing about Europe and the Near East, rescuing damsels, vanquishing foes, and, yes, slaying dragons. It might’ve been a fun read for a few hundred years, but Johnson’s Seven Champions is hardly devotional fare.
But consider this: Unlike Johnson’s fictional portrayal of that group of Christian luminaries – who seem to have less in common with their canonized counterparts than they do with Captain America and Thor – the real Communion of Saints is already a society of champions. The saints in heaven and the saints in preparation (that is, in purgatory) are standing by, ready to come to our aid as we battle our day-to-day dragons. “They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us,” reads Lumen Gentium, and “by their brotherly interest our weakness is greatly strengthened” (LG 49). It’s a crew that certainly includes Richard Johnson’s seven, but the entire cloud of witnesses surrounds us as well – and their numbers dwarf even the gargantuan Marvel pantheon.
What’s more, the “super powers” the saints had at their disposal in their earthly sojourns are the selfsame powers we ourselves can have today: namely, sanctifying grace, a habitual sharing in God’s own life – God’s own life! – and actual graces, which help us to act in keeping with that life. Jesus won those powers for us through his own life, death and resurrection, and we obtain them through his Church and her sacraments.
Here’s the thing, though: As they say in the MCU (and elsewhere), with great power comes great responsibility – and what greater power is there than a share in the very life of God? It stands to reason, then, that recipients of that power would be called to a pretty spectacular responsibility, yet it’s not what you’d think. Sure, we should attend to dragons and damsels, but our primary responsibility as Christians is an interior one: simply put, to submit to God’s will – that’s it!
Sounds easy enough, I know, but it’s the battle of a lifetime – our own lifetimes, from the moment we’re baptized until we breathe our last. Just because we get the power of grace doesn’t mean we become invincible. No, we’re still prone to sin, and we must wage war on our tendency to give in to it. The good news, though, is that we’re part of that Communion of Saints already: Along with the church triumphant (heaven), and the church penitent (purgatory), we here trudging along in our earthly lives are the church militant – that is, saints in the making, like rookies striving to improve ourselves and advance in the army of God.
But we’re not generally going up against big, scary adversaries like Thanos and his ilk. Our battles are fought much closer to home – inside of us, you know, like when we’re compelled to practice patience and kindness with those we’d rather upbraid or snub; or when we wave that other driver to pull ahead of us in traffic instead of gunning it to cut him off. That’s the stuff of saint-making – that’s the stuff that’ll nudge us one way or another, close to heaven or closer to hell. It’s not cosmic conflagrations and extraordinary exploits: rather, it’s caring for our kids and elders, even when we’re exhausted and cranky; deferring when resisting would be more convenient; bending when balking would do.
And it’s not always all that clear which way we’re being nudged, to tell the truth, but it’s our will that ultimately matters, what we really desire most when we’re stripped down to our bare selves. Here’s how Dom Hubert van Zeller puts it: “If right up to the end we are found wanting madly to do God’s will – even though we may not be very clear as to what it is, or (more likely still) may not have done it very well – we shall have achieved the main purpose of our lives.”
Doesn’t that sound noble and thrilling? Don’t you want to be a part of that story? I know I do – and I can! So can you! We don’t have to get zapped by quantum juice or get bitten by radioactive spiders. “The beauty of this saint-life is that it can be embarked upon at any moment,” writes van Zeller. “We don’t have to wait for a miracle: the grace is there.”
In other words, we’re already part of the team – we’re already equipped to be consecrated champions. The Avengers have nothing on us – let’s roll!