By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
What’s the good of a legend? For people who need to know all the facts in order to be sure of the truth, it can be hard to accept legends as reasonable sources of truth. Theology students might be especially tempted to set aside “legend truth” with their constant exposure to concepts like “hermeneutics,” “historical criticism,” “typology,” to name a few, which encourage disassembling a text in order to find the fact of the text in order to know the truth of the text. These tools are by no means bad; they are useful tools that especially help to illuminate the larger picture that surrounds a text. But they do not give you the truth of a text, even more so when it comes to legendary texts. That is the point of a legend – you do not need to be an academic in order to learn the real truth that a legend seeks to tell you. You do not need to know, for example, what the word “hermeneutics” means in order to know the truth of the Gospel.
There is nothing wrong with us wanting to be sure of the truth. How many of us have watched a movie “based off of historical events” and wondered how true to the actuality it really was? This is certainly a good quality; if we stopped wanting to know the truth then, according to Aristotle at least, we would stop being human. But there is also a danger in limiting how we can come to know truth. Legends are particularly suspect since they blur the line between the historical and the fantastic; in a way, they are the worst kind of lie. Yet, they are, in another way, the most honest kind of truth. Legends are simply people telling you the truth they know in a way that will make it easy for you to know it too. For instance, one of my grandfathers died before my siblings and I were born and we grew up hearing these legendary stories about him. Most of those stories came from my grandmother, who was notorious for telling the same story again and again and yet changing elements of it each time. This explains why my siblings and I all have a slightly different picture of my grandfather. That doesn’t really bother us, though, because we all share the same image of a good man. My grandmother might have changed certain parts of her stories, but in all of her stories my grandfather’s actions were always motivated by love. Thus, my siblings and I have come to know and attempt to imitate a grandfather we never met but the truth of whom we firmly believe in. We know he was a man motivated by love and, for all of the inconsistencies of her stories, my grandmother was very successful passing on that crucial truth to us.
Legends, far from presenting fiction, actually help us focus on what kind of truth is important. What is the truth that matters and does the story pass it on? This kind of truth is what we find in stories like Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Saint Macrina, a biography he wrote of his oldest sister. Gregory was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers (all of whom lived in the 300s) together with his older brother, Basil, and Basil’s friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. Macrina’s biography is not long and it is worth reading all of it, but I would like to focus on her death. I want to read it wondering: what is the truth that this story tries to tell us; does it matter how much of it is fabricated or elaborated by Gregory; is the truth it is telling us relevant to contemporary life and death; would the story be better if it was historically accurate rather than legendary?
In her final hours, indeed as the last audible words she ever says, Gregory records Macrina as saying the following prayer:
You have released us, O Lord, from the fear of death.
You have made the end of life here on earth
a beginning of true life for us.
You let our bodies rest in sleep in due season
and you awaken them again
at the sound of the last trumpet.
You entrust to the earth our bodies of earth
and you restore again what you have given,
transforming with incorruptibility and grace
what is mortal and deformed in us.
You redeemed us from the curse and from sin,
having become both on our behalf.
You have crushed the heads of the serpent
who had seized man in his jaws
because of the abyss of our disobedience.
You have opened up for us a path
to the resurrection,
having broken down the gates of hell
and reduced to impotence
the one who had power over death.
You have given to those who fear you
a visible token, the sign of the holy cross,
for the destruction of the Adversary
and for the protection of our life.
upon whom I have cast myself from my mother’s womb,
whom my soul has loved with all its strength,
to whom I have consecrated flesh and soul
from my infancy up to this moment,
put down beside me a shining angel
to lead me by the hand to the place of refreshment
where is the water of repose near the lap of the holy fathers.
You who have cut through the flame
of the fiery sword and brought to paradise
the man who was crucified with you,
who entreated your pity,
remember me also in your kingdom,
for I too have been crucified with you,
for I have nailed my flesh out of reverence for you
and have feared your judgments.
Let not the dreadful abyss separate me
from your chosen ones.
Let not the Slanderer stand against me on my journey.
Let not my sin be discovered before your eyes
if I have been overcome in any way
because of our nature’s weakness
and have sinned in word or deed or thought.
You who have on earth the power to forgive sins,
forgive me, so that I may draw breath again
and may be found before you
in the stripping off of my body
without stain or blemish in the beauty of my soul,
but may my soul be received
blameless and immaculate into your hands
as an incense offering before your face.