If you’ve read my blog more than two or three times, you already know how delighted I am by religious literature, especially religious literature that I haven’t come across before. Nothing reminds me that Christianity isn’t just a twenty-first-century American phenomenon like discovering a piece of writing from another time or another culture that gives glory to our God in a completely foreign idiom. If you share this delight with me, you will be glad to know that I have discovered yet another piece of Christian literature that is new to me but very old to the world: Andreas, an Old English narrative poem written sometime in the ninth or tenth centuries. You will perhaps get a better understanding of why I love it so much when I tell you that it is sometimes called, “The Acts of St. Andrew and St. Matthew in the City of the Cannibals.”
This tale is the tenth-century equivalent of the lurid action movie. There’s blood, and a storm at sea, and cannibals, and a giant flood, and even more blood, and a statue coming to life, and Satan coming with a group of his bullies to beat St. Andrew up when he’s in prison—the action never stops. And yet, in the midst of all this is a very moving tale of perseverance and trust in God. Briefly, the story begins when St. Matthew, who has been sent to preach to the cannibalistic inhabitants of Mermedonia, is taken captive in preparation for the cannibals’ feast. When he prays for help, God sends St. Andrew to Mermedonia to rescue him. Andrew and his men go down to the sea and find a ship waiting there, crewed by three men—unbeknownst to them, the mariners are Christ and two angels. A marvelous scene ensues, in which Andrew preaches the Gospel to Christ himself; then comes the storm at sea, and Andrew and his men are miraculously carried directly to Mermedonia. Andrew rescues Matthew and the other captives without too much trouble (God strikes the prison guards dead), but when he saves a young cannibal boy who is offered to be eaten in the Christians’ stead he is thrown in prison himself. For three days he is tortured, and for three nights the Devil comes to mock him in prison.
The description of Andrew’s prayers on each of these three nights is the most marvelous part of the whole poem. On the first night, as Andrew sobs after the tortures of the day, he still addresses God as “Joy-Giver of men” and “Author of bliss.” He still affirms that God knows all his troubles and will serve as his defense. He prays, “My trust is in Thee, Lord of my life, that with loving heart and ample strength Thou wilt never forsake me.” On the second night the Devil comes for his greatest attack on Andrew, and tauntingly asks how Andrew expects to live, if even Christ his leader died; but Andrew reminds Satan that God already defeated him, and so that God will rescue his saints. At this the Devil flees. By the third night, however, Andrew is utterly depleted. He prays that to God that he has never endured such woe, and he reminds God that he, too, was once hung on the cross, and at that time prayed to the Father, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” I found this entirely moving. Andrew does not himself say that God has forsaken him; instead, he remembers that Christ himself felt forsaken—but not to say that everything will necessarily turn out all right. Andrew was, in fact, healed, but he didn’t know beforehand that he would be. He expected only death. But even in his near despair, he remembered that God, too, once came close to despair, and still endured.
I can’t remember who said it now, but some wise person pointed out that if Christ had never felt that God was distant, there would be one place in which he could not have come beside us and given us his strength. There would be one place that we humans could keep as our sole domain. As it is, however, even from the depths of our despair we can know that Christ has felt what we feel, and yet did not curse his Father. This will sometimes give us hope; but when even hope is too difficult for us, it will at least give us strength to endure. Andreas is a tale about endurance in suffering; but more than that, it is about God giving strength to his saints, even when he seems unutterably far off.