Thursday, 27 July 2017



‘Lo! They were young men who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance.’  Qur’an, Surah XVIII, 13

Maximian, Malchus, Marcian, Dionysus, Johannes, Serapion and Constantine. Seven perennially young saints. Their feast day falls tomorrow, 27 July. Today I celebrated a Mass in their honour in a London church. People in attendance included an imam and a small gathering of Muslims and Christians. A bit unusual? Yes, the Seven Sleepers are not quite the ordinary run-of-the mill seraphs, believe you me. For one thing they share the privilege of being acknowledged as true monotheists, heroic witnesses to the faith in the One True God, both by the Qur’an and by the Christian Church. Interfaith saints indeed.

According to the Golden Legend, the seven youths were Christians of high rank, natives of the renowned Greek city of Ephesus. Devout lads, much given to fasting and praying. Sold their properties and distributed their wealth to the poor – that sort of thing. One day heathen Roman ruler Decius (a weird guy, who had initially been favoured by Emperor Philip, a Christian and an Arab) fed up with the Christian killjoys, resolves to wipe out the lot. The choice is stark: either you sacrifice publicly to idols, the pagan gods, or you are put to death – like that!

Maximian and his friends refuse to apostatise. They seek refuge in a cave near the city. When Decius gets wind of it, he spitefully orders them walled up inside. ‘It serves the intolerant, fanatical pesky boys right’, he must have opined.

Everybody thereafter forgets about the youths. Years, centuries go by.
Next instalment. A wide-eyed young man called Malchus, dressed in strange, old-fashioned attire, walks among the bemused citizens of Ephesus. He wants to buy bread. He and his six friends, he says, have just woken up after a long sleep and they are pretty hungry.  But the coin he tends bears the image not of the present Christian emperor, Theodosius II, but of a pagan prince who had ruled two hundred years before…

The Qur’an diverges from the above at some points. Neither the sleepers’ number nor their names are given. Nor are either Decius or Ephesus mentioned. A charming, vivid detail, is that of the boys’ dog. The goodly beast guards the cave’s entrance by stretching its paws on the threshold. (Apparently he is called Katmir. Some say the animal will be admitted into Paradise. C.S. Lewis would have loved that.) But the main difference is pointed out by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, a vicar’s offspring, in the Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an. It seems the episode was part of a revelation given to the Prophet to enable him to answer certain tricky questions. Malevolent persons (al-Yahood?) had instructed the idolaters to challenge him, as a test of his prophethood. Muhammad ably outsmarted his enemies: he referred knowledge of such arcane matters to God alone.

As for the Christian story’s purpose, commentators argue, it is obvious. An anticipatory proof of the bodily resurrection of the dead – a crucial tenet then questioned by doubters and heretics alike. As a posthumous vindication or triumph of monotheism against its pagan antagonists, it does that admirably.

But the story is not over yet. ‘O sleepers, I am sorry, I cannot allow you to rest in the blissful safety of your martyrdom long ago. You are now shouting in your holy sleep, I can hear you loud and clear. You want us – no, rather it is God who wants us to grasp something through your story.’

Suspence! Imagine young Maximian, Malchus, Marcian, Dionysus, Johannes, Serapion and Constantine arising out of their slumbers once more. We see Malchus strolling out of the cave – perhaps along with the faithful Katmir - again walking amongst us, to buy food.

OK, it’s a miracle, so let us have him walking the streets of London, New York, Paris, Istanbul, you name it. What do you think his reaction will be?
Of course, he will see churches and mosques galore. He’ll rejoice about that, like a true monotheist. But what else?

Alas, since the boys’ first resurrection, the situation has been inverted. Modern society has reverted to paganism. Polytheism is back with a vengeance. Dastardly Decius himself, defeated by Christ, is enjoying a perverse resurrection of sorts. The secular Western world, bloated with material values and goods, like the pagans of old, again worships gods and goddesses galore – Venus, Eros, Pluto, Mars…or, if you prefer, call them sex, banks, drugs, violence, injustice…the catalogue is long. Could you blame young Malchus if, horrified, he ran back to the cave and, along with the others, took refuge once more in his sleep?

The holy lads are fortunate. They rest from their labours. They eyes are not saddened by the sight of heathenism reborn. It falls to true believers to arise out of their slumbers and proclaim the faith anew. And I do mean anew.

When I was a chaplain in Turkey I actually visited the impressive ruins of ancient Ephesus, by the South coast. I stood on the spot where a church once stood, built over the tomb of the Seven Sleepers. I bent down, put my ear to the ground and listened…

‘Wake up!’ voices were urging. ‘Pay heed! You people are slumbering now.
You believe you are awake. In fact, you are fast asleep. Not the righteous, God-induced sleep we sleep, we Ephesian heroes . Yours is the comatose slumber of those who are dozing off while the house is burning. Do you hear us? Wake up!’

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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