In 1204, French Crusaders broke down the seawalls of Constantinople and sacked the greatest city on earth. Although the French nobles and their Venetian allies had agreed to keep the sacking to a non-violent minimum (there was a ban on raping women and killing priests), the rank and file of the Crusader army was not to be denied what they perceived to be their right.
The great city was emptied of its treasures. Its churches were gutted. Its women were defiled. Whatever blessing the city had for the nearly 1,000 years it had stood impregnable behind its walls had now passed. The barbarians had taken New Rome.
But in the Church of St. George of Mangana, the French knights encountered someone they had not expected. They met a withered old man named John Mesarites. John’s brother, Nicholas, was an influential priest in the city, and the details of this encounter are known only from Nicholas’ eulogy for his brother.
The knights, their army bloodied and the souls tarnished by their rampage entered the church. They encountered John who knelt before them and told them that his purse was so empty that he had no fear of thieves. There was just something about John. The knights summoned their superior, a baron, who sat with John on the floor and ordered him fed.
By his simple presence, John Mesarites spoke some kind of conviction into the hearts of men who were rampaging through a city – men who believed they had to the right to kill him if they felt like it. But instead of swords, Mesarites was greeted with silence.
John Mesarites is one of those people you never read about in history books. We really only know about him from his brother’s eulogy. He is essentially nameless and we have no idea what he even looked like.
But we can learn something from his example. Mesarites met the Crusaders with the reality of his poverty. He demonstrated the kind of remarkable witness of reality that forces people to at least pause in their activity.
The church could take a lesson from Mesarites and the many nameless other saints who were simply present and changed the course of things.