For Earth Day, I’m sharing the above icon of Christ creating the animals on Earth, and also this story of St. Gerasimus taken from the online book, Saints and the Animals that Served Them. The link is here. It’s my favorite story of a Saint and the precious animal he took care of and the mutual respect and love they had for each other.
Saint Gerasimus was born in Lycia (Anatolia, Turkey) in the fifth century. Even as a child he lived as a Christian, doing as he thought God would want him to. Because of his love for fasting, vigil and prayer, he was blessed by God with heavenly gifts. He healed the physical sickness and the souls of those who came to him with faith. A special gift was his loving authority over wild beasts.
After becoming a monk in the Egyptian Desert Thebaid, Saint Gerasimus founded a monastic community of seventy men in the desert east of Jericho, not far from the river Jordan – the river in which St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The monks of his monastery lived a very simple life. They slept on reed mats, had cells with no doors (so they did not have the luxury of privacy) and kept silence. They drank only water, and ate dates and bread.
Saint Gerasimus taught the monks to live a holy life, and also to work by making baskets. Their prayerful life helped the monks to help others.
One day Saint Gerasimus was taking a walk along the Jordan when he heard a loud roar and saw a lion in great pain because of a large splinter in its paw. Saint Gerasimus felt very sorry for the lion. Crossing himself, he went cautiously over to the animal, took its huge paw gently in his hand, and removed the splinter. The lion did not return to its cave but meekly followed Saint Gerasimus back to the monastery. A loving and trusting relationship grew between them. The other monks were amazed by the lion’s acceptance of a peaceful life and a diet of bread and vegetables, and by the animal’s devotion to Saint Gerasimus, who was now the abbot of the monastery.
The abbot gave the lion a duty. Each time the community’s donkey went to pasture by the Jordan, the lion went along and guarded it. The donkey was assigned to bring back water to the monastery. One day while the lion was sleeping, the donkey was stolen by a passing trader. The lion, with its head hanging low, returned to the monastery alone. The brothers decided that the lion had failed in keeping its monastery diet, and had eaten the donkey. As punishment the lion had to take over the donkey’s duty, and was required to go to the Jordan and carry back water from the river to the monastery in a saddlepack with four earthen jars.
Time passed, until one day the trader came to the place where he’d stolen the donkey. The lion recognized the donkey following behind the trader, and let out a loud roar that scared the thief away. Then the lion took the donkey as well as some camels tied together with it back to Saint Gerasimus’ cell. Knocking on the wall of the cell with its tail, the lion presented the donkey and camels.
The monks realized they had misjudged the lion, and as a way of acknowledging the lion’s honesty and willingness to do the humble work of carrying water, Saint Gerasimus gave the animal a special name: Jordanes.
Saint Gerasimus continued as abbot of the monastery. He also attended the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451. There, with Saint Euthymius, he was a champion of the Orthodox faith and defended it against the Monophysite heresy.
In the years that followed, Jordanes stayed in the wilderness, coming once a week to bow before Saint Gerasimus as a sign of obedience and devotion. One day, Jordanes came as usual but could not find the monk. A loud roar came forth from the animal’s throat—a roar of what seemed to be anger and grief. The monks sadly led Jordanes to the newly-departed saint’s grave. Letting out a final roar of grief at losing Gerasimus, the lion lay down and died. The year was 475.
The monastery founded by Saint Gerasimus still exists on the southern side of the Jordan valley and contains many icons depicting his holy life.
Zebrun, Christine Kaniuk. Saints and the Animals that Served Them. The Department of Christian Education, 2015.