Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan

Today happens to be the feast of Gerasimos of the Jordan, a saint who rarely feasted.

Among saints remembered for their peaceful relations with dangerous animals, not least is Gerasimos, shown in icons caring for an injured lion.

The story behind the image comes down to us from Saint John Moschos, a monk of Saint Theodosius Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book written in the course of journeys he made in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. This is a collection of stories of monastic saints, mainly desert dwellers, and also an early example of travel writing.

In the fifth century, Gerasimos was abbot of a community of seventy monks who lived in the desert east of Jericho, not far from the River Jordan. (Jericho is in the left background of the icon, the River Jordan in the foreground.) The monks slept on reed mats, had cells without doors, and — apart from common prayer — normally observed silence. Their diet consisted chiefly of water, dates and bread. Gerasimos, in ongoing repentance for having been influenced by the teachings of a heretic in his youth, is said to have eaten even less than the norm.

One day while walking along the Jordan, Gerasimos came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw. Overcome with compassion for the suffering beast, Gerasimos removed the splinter, drained and cleaned the wound, then bound it up, expecting the lion would return to its cave. Instead the lion meekly followed him back to the monastery and became the abbot’s devoted companion.

The community was amazed at the lion’s apparent conversion to a peaceful life. Like the monks, he lived now on bread and vegetables and shared its devotion to the abbot.

The lion was given a special task: guarding the community’s donkey, which was pastured along the Jordan. But one day it happened, while the lion was napping, that the donkey strayed and was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The brothers concluded the lion had been overcome by an instinctual appetite for meat. As a punishment, it was given the donkey’s job: to carry water each day from the river to the monastery in a saddlepack with four earthen jars.

Months later, it happened that the trader was coming along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the trader ran away. Taking its rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey back to the monastery with the camels following behind. The monks realized, to their shame, that they had misjudged the lion. The same day, Gerasimos gave the lion a name: Jordanes.

For five more years, until the abbot’s death, Jordanes was part of the monastic community. When the elder fell asleep in the Lord and was buried, Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring its grief and beating its head against the ground. Finally Jordanes rolled over and died on the last resting place of Gerasimos.

It is a story that touches the reader intimately, inspiring the hope that the wild beast that still roars within each of us may yet be converted — while the story’s second half suggests that, when falsely accused of having returned to an unconverted life, vindication may finally happen.

The icon of Saint Gerasimos focuses on contact between a monk and a lion – an Eden-like moment before creatures became a threat to each other. By the river of Christ’s baptism, an ancient harmony we associate with Adam and Eve before the Fall is renewed. At least for a moment, enmity is abandoned. A small island of divine peace has been achieved through a merciful action. The icon is an image of peace – man and beast no longer threatening each other’s life.

But is the story true?

Certainly the abbot Gerasimos is real. Many texts refer to him. Soon after his death he was recognized as a saint. The monastery he founded lasted for centuries, a center of spiritual life and a place of pilgrimage. He was one of the great elders of the Desert.

But what about Jordanes? Might the lion be a graphic metaphor for the saint’s ability to convert lion-like people who came to him?

Unlikely stories about saints are not rare. Some are so remarkable – for example Saint Nicholas’s bringing back to life three murdered children who had been hacked to pieces and boiled in a stew pot – that the resurrection of Christ seems a minor miracle in contrast. Yet even the most farfetched legend usually has a basis in the character of the saint: Nicholas was resourceful in his efforts to protect the lives of the defenseless.

Numerous accounts of the lives of saints show their readiness to offer hospitality to beasts.

In the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most striking stories concerns a wolf. Francis was asked by the people from the town of Gubbio to help them with a wolf that had been killing livestock. Francis set out to meet the wolf, blessed it with the sign of the cross, communicated with it by gesture, and finally led the wolf into the town itself where Francis obliged the people of Gubbio to feed and care for their former enemy. It’s a remarkable, but not impossible, story. In the last century, during restoration work, the bones of a wolf were discovered within Gubbio’s ancient church.

There are reliable reports that both Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Saint Seraphim of Sarov each had friendly relations with a local bear.

It is not unlikely that Jordanes was as real as Gerasimos. He seems to have been a man so Christ-like that fear was burned away.

In fact it has not been rare for saints to show such an example of living in peace with wild creatures, including those that normally make us afraid. The scholar and translator Helen Waddell once assembled a whole collection of such stories: Saints and Beasts. Appropriately, the copy in our house is scarred with tooth marks in it left by a hyperactive puppy who was once part of our household.

Apart from the probable reality of Jordanes, he happens to belong to a species long invested with symbolic meaning. In the Bible, the lion is mainly a symbol of soul-threatening passions and occasionally an emblem of the devil. David said he had been delivered “from the paw of the lion.” (1 Samuel 17:37) The author of Proverbs says a wicked ruler abuses the poor “like a roaring lion and a raging bear.” (Proverbs 28:15) Peter warns Christians: “Be sober and watchful, for you adversary the devil roams about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) Here the lion is seen as representing that part of the unredeemed self ruled by instinct, appetite and pride — thus the phrase “a pride of lions.”

In medieval Europe, lions were known only through stories, carvings and manuscript illuminations. A thirteenth century Bestiary now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford starts its catalogue of astonishing creatures with the lion. It is called a beast, says the monastic author, because “where instinct leads them, there they go.” The text adds that the lion “is proud by nature; he will not live with other kinds of beasts in the wild, but like a king disdains the company of the masses.” Yet the author invests the lion with knightly qualities, claiming that lions would rather kill men than women, and attack children “only if they are exceptionally hungry.”

Yet no one approaches even the most well fed lion without caution. From the classical world to our own era, the lion has chiefly been regarded as danger incarnate — a primary example of wild nature “red in tooth and claw.” And yet at times the symbol is transfigured: the lion becomes an image of beauty, grace and courage. In The Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis chose a lion to represent Christ. The huge stone lions on guard outside the main entrance of the New York Public Library seem to have been placed there as guardians of wisdom.

There is still one more wrinkle to the ancient story of Gerasimos and Jordanes. Saint Jerome, the great scholar responsible for the Latin rendering of the Bible, long honored in the west as patron saint of translators, lived for years in a cave near the place of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem. Only two day’s walk away was Gerasimos’s monastery. The name of Gerasimos is not very different from Geronimus – Latin for Jerome. Pilgrims from the west connected the story told of Gerasimos with Jerome. Given the fact that Jerome sometimes wrote letters with a lionish bite, perhaps it’s appropriate that Gerasimos’s gentle lion eventually wandered into images of Jerome. It’s rare to find a painting of Jerome in which Jordanes isn’t present.

-- Jim Forest

note: This is a chapter from Praying With Icons, the revised edition, published by Orbis Books. The icon used here is the work of Emilia Clerkx, a member of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. She based it on a similar icon now in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The painting of St. Jerome is attributed to a Follower of Pietro Perugino (1490-1500) and is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.


Else M Tennessen said...

A wonderful post in many respects: animal grace, saints, our own natures...showing once again how God uses all things to love us and to teach us. Thank you, Jim and Nancy! This post was a blessing!

JordanJacqui said...

Jim - I am now living in Jordan, not far from the River. I was very touched by this story, especially since I have befriended many wild cats on the campus where I teach, in the desert outside of Amman not far from Gerasimos' home. I don't know if you remember me from the Merton-Buber House of years back, but Terry Lampropolous sent me your piece. I have been here for almost 3 years teaching Art History and . Art. I am looking forward to reading more of your book!