The Bible, the Lion and the Desert

Sr Margaret Atkins reveals the crucial connection between the Bible, the lion and the desert.

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By Sr Margaret Atkins

St Jerome died on 30th September, exactly 1600 years ago. He is best known for his learned translations of the Bible, and for his friendship with a lion. The story goes that St Jerome met the lion when it was roaring with pain because a thorn had stuck in its paw. St Jerome pulled the thorn out and the lion was so grateful that it became his companion. In paintings, the lion keeps him company, sometimes in a desert looking quite realistic, sometimes lying like a lapdog in a plush Renaissance study. The Bible, the lion and the desert: what have these three things got in common?

The most famous reference to lions in the Bible comes in Isaiah chapter 11, following on from the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. Wild beasts living in harmony with humanity and domestic animals symbolise his peaceful kingdom:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

Mark’s Gospel contains a brief reference to this (just four words in Greek), which often escapes notice. It comes in the very first chapter. The only thing we have learnt so far about Jesus is his baptism by John. Immediately, Mark tells us, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was tempted by Satan, he was ministered to by angels, and he was with the wild beasts. Subtly but powerfully, St Mark sets out the cosmic significance of Jesus’s mission: to reconcile the whole world to God. The savage beasts are tamed; paradise is restored.

In St Jerome’s time, large numbers of Christians had withdrawn to the desert to live simple lives of prayer, alone or in communities. Jerome himself lived this life for some time in Syria, and visited many of the monks in Egypt. In a letter to some of them, he described their desert as ‘the fairest city of all … a veritable paradise’ (Letter 2). Indeed, the monks saw themselves as sharing in Christ’s work of restoring paradise by reconciling the whole of creation. The silence and stillness of the desert allowed them to avoid the distractions and temptations of the world, and focus on defeating their internal demons, in order to bring true peace to themselves and those around them.

It is no coincidence that the lives of these saints are full of stories of cooperation with animals, often ones that are naturally ferocious. Abba Symeon the Elder, in the Syrian desert, rescued some lost Jews and provided a couple of friendly lions as a guide for them. St Pachomius was ferried across a river by a crocodile; a dangerous dragon was healed of a damaged eye by St Simeon Stylites, repented of its ferocity and returned home in peace.

One of my favourite stories is of St Macarius, who was begged by a mother hyena to come and heal her blind pup, which he willingly did. The story is told twice, and both versions are packed with literal echoes of Jesus’s healings in the Gospels. When Christ opened the eyes of the blind, he showed that the Messianic age of peace was breaking in on the world. His followers, who had no human beings around, imitated him by befriending and healing other creatures, fellow children of God.

Elsewhere in later periods, other ascetics found their silence in woods, among mountains or on remote islands, and continued this tradition. St Florentius used a bear as his shepherd, while a stag offered its antlers for St Cainnic to use as a bookstand. St Cuthbert befriended his otters, who provided a warm furry drying-off service after he had been praying in the icy Northumbrian sea. St Kevin saved a boar from the hunters and allowed a blackbird to nest in his hand. St Werburga, a king’s daughter, even brought back to life a wild goose that had been poached by one of her servants; this was after giving the repentant flock of geese a good telling-off for eating the crops.

These are just a handful of hundreds of stories showing how human beings who are at peace with God are able to share in Christ’s work of ‘reconciling the world’ to Him (2 Corinthians 5.19). St Francis when he tamed the wolf of Gubbio was not innovating, as many think, but inheriting a tradition of centuries.

The association between St Jerome and his lion represents this vaster truth: that the salvation revealed in Scripture is cosmic in scale. God, who made the heavens and the earth, works to bring all his creatures into his peace. That truth can both challenge and encourage us today, as we ponder what might be needed to heal our broken planet.

Sr Margaret Atkins, CRSA, Boarbank Hall, Cumbria and Blackfriars, Oxford.

Image: Penitent Jerome, Albrecht Durer, c.1494 – 1497, Source: WikiArt