Children, do any of you have a pet at home? Perhaps a cat - soft, warm, beautiful, cuddly, a family friend. Or a dog - alert, lively, obedient, always willing to please, devoted to the family. A horse, though not a pet, is also a friend of man, striving to please his master, obedient and hard-working. Some other animals are tame and are useful to man, others can be tamed to a certain extent, for example to do a circus act. But how about other animals? Some are afraid of man because men hunt and kill them for food, for sport, or because they are a pest. Others are feared by men as dangerous killers, like lions, bears, hungry wolves. Is this how God ordered the world? No.
In the garden of Paradise God brought all the animals to Adam for him to give them names. All living creatures saw the light of God's image in his face, felt his holiness, and sensed the fragrance of sanctity. Willingly they bowed their heads to him and submitted to his will. But when Adam disobeyed God's commandment, the unreasoning creatures ceased to obey him. Men were now full of passions, no longer like unto God as they had been created. Yet a few saintly men, having purified themselves through unceasing prayer to the God they loved so deeply, restored the image of God in themselves. Animals sensing this purity and holiness, submitted willingly in obedience.
Do you remember the story of Daniel in the lions' den? Why didn't they kill and eat him as expected? Have you heard how so often when holy martyrs were thrown to the wild beasts in the arena, the animals only fawned on them, licking their feet, refusing to hurt them in any way? Or have you read about the monk on Mount Athos who kept a large poisonous snake in the bakery, feeding him on pieces of dough, because he was useful in killing the mice and other small pests? The snake frightened the other monks, but this monk allowed him to sleep at his feet every night.
Then there was Saint Seraphim, living alone in the forest, who used to feed a bear from his hand every day. Or the Russian new-martyr Bishop Peter, who was deliberately thrown out of a train at night into deep snow in the middle of a very bitter winter, and who, after struggling through the snow to find some refuge, finally saw a bear asleep, and had to choose between being frozen to death or possibly eaten by the bear. After a prayer, he approached the bear who gave a snore, turned over and presented his warm belly for the bishop to lie against and warm himself. In the morning the bear woke up and shuffled off with a grunt.
Then there was Blessed Feofil, a monk from Kiev. People recognized his sanctity and often came to him either for his blessing or for advice. One farmer came and complained that the bullock he had bought was so ferocious that no-one could approach him. He had already gored several men, and would have to be butchered. "No," replied Blessed Feofil, "just go and tell him that he is no longer yours; he belongs to me." The farmer obeyed, repeating the words of the elder to the bull who was snorting and pawing the ground. Immediately the bullock became as meek as a lamb, and allowed himself to be led to Blessed Feofil. From then on, the bullock, now completely tame, would take his master wherever he wanted. The elder would sit in the rear of his little cart under a hood with his back to the bullock, quietly reading the Psalter, while the bullock, without any harness or reins, would go wherever his master wanted without any guiding, prodding, whipping, nor even any audible command. The animal was not only docile but absolutely obedient, sensitive to his master's every wish.
Finally, here is the story of Saint Gerasimus and the lion. You may perhaps know it, but it is always good to hear it again. When Saint Gerasimus was walking one day near his monastery in the desert, he heard a lion roaring, not the usual roar of hunger or anger, but as if the creature was in pain. Instead of running away in fear, Saint Gerasimus approached him with prayer in his heart. The lion was vainly struggling to remove a large thorn from his paw, which was causing him so much pain. He quietened down on seeing the Saint and allowed him to remove the thorn. Saint Gerasimus turned to go back to his monastery, and the lion limped after him. Imagine the fear and astonishment of the other monks! Since the lion refused to go away, he had to be fed. This would have caused some discontent as food was short and the lion had a large appetite, so the saint ordered him to do some work. His task was to guard the donkey which went every day down to the Jordan to fetch water. This continued for some time, but one day the lion fell asleep, and some merchants were able to steal the donkey. The lion returned alone, expressing his sorrow in the only way he could. Saint Gerasimus, not surprisingly, thought he had eaten the donkey and rebuked him severely. "From now on," he said, "you will have to do the donkey's work. You yourself will have to fetch the water for the monks." And this the lion meekly did. It so happened that one day the merchants who had stolen the donkey returned to the same spot by the river. Recognizing his friend at once, the lion rushed forward, terrifying the men by his ferocious roars. With joy he seized the bridle between his teeth and led him back to his beloved master.
In God's good time Saint Gerasimus died and was buried by his sorrowing monks. The lion, who had not been in the monastery at the time, returned and wandered round to all the cells looking for his beloved master. He began to roar plaintively, since he could not find him. He continued to roar in distress, so the monks took him to their cemetery where his master was buried, trying to explain to the animal. The lion's roars increased. He refused to leave the grave, refused to eat, just lay there in sorrow until he died. What a holy man Saint Gerasimus must have been, filled with the Spirit of God!
If you know any more wonderful animal stories, share them with your friends. A nun.
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