There’s a story of a monk who loved animals. He had many dogs and cats in his hut, and in spite of being a rather bullish man, his love of animals seemed to radiate through.
One day he went to a house in the village for a house blessing. As he came through the gates, he was met by the family’s massive German Shepherd that was known throughout the village for being aggressive and vicious. The dog was the size of a small pony! The family stood in shock as the dog ran up to the monk and jumped up on him putting its paws up right on his burly shoulders. The monk just laughed. “Want to wrestle?” he growled at the dog with a chuckle. The dog replied by licking the man’s face. The monk looked toward the stupefied family and laughed. “Aw he’s my friend now! He knows how much I love animals–these dogs are very sensitive, you know!”
There’s something wonderful about these stories of humans encountering and befriending seemingly vicious animals. There’s a teaching here that we can gain insights from about how to become truly human. In the case of the monk, the seemingly vicious dog has an encounter with this man as if it is encountering God; and, it seems, the same can be said about the monk.
Here’s another from a favourite novel of mine, Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin. The novel traces the spiral-life of Arseny: a physician, nomad, and holy fool. As a young boy, Arseny is taught by his grandfather Christopher the medicinal use of innumerable herbs. One day walking through the forest, young Arseny and his grandfather came upon a wolf.
“Once they saw a wolf while they were gathering plants. The wolf was standing a few steps form them, looking them in the eyes. His tongue dangled from his jaw and trembled from panting. The wold was hot.
“We will not move, said Christopher, and he will leave. O great martyr Georgy, do helpe.
“He will not leave, Arseny objected. He came so he could be with us.
“The boy walked up to the wolf and took him by the scruff. The wolf sat. The end of his tail stuck out from under his hind paws. Christofer leaned against a pine tree and attentively watched Arseny. When they headed for home, the wolf set off after them, his tongue still hanging like a little red flag. The wolf stopped at the border of the village.”
The wolf eventually becomes Arseny’s house pet, lying with him by the fire. There is something magical about this world, something evocative somehow. I will not go into more detail about the wolf without ruining the plot of the story, but the wolf becomes an icon in the book of what icons are supposed to do: bring heaven and earth together.
Arseny’s befriending the wolf, or any stories about monks and wild animals for that matter, is an icon of this real connection humans share with all of creation. And that it’s not the animal’s fault that there exists at times this vicious barrier between it and a human being, but that it is really our fallenness that gets in the way; that if we were actually saints in the true sense of the word, more of these kinds of interactions would be happening. Hence, these stories of wolves and other wild animals are icons of what we all need to become, what we all as humans need to strive and struggle toward by the grace and mercy of God: to become more and more in the image of the One by Whom we were created.
These are the kinds of stories I love; the kinds of stories that reveal how the grace of God can radiate from one so much that even otherwise vicious animals are at peace. Whether it’s the well-known story of St. Francis of Assisi and the wolf, or stories of hermits in the forest who feed bears, these stories show that in Christ we are connected closely to all of creation. “Be at peace with God, and a thousand of others around you will be too,” to awkwardly paraphrase the saying of a desert father.
These stories encourage us to reach beyond ourselves, to reach beyond our fears, our anxieties, our immediacies, our possessions, our mandates, our intellects to something beyond: to tasting heaven here on earth and bringing all of creation along with us.