Hopefully, nobody takes the title of this post as a sign that Catholic Sensibility has definitively “jumped the shark.” I really believe that the relationship of desert monks and animals can teach us important spiritual lessons about restraint and eschatology. The following is nearly all from a recent essay by Blake Leyerle of Notre Dame.
The desert monks, Professor Leyerle tells us, “were especially known for their scrupulous avoidance of meat.” In late antiquity, the eating of meat could not be taken for granted and often took place during festive occasions that had deep communal significance. “By rejecting meat, the desert solitaries emphasized their separation from surrounding society, while at the same time strengthening their own shared identity.” This sort of distinctive practice might sound rather commonsensical. But not all monks abstained from meat – the monasteries, Palladius tells us, would often serve pickled pigs’ feet as midday fare. The communal monasteries could even raise pigs for slaughter because these monks’ “separation from surrounding society” was already clearly manifested through their walls, distinctive clothing and rules. And their “own shared identity” was already inculcated through the hierarchical order of the monastery, which even included explicit rituals of punishment and demotion. Furthermore, this hierarchical order might have justified the keeping of lowly animals for labor and food – Aristotle had suggested considering a slave to be the same as an ox.
The preservation of vegetarianism among desert monks occurred in the absence of walls, distinctive clothing and rules. A restricted diet might have been found necessary in the near complete absence of overt discipline. And desert monks did not live within a hierarchical order at all. We are here reminded that the desert monks desired to teach indirectly, through example, not command. We read in the Apothegmata Patrum:
Abba Isaac said, “When I was younger, I lived with Abba Cronius. He would never tell me to do any work, although he was old and tremulous; but he himself got up and offered food to me and to everyone. Then I lived with Abba Theodore of Pherme and he did not tell me to do anything either, but he himself set the table and said to me, ‘Brother, if you want to, come and eat.’ I replied, ‘I have come to you to help you, why do you never tell me to do anything?’ But the old men gave me no reply whatever. So I sent to tell the old men. They came and said to him, ‘Abba, the brother has come to your holiness in order to help you. Why do you never tell him to do anything?’ The old man said to them, ‘Am I a cenobite that I should give him orders? As far as I am concerned, I do not tell him anything, but if he wishes he can do what he sees me doing.’ From that moment I took the initiative and did what the old man was about to do.”
We can imagine that vegetarianism flourished as a form of asceticism that could be learned through example, requiring neither disciplinary forms nor rituals of exclusion nor the hierarchy that could justify the instrumental use of one’s fellow creatures. But there is more. To the desert monks, the eating of meat was connected with violence. Abba Hilarion once rejected a meal of chicken, saying, “Forgive me, but since I received the habit, I have not eaten meat that has been killed.” Meat was so connected with violence that Abba Hyperechius could even speak of eating “the flesh of one’s brother through slander.” Achilles spat blood when an angry word against a brother “became like blood” in his mouth. The desert monks did not only renounce violence but certain passions as well. Since ancient authors related a carnivorous diet to sexual desire, the monks’ abstinence from animal flesh also meant refusing to serve the desires of their own flesh.
Many ancient mosaics featuring animals show scenes of domination or carnage. After all, Libanius tells us that people slept on the pavement all night for seats to see the horrific beast shows in fourth-century Syria. But there are other mosaics. From Ma’in, we see a mosaic dating from the fifth or sixth century that shows a lion and zebu facing each other. An inscription across the top reads, kai leôn kai bous hama phagontai achura, “The lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isa 11:7). It is this vision of the Peaceable Kingdom that inspired the improbable stories of desert Christians making friends with wild animals.
And, so, Abba Gerasimos was beside the river Jordan when a distressed lion approached him. The lion had an inflamed paw. The elder simply lanced the paw and extracted a reed point, before cleaning and bandaging the wound. The lion, as John Moschus tells us in his Pratum Spirituale, became a “noble disciple” of Gerasimos. Of course, this meant giving up his usual diet. John Moschus tells the whole story:
… The fathers used to hand the ass over to the lion, to pasture it on the banks of the Jordan. One day when the ass was being pastured by the lion, it went away some distance. Some camel-drivers on their way from Arabia found the ass and took it away to their country. Having lost the ass, the lion came back to the lavra and approached Abba Gerasimos, very downcast and dismayed. The Abba thought that the lion had devoured the ass. He said to it: “Where is the ass?” The beast stood silent, hanging its head, very much like a man. The elder said to it: “Have you eaten it? Blessed be God! From henceforth you are going to perform whatever duties the ass performed.” From that time on, at the elder’s command, the lion used to carry the saddlepack containing four earthenware vessels and bring water.
One day an officer came to ask the elder for his prayers; and he saw the lion bringing water. When he heard the explanation, he had pity on the beast. He took out three pieces of gold and gave them to the leaders, so that they could purchase an ass to ensure their water supply and that the lion might be relieved of this menial service. Sometimes after the release of the lion, the camel-driver who had taken the ass came back to the Holy City to sell grain and he had the ass with him. Having crossed the holy Jordan, he chanced to find himself face to face with the lion. When he saw the beast he left his camels and took to his heels. Recognizing the ass, the lion ran to it, seized its leading rein in its mouth and led away, not only the ass but also the camels. It brought them to the elder, rejoicing and roaring at having found the ass which it had lost. The elder had thought that the lion had eaten the ass, but now he realized that the lion had been falsely accused. He named the beast Jordanes and it lived with the elder in the lavra, never leaving his side, for five years.
When Gerasimos goes to his reward, the lion, a perfect disciple, does not outlive his master. What is the point of this story? The transformation of a wild beast into a postulant content with a diet of bread and boiled vegetables is a sign that, through the holy monks, the Peaceable Kingdom is becoming real. The story, Professor Leyerle reminds us, is not about an unusual or touching animal. It is rather about the surprising effects of one monk’s refusal to entertain the usual attitude of domination or other poisonous human passions. John Moschus clarifies, “This happened, not because the lion had a rational soul, but rather … to show how subordinate the beasts were to Adam before he misunderstood the commandment and fell from the luxury of paradise.” There happen to be stories of more unsuccessful monastic experiments with lions that tell us the same thing. Cyril of Scythopolis writes about a monk named Flavius and another lion charged with pasturing an ass. Unfortunately, Flavius falls into fornication. Cyril says, “On the very same day, the lion ripped the ass apart and made it his food. On discovering this, Flavius realized that his own sin was the cause of the ass’s being eaten.”
So, vegetarianism was a way for desert monks to separate from society and create solidarity without having to accept the rules of communal life that seemed to depend on obedience and subordination. Vegetarianism might have connoted the rejection of a hierarchical order which placed some beings in complete subordination, worthy to be raised only for slaughter. It certainly meant the rejection of violence and the darker human passions. Finally, through friendship with rather than the dominance of animals, the desert monks show us the concreteness of Isaiah’s vision of a Peaceable Kingdom.
While I might still advise staying away from lions, let me quote Professor Leyerle a final time: “In conclusion, then, the complex relationship of early Christian ascetics to animals is fundamentally determined by an ethic of restraint rather than of domination.” I would suggest that this ethic, however imperfect and seemingly impractical, has much to teach us – perhaps now more than ever.