St. Gerasimus

(5th Century)

Abbot St. Gerasimus was another of those wonderful desert monks of the early Christian centuries.

Gerasimus was born at Lycia in Asia Minor. Feeling a call to the monastic life, he followed the usual practice of visiting various desert monasteries in Egypt and the Near East in order to learn the lessons of monkdom from the master monks. After this novitiate, he settled down in a cell near Jericho, in the valley of the River Jordan. So many men came to learn from him the ways of religious life, that he set up a monastic center near the Jordan. There was a common house for the aspirants and a cluster of private cells for “graduate” hermits.

Candidates for Gerasimus’ monastic center were certainly not attracted to it because of its “easy life.” The monks kept almost complete silence. They slept on mats of woven reeds. They were not allowed to have a fire in their cells, and the cell doors had always to be open. Prayer and manual labor took up their waking hours, and their meals were strictly vegetarian: bread, dates and water. It is said that the saint himself took no nourishment during Lent, apart form the Holy Eucharist. In other words, Gerasimus was popular precisely because he challenged others to difficult self-denial. Judicious churchmen of the day considered him one of the giants of the monastic world.

Do you remember the story of Androcles and the lion? Aulius Gellius told the tale in the first century AD. George Bernard Shaw wrote a delightful comedy based on it.

A similar anecdote was told of St. Gerasimus. John Moschus, the 6th century historian of eastern monasticism, tells us that one day a lion limped up to Abbot Gerasimus, as if requesting first aid. The abbot examined his paw, found a thorn sticking into it, removed the thorn, and then washed and bandaged the poor animal’s wound.

The lion was so grateful that he insisted on living ever after with the saint, as tame as a pussycat.

Gerasimus’ monks had a donkey that they used to carry up water from the Jordan to the monastery. The saint gave the lion the duty of protecting the donkey when it was in pasture.

One day a trader passed by, saw and seized the donkey despite the lion, and made off with it. When the lion came home without the donkey, he was quickly blamed with having eaten his protégé. Unable to defend his honor, the lion had to humbly accept the penance assigned him - to take over the donkey’s job of toting water. However, a few days later he saw the same trader coming along the river road with the stolen donkey and three camels in tow. Now, he assailed the robbing trader and drove him off. Taking the donkey’s halter in his mouth, he led him back in triumph to the abbey. Gerasimus saw that he had misjudged the big cat, so he gave him the name “Jordan” as a gesture of amends.

When the saint died in 475 AD, Jordan the Lion was disconsolate. The new abbot, Sabbatius, led him to Gerasimus’ grave. “See where he is buried,” he said. Jordan stretched out over the grave and beat his head upon the earth. He would not touch food nor leave the burial site. A few days later, the monks found the poor beast dead of grief.

Whether this charming anecdote is literally true, at least it reminds us of the happier days of creation when Adam, not yet a sinner, was given friendly dominion over “all the living things that move on the earth.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara