Jerome and the Lion
Jerome was such a holy man that we have come nowadays to call him St. Jerome. With some other monks, he built a monastery at Bethlehem, the place where Christ was born. Here he devoted himself to the making of books and the writing of letters, as well as to good deeds for the people in the neighborhood.
He and his brethren were very poor, having sold everything they had and given much of it away to those in need. Some said to him, "Brother Jerome, what will you do after all your money is gone?" He replied, "I have no fear of the future. What I give away now will come back to me in my old age."
One day he was sitting in his cell with some other monks when a lion entered the door. The monks arose in great fright, some of them jumped out of the window and others hid themselves as best they could. Jerome sat quietly and waited to see what the lion would do. The great beast looked around doubtfully and then limped toward Jerome, holding up his paw.
Jerome took the lion's paw in his hand, seeing that it was badly swollen. At length, he discovered a thorn stuck in the soft pad of the lion's foot, which must have given the shaggy beast a great deal of pain. Jerome managed to pull out the thorn with a pair of pincers. He then bathed the lion's paw with warm water in which he had put some herbs and tied a linen rag around it to protect it from the dirt. The look of pain vanished from the lion's eyes and he lay down at Jerome's feet.
Jerome expected him to leave, but the lion showed no such intention. He shook his tail and looked into the face of his benefactor as if to say, "I have found a good place and a good friend and I intend to stay."
Jerome pointed to the door, but the lion shook his tail again and took no notice. The other monks came back and saw what had happened. Jerome turned to the lion and said to him, "If you have made up your mind to live with us, you must do as the rest of us. You cannot live here in idleness. If you want to become a monk you must work. Are you willing to stay on those terms?"
The lion waved his tail and shook his paw as if to say, "Yes, I am going to stay and am willing to work as soon as my paw gets well."
Jerome then said to him, "If you stay with us it will be your duty to accompany my donkey to the forest every day and protect her from robbers and wolves while she brings back firewood for the monastery." Again the lion waved his tail as if he understood, and agreed to his part of the contract.
In a few days the lion's foot was well and he began his duties. Every morning the donkey started out to the forest accompanied by an old man who was to gather wood. The lion went along and kept watch on all sides for danger to his charges. While the old man gathered the fagots and loaded them into panniers on the donkey's side, the lion would lie on the ground, seeming to say, "You can work in safety, for I have my eye on all the forest and nothing can hurt you." When the panniers were full the lion guarded the donkey and the old man back to the monastery, where all three of them were fed and their day's work was over.
One morning, however, the sun was very hot in the forest and while the old man was gathering wood, the lion lay down and fell asleep. Two men who had been watching them through the bushes crept out and bound a cloth around the old man's mouth and slipped a bag over the donkey's head, so that they could not utter a sound. Then the robbers took them away, leaving the lion asleep on the ground.
When the lion awoke he stretched himself and yawned and looked around for the old man and the donkey. "It must be late," said he to himself. "I wonder what has become of the donkey and the old man; they must have wandered away somewhere." The lion searched everywhere for his charges, but could not find them.
At last he came across some footprints in the soft earth. He saw so many footprints that he knew the robbers had seized the old man and the donkey while he was asleep and carried them off. "Ah, woe is me!" cried the lion. "I have betrayed my trust. What shall I say to the holy father who cured my foot?" With a heavy heart, the lion crept slowly home.
When he entered the cell of his master, Jerome turned to him and said, "Why are you alone and where is the old man and the donkey?" The lion bowed to the earth and hung his tail between his legs.
"You have eaten the donkey and the old man," said Jerome, "and have betrayed my trust. Now you must take the place of the donkey, wear the panniers on your back and some one will drive you every day to the forest for wood." And so it was. The king of beasts had to take the place of the lost donkey and every day was driven to the forest and back again with wood for the monastery.
The summer passed and the spring came. Caravans went by with camels laden with rich products of Damascus on their way to Egypt. Sometimes the caravans would stop at the monastery for water and rest. One day the lion was standing near a group of trees while he was being loaded with wood for the monastery. The crackling of twigs caused him to turn around. He saw a caravan come up with great camels loaded with goods, and the donkey with them.
Recognizing his old friend, the lion gave a bound forward, overthrowing the man who was loading him, scattering the wood in every direction. The donkey leaped forward to greet his friend and they met with every demonstration of joy and affection. The lion then drove all the camels and drivers before him to the monastery, and if one of them looked around, he showed his teeth and growled so fiercely that they trembled with fear.
In this way they reached the monastery. The lion and the donkey went at once to the cell of Jerome, where the master was engaged in copying a manuscript. The lion roared, the donkey brayed, and the master ran out to see what was the matter. He recognized the donkey, and seeing that the lion had gathered all the camel drivers, he turned to them and said, "You are the ones who have stolen my donkey and taken away my old man. I shall have you punished and I shall ask forgiveness of this noble beast for the injustice I have done him."
The drivers fell upon their knees and confessed that they had stolen the donkey and carried away the old man. They cried out in alarm, "Holy Father, spare our lives! The old man is safe in Damascus and here is your donkey. Do not allow the lion to devour us, but rather forgive our sins and let us depart in peace."
Jerome thought a while and said to the camel drivers, "I shall spare your lives and you may depart, but let this be a lesson to you not to take that which does not belong to you." The lion and the donkey listened very attentively, and saw the camel drivers depart. They were satisfied with this arrangement and went off together to get their food and then lie down and tell each other of their adventures.
And this is the reason why in all the pictures of St. Jerome we can see a lion lying contentedly at his feet.