January 22, 2021

A Modern Bestiary, Part Two

francis and wolf

Editor’s note: You can read Mule’s A Modern Bestiary, Part One here

Stories of saints and animals have always moved me deeply. St. Seraphim and his bear was one of the first I learned about in an Orthodox context:

Saint Seraphim began to go to a “far wilderness,” which was a desolate place in a forest 5 miles away from the Sarov monastery. He reached great perfection during that time. Bears, hares, wolves, foxes and other wild animals would come to the hut of the ascetic. One day, a nun named Matrona saw him sitting on a tree trunk in the company of a bear. Terrified, she let out a scream. The staretz turned around and, seeing her, patted the animal and sent him away Then he invited Matrona to come and sit beside him. ‘But’, Matrona relates, ‘hardly had we sat down when the animal returned from the wood and lay down at the staretz’ feet. I was as terrified as before, but when I saw Father Seraphim, quite unconcerned, treating the bear like a lamb, stroking him and giving him some bread, I calmed down. When I was wholly assured, the Father gave me a piece of bread and said ‘You needn’t be the least afraid of him, he won’t hurt you.’So I held out the bread to the bear, and it was such joy to be feeding him that I wanted to go on doing so.’

The bear became a frequent traveling companion of St. Seraphim, placid and gentle with those who loved the Staretz from the heart, but threatening to those who wished him ill.

The story of St. Francis and the penitent wolf of Gubbio is also well known, as is that Saint’s love of animals.

While Francis was staying in Gubbio, he learned of a wolf so ravenous that it was not only killing and eating animals, but people, too. The people took up arms and went after it, but those who encountered the wolf were killed.

Francis decided to go out and meet the wolf.  Suddenly the wolf, jaws wide open, charged out of the woods at the couple. Francis made the Sign of the Cross toward the wolf who immediately slowed down and closed its mouth. Then Francis called out to the wolf: “Come to me, Brother Wolf. I wish you no harm.” At that moment the wolf lowered its head and lay down at St. Francis’ feet, meek as a lamb.

St. Francis explained to the wolf that he had been terrorizing the people, killing not only other animals, but humans as well. “Brother Wolf,” said Francis, “I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past wrongs are to be forgiven.”

The wolf showed its assent by moving its body and nodding its head. Then to the absolute surprise of the gathering crowd, Francis asked the wolf to make a pledge. As St. Francis extended his hand to receive the pledge, so the wolf extended its front paw and placed it into the saint’s hand.

From that day on the people kept the pact they had made. The wolf lived for two years among the townspeople, going from door to door for food. It hurt no one and no one hurt it. Even the dogs did not bark at it. When the wolf finally died of old age, the people of Gubbio were sad.

Pigeons are a particularly despised bird. Like other animals such as squirrels and rats, they have learned to thrive in the artificial urban environments man has created for himself. Most people look upon them as disease-ridden pests, even though our Lord the Spirit condescended to their form to descend upon our Lord in His baptism. St. John Maximovich, in his final troubled years, found consolation in the company of a small pigeon he took in and nursed back to health.  His secretary and caregiver relates the story:

This particular day I noticed a white pigeon with a reddish pattern in its feathers, making pigeon noises outside the window on a specially built ledge. It was pacing back and forth, obviously not intending to fly away, but, as I assumed, waiting to be fed. As it seemed no stranger to her, I paid little attention then.

On the feast day of the Baptism of the Lord, I chanced to be in St. Tikhon’s for the Blessing of Water. To my great surprise, as St. John was blessing the water, a dove flew right out into the courtyard. It flapped its wings and actually soared over the basin of holy water, I was amazed, as I had never seen such a service with a live dove hovering over this holiness.

After the service I learned the touching story of Archbishop John’s “heavenly bird.” Archbishop John came home to discover that a pigeon was hurt, his wing was damaged, and was sitting outside the window. He opened the window and let it in. The bird could barely flutter, and Archbishop John bound its wing and fed it. That was enough to make it feel adopted. The bird stayed around, especially when the Saint would arrive and would feed it. Actually it remained a mystery how both of them conversed. But one thing we knew: the pigeon reacted to the words of St. John as if it understood what he said. I was told that both of them would sit facing each other, the man softly speaking and the bird making its pigeon sounds in agreement and peacefully walking to and fro, as if memorizing what it was taught.

On the day Archbishop John died, the bird began to pace the window and flutter in agony, as if knowing about its master. When the death knell announced the earthly end of Archbishop John, the bird was frantic. It fluttered in agony, missing the Saint, and its little heart also stopped a few months afterwards, to our deep sorrow.

I remember Archbishop John’s words to me when I used to complain that in some cities birds are removed from the streets: ‘Yes, now throughout the whole world, attacks are carried out against all living beings that surround us.’

We do not live to ourselves, nor do we die to ourselves.  All things are indeed in peril.


  1. Christiane says

    “Ask of the animals and they will tell you”
    . . . of the beauty of the Earth


  2. Robert F says

    I think of stories like the ones you relate as word pictures rendered in anticipation of the great day prophesied in Isiah when predator and prey will dwell in peace together, and there shall be no killing in all God’s holy mountain, and the Eschaton will be revealed in its fullness in the visible reign of Christ, the prince of peace, over all the new heavens and earth.

    Is it only monastics and hermits who “reached great perfection” in the hagiography of Eastern Orthodoxy? Are there also saints who achieved sainthood and “great perfection” in the midst of married life with children and a job in the marketplace?

    And wasn’t it the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, not a pigeon, that descended on Jesus at his baptism? Or am I ignorant of bird types and is a dove a kind of pigeon?

    • Robert F says

      Please edit out “those who have surrendered” in the above comment. My mistake.

      • To answer my own question after a visit to Wikipedia: yes, pigeons and doves belong to the same family of birds, and the terms are interchangeable.

    • Robert F

      I am shadowed by my wife’s language where the same word is used for both ‘pigeon’ and ‘dove’;’ paloma’. It was kind of startling for me to hear “the pigeon of the Holy Spirit descended on Christ at His baptism” in a sermon, because the word had been reinforced in my usage mostly by reference to the nuisance birds in the public plazas.

      As far as lay sanctity in the Orthodox Church, it seems to be kind of scarce on the ground. ‘Fools-for-Christ’ such as St. Xenia of St Petersburg seem to be the predominate category of married, non-clerical sanctity. I am of the opinion that the matrimonial act, in this fallen world, although not evil in and of itself, provokes a lot of what the Orthodox call thumoi, which is inimical to the state of passionlessness and nepsis [sobriety] which is the hallmark of Orthodox sanctity.

      You did know we are supposed to abstain from marital relations 40% of the year, didn’t you? This from the Wednesday Bacon-eater 🙁

      Yet many married clergy are celebrated as saints, including some who are still with us whose sanctification is already being promoted. Many, many Orthodox saints, lay and cleric, are widowed, having followed the Church’s advice to enter the monastic life after the death of their spouses.

      But nobody attains sanctity without acsesis or podvig “struggle”. Someday, I’ll have to write a post on what Luther called “monkery”. I’m fer it whereas he appears to be agin’ it, but I think there’s a real misunderstanding between us.

      • Although it may not be what Orthodoxy means by the term, my own experience is that marriage has required its own kind of acsesis.

      • Although it may be true that Orthodoxy has transmitted understandings of the Scriptures and liturgy more in keeping with Old Testament and inter-testamental Judaism in certain respects than Western Christianity has, this difference about the spiritual place and value of matrimony are altogether different than what I think we can find in the Old Testament.

        • I don’t think it’s a matter of the Orthodoxy not placing high enough value on matrimony. You are right, marriage and family provides plenty of opportunity for acsesis. The question to me is, does marriage provide the same opportunities for sanctity as the celibate life? Or maybe a better way to ask it would be, does marriage involve more roadblocks to sanctity than celibacy? Mule is right, most of the Church’s saints are celibate. But they aren’t saints because of their celibacy, they are saints because of their sanctity. So the Church’s observation is that chastity leads to a higher degree of sanctity more often than marriage.

          • Robert F says

            I see your point. Also, that celibacy was unusual in the OT is not an argument against it for the church; Jesus and Paul were both celibate, and the spiritual life of OT times in not completely normative for the church.

            Sorry to have diverted the comments away from the subject of the post; in my own defense, at least matrimony and bestiary both are important aspects of the meaning of the goodness of creation.

          • Celibacy was not unknown in the Old Testament. Elijah and Elisha spring immediately to mind. But we also have to remember that Orthodoxy is not Reformed Christianity. It is not so much the Covenant that is new in the New Testament as it is the creation. New creation, new physics.

            “But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage,” Luke 20:35 Matrimony is very much of this age, and despite the possibilities of spiritual development inherent in the married state, the Apostle teaches us that is temporary and something of a stopgap measure..

            You are right though about the acsesis of marriage. at my first Orthodox wedding, I made a comment to the priest standing next to me about how appropriate was the Orthodox custom of crowning the new couple as king and queen of the new household. The priest shook his head vigorously.

            “No iss cr-r-r-rown of roy-al-ty,” he protested. “Iss cr-r-rown of martyrdom. Haff to die to demselffs now.”

            And he was a celibate priest.

          • Robert F says

            Yes, your priest was on the mark; are the crowns given to the newlyweds at Orthodox weddings by any chance also adorned with a cross?

  3. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for these stories, especially the one about St. Seraphim and the bear, which is one of my favorites.
    I particularly like it because there is a young brown bear who periodically visits us here at our place in New Hampshire.

    For the record, though, there are people who have bear friends very much like St. Seraphim,, and I know nothing about their spiritual life.
    Some years ago, one of the TV network news magazines did a story (with Scott Pelley?) about a man in Alaska who was very friendly with the local bears–so much so that they were welcomed into his house! And, perhaps some of you know a similar story about a man who became friendly with bears–again, in Alaska–who ended up being eaten by them. As I understand the story, the bears he met were near some sort of bear “super highway”–a route they used to migrate or whatever it is bears do when they decide to travel. After becoming buddies with these bears, he went off to get his girl-friend to introduce her to the bears. Unfortunately for him, and her too, the bears with whom he was friends moved on to wherever it was they were going, and a new group of bears arrived on the scene. For them, this guy and his girl-friend weren’t friends, but an easy protein source. (Someone made an excellent documentary of this sad story, my son told me, but I can’t pull up the title of it.)

    • Randy Thompson says

      Regarding the bear who occasionally visits us. . .

      I should note here that we do NOT invite him in for a meal, nor do we get overly chummy with him. We do like it when he visits our yard, though.

    • The name of the movie is Grizzly Man. The man’s name was Timothy Treadwell. The movie is fascinating if for no other reason than it is a movie about a man convinced that nature is totally good and peaceful made by a man (Werner Herzog) convinced that nature is gruesome and chaotic. The most interesting part of the film is near the middle, when Herzog speaks with a wildlife specialist who is an Alaska Native.

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