(a biblical tale)
St. Jerome was born near the town of Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic Sea. He was a warm, outgoing boy who few imagined would become a monk. But he did, settling with his followers near Bethlehem, where he built a monastery.
One day, as Jerome was sitting in his cell with the other monks, a lion walked through the open door. The others quickly ran toward the window and clambered outside. But Jerome sat quietly, watching the stately lion as he walked to him.
When the creature was close, he suddenly held up his paw.
Jerome took the paw in his hand and studied the lion’s eyes — they were full of sorrow and pain. He noticed the pad was swollen, so he carefully examined the paw until he found a thorn stuck near a nail. He slowly removed it. Then he boiled water with healing herbs. With this potion, he bathed the lion’s paw until the swelling subsided.
Afterward, he wrapped a linen cloth around the paw so the wound would not get dirty. When he was done, the lion sighed with gratitude, and Jerome’s heart swelled with joy. He waited for the lion to depart. Instead, the creature stretched out on the floor and fell fast asleep.
After a while, Jerome lay down beside him and slept.
When they woke, Jerome said to the lion, “I see you plan to stay here with me.” The lion wagged his tail.
“Well, then,” Jerome said, “you must understand that everyone who lives here has to work, so I shall give you a job.”
Again the lion wagged his tail.
Jerome decided the lion must accompany the monastery’s donkey down to the forest each day. There an old woodcutter loaded up the donkey’s panniers with wood, and the donkey carried it back to the monastery. The lion was assigned to protect the donkey from robbers and wolves on her journey.
For many months the lion and the donkey walked together to the forest. There the lion lay down and watched as the woodsman heaped the donkey’s panniers with wood until the donkey could carry no more. Sometimes the lion fell asleep, and when the donkey was loaded down, she brayed to wake him, and together they walked back to the monastery.
But one hot morning in late summer, the lion fell asleep as usual and did not hear two men creep up beside the woodsman and the donkey. They tied a cloth over the man’s mouth and over the donkey’s mouth, too. Then they drove them away to their caravan, wood and all.
When the lion woke, he noticed the sun was low and he wondered why the donkey had not woken him. He looked around and saw no one there, and he thought she must have walked home alone. He searched for her footsteps and saw the footprints of three men instead. He then understood that the donkey had been stolen.
With a heavy heart, the lion walked home, going directly to Jerome’s cell.
“What’s wrong?” Jerome asked when the creature walked in.
The lion bowed, his tail between his legs, awaiting punishment.
When Jerome noticed the donkey had not returned, he and the other monks thought the lion must have eaten her. As punishment, the monks wished to banish the lion. But Jerome refused. Instead, he put the panniers upon the lion’s back. “From now on, you shall carry the wood from the forest,” he said.
The lion sighed with gratitude, for he loved Jerome and the monastery, and he did not wish to leave.
One day, as the lion stood in the forest and the old man loaded him with wood, the caravan of thieves returned from Damascus, passing through Bethlehem on their way to Egypt.
The lion heard them before he saw them, and he turned to see the caravan coming toward him. But then, he nearly fainted with joy when he recognized his friend the donkey among them.
He leapt toward the caravan — knocking the old man down. The wood flew in every direction. The caravan drivers were terrified when they saw a lion charging toward them. But before they could run away, the lion approached, growling, and managed to shepherd the whole caravan to the monastery.
Jerome was sitting in his cell reading when he saw the caravan coming, the lion in the lead. Puzzled, he walked outside. To his astonishment, he recognized his old donkey.
The merchants fell to their knees. “Oh, holy father,” they said, “please ask this lion to spare our lives. We confess. We stole the donkey while her guardian was asleep. We will gladly return her if you let us go on our way.”
Jerome smiled. “Go on your way,” he said.
The very next day, the donkey and the lion, two old friends, walked into the forest together. Jerome and all the monks rejoiced. From that day and forever after, the lion remained a faithful friend to Jerome, seldom leaving his side.