The parking lot of a suburban Central Florida community college was the last place I ever expected to find a peacock, and yet there he was, picking about the dumpster like a rooster and gobbling down stray grains. Looking back in retrospect I probably should have called security and found out where the poor bird had escaped from. His long tail feathers (peahens have no such decoration) dragged along in the dust behind him. I was in an awful funk. I had been laid off the previous year and was struggling to make ends meet working in positions that I was not good at.
Fortunately, I found a position teaching computer programming at the above mentioned community college, the stipend of which went a long way towards alleviating my financial burdens and for which I remain grateful. Nevertheless, it was a very dark period in my life and that particular day was darker than most. I don’t remember now what had occurred to precipitate such a dark mood, but I do remember the peacock. At first, the bird paid no attention to me, continuing to pick out grains around the dumpster, but when I turned to look at him, he turned to look at me, opened his tail feathers in a magnificent fan, and began strutting towards me. After a few paces, I guess he figured out that I wasn’t a peahen, folded his breathtaking plumage, and returned to his supper. I went on to my class. The words of the Beatitudes presented themselves immediately to my mind:
For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.
It was if the illustrations concerning the birds of the air and the lilies of the field were accordioned together into this one gorgeous animal: I had nothing to fear, finally. I and mine would be taken care of, perhaps not in the style to which we had become accustomed, perhaps not in the way we were accustomed to expect, but we would be cared for.
In a similar way, beasts have often accompanied me in prayer. Before becoming Orthodox and introducing icons into my prayer life, my greatest preference was to pray outdoors. This is a habit that I acquired in college, in the acres and acres of orange groves that surrounded the Central Florida campus. Once, there was a time when a very close friend needed prayer. I found a little bench next to a small drainage pond and began to pray. It was one of those times when prayer wasn’t work, when I didn’t have to “prime the pump”. By the grace of God I was allowed to pray with great liberty and boldness for my friend for an extended period of time. When I finished, I found myself surrounded by a menagerie; a pair of squirrels, a heron, a butterfly, several small birds of the sparrow or finch type, and a pesky bee buzzing around my head. All of these animals were closer to me than animals usually approach. The squirrels and the heron were practically in my lap. When I finished praying they went their own ways.
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, Matrona, one of the nuns, 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. I do wish we Orthodox could venerate Saint Francis officially, but that will have to wait until we have achieved a greater degree of unity than we presently have. In the meantime, his sanctity and example illumine our Catholic brothers and we rejoice.
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 took pity on the people and the wolf as well and decided to go out and meet the wolf. He was desperately warned by the people, but he insisted that God would take care of him. 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.
Then he offered the townspeople peace, on behalf of the wolf. The townspeople promised in a loud voice to feed the wolf. Then Francis asked the wolf if he would live in peace under those terms. He bowed his head and twisted his body in a way that convinced everyone he accepted the pact. Then once again the wolf placed its paw in Francis’ hand as a sign of the pact. 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 chose their form in which to descend upon our Lord Jesus Christ 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:
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 following touching story of Archbishop John’s “heavenly bird.” Once 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.’
It remains only to point out the obvious: the fantastic way of life we have chosen in the six or seven generations since the advent of Industrial Revolution has estranged us from Creation in ways we can scarcely imagine. We grow more and more estranged from each other as we attempt to make our lives conform more closely to the images that are projected into our craniums during practically every waking moment. If some of the current research into the interface between the human nervous system and the cybernetic networks we have recently created ever bears fruit, we may be tempted to dispense with the natural world as much as possible and take up residence in a fantasy of our own devising. One can only hope God will the cast that particular Tower down before it is ever constructed, but our servants the beasts have never forgotten their blessedness in Paradise, nor do they ever cease to yearn, in their inarticulate way, for the restoration of their communion with their Master Adam.