St. Mark and Wild Beasts

Probably because my name is Daniel, I have always loved lions: those in the Bible, those in the wild and that not-so-safe but good one in the land of Narnia. One reason why I love today’s saint so much is because of his association with the lion. There is a story that, while in the wilderness, Mark encountered a hungry and ferocious lion, ready to pounce on his human flesh. But like the Prophet Daniel before him, Mark trusted in the Lord and escaped unscathed. Throughout the history of Christian spirituality, saints have lived in harmony with a panoply of wild animals: St. Columbanus shared a cave with a wild bear; sea otters kept St. Cuthbert’s feet warm; St. Godric welcomed a hunted stag into his home; St. Francis made a pact with the violent wolf of Gubbio; and St. Seraphim took a bear as his pet and friend. Scholar Benedicta Ward points out that this miraculous concord between saint and beast was a return to paradise, to the Garden of Eden where humanity and all animals enjoyed each other’s company and friendship.  So it is no wonder that the Spirit led Jesus, immediately after his baptism, into the wilderness to be with the wild beasts in order to launch his mission to bring heaven to earth, to bring back the Garden. And part of taming the wild beasts in the wilderness involves, as Jesus shows us, taming the wild beasts within ourselves and wrestling with our own inner demons and devils, wrestling with our own inner violence.

Between escaping death by lion and meeting death by Rome, St. Mark, according to tradition, founded the Coptic Christian Church, a community of Christians in Egypt that still thrives today. It is this community that suffered horrific violence on Palm Sunday.  In the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria, 45 Coptic Christians were murdered and many more were injured as a result of a suicide bombing. This year, I understood our participation in the liturgies of Holy Week as one way for us to stand in solidarity with our vulnerable and victimized Christian brothers and sisters, to mourn and pray for them, and to stand in defiance against such monstrous acts of violent terror. Lent and Holy Week also invited us to recognize the ways that we, as Christians and US citizens, have unintentionally and perhaps intentionally participated in and supported the violence and oppression of other vulnerable communities. As Nietzsche wisely said, “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” We cannot tame the violent beasts around us if we do not first learn to tame the violent beasts within.

And how do we do this? How do we traverse the treacherous wilderness and tame the violent beasts of the world outside and within our own hearts? Again, St. Mark and his spiritual progeny offer wisdom. It is to Mark and the Coptic Christians that we owe the powerful witnesses of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who also followed the Spirit’s lead into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan and to be with violent beasts. The great Abba Antony of Egypt said, “Obedience with abstinence gives people power over wild beasts.” And the desert fathers remind us of the vicious beasts that roam within us by calling our anger the lion and our fornication the bear. And they call us to tame our desires in the same way that lions tame wild beasts that encroach upon their territory and pride. Abba Hyperechius said, “As the lion is terrible to wild asses, so is the experienced monk to desires.” The desert tradition calls us to be a powerful lion like the Lion of Judah in order to tame the wild lions within, to persevere in resisting in evil, as we vowed to do at our baptism. And that is a tall order.

Also at our baptism, we vowed that whenever, we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. One of my favorite sayings from the desert tradition is from Abba Sisoes, who was asked “What shall I do, abba, for I have fallen?” The old man said to him, “Get up again.” The brother said, “I have got up again, but I have fallen again.” The abba said, “Get up again and again and again.”

The lion associated with St. Mark is sometimes pictured above water, reminding us that our strength and perseverance in resisting evil are deeply rooted in and empowered by our baptism, which, like the baptism of Jesus, calls us into the wilderness to live in harmony with the beasts (internal and external) and to repent repeatedly and to restore the Garden of Eden and to bring God’s Reign on earth, to tame and tap into the life-giving powers of our own inner lions.

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