Saint Gerasimos was born in the province of Lycia in the southern part of Asia Minor. His parents were wealthy, prosperous people, and he became a merchant, frequently visiting the Egyptian hermits in his travels (particularly the region known as the Thebaid).
From a very early age St. Gerasimos developed a great love of God and, as he grew older, he found he had little in common with other young people of his own age, who were only interested in having fun. He realized that the world and an attachment to it only brought many needless cares and sufferings, so he yearned to serve God and to be pleasing to Him.
In Egypt he grew in spiritual strength and wisdom, and then he again returned to his native province of Lycia. Later, towards the end of the reign of the holy Emperor Theodosius the Younger (who ruled from 408-450), he went to Palestine, where he settled in the wilderness near the Jordan river. So many men followed him there because of his reputation for virtue that he built a monastery where novices lived in a common house and the proven monks lived in a cluster of little cells. They numbered about seventy.
The monastery was approximately 25 miles from Jerusalem and about 100 yards from the Jordan River. Five days a week each monk was to keep silent in a solitary cell, doing simple handiwork such as weaving mats or baskets out of palm leaves. During these five days no cooked food was eaten; the only food was a small amount of dried bread, roots and water brought from the monastery. On Saturdays and Sundays all the monks went to the monastery to attend the Divine Liturgy and receive Holy Communion. Afterwards they were served cooked food and a little wine at the refectory. The work that had been completed during the week was given to the abbot. On Sunday afternoon each monk departed once again for his solitary cell in the wilderness, taking only a little bread, roots, a vessel of water and palm branches to weave baskets.
Each monk had only a single old robe, a mat on which to sleep and a small vessel for water. Whenever the monks left their cells, the doors were left open so that anyone could enter and take whatever he wished of the monks’ few possessions. In this way they prevented any attachment to material possessions. During Great Lent St. Gerasimos ate nothing at all until the radiant day of Pascha. His bodily and spiritual strength was sustained solely by receiving the Holy Mysteries.
The monks of his monastery were fond of recalling how a lion came to greatly love the saint and served him obediently and with great humility. One day, as St. Gerasimos was walking through the Jordan desert, he met a lion. The lion stretched out his paw and St. Gerasimos saw that it was infected and very swollen. The lion gazed pleadingly and meekly at the elder who sat down immediately to inspect the paw. He discovered that a thorn had lodged in the lion’s paw and this was the cause of his suffering. The saint carefully removed the thorn, cleansed the wound of all the pus and then wrapped it with a cloth.
From then on the lion faithfully followed the saint like a disciple. St. Gerasimos marveled at the lion’s intelligence, meekness and willingness to eat bread and whatever else could be found for him. The lion was given an obedience in the monastery. The monks had a donkey which carried water from the Jordan River for the brethren. The lion was entrusted with the task of accompanying the donkey to the river and guarding it while it grazed on the riverbank.
One day the lion fell asleep in the sun, leaving the donkey to graze peacefully. An Arabian merchant happened to pass by with his caravan of camels and saw the donkey. Thinking the animal was a stray, he tied it to his line of camels and took it with him. The lion awoke and began to search for the donkey, but it was nowhere to be found. The beast returned to the monastery and went immediately to St. Gercsimos who, seeing his dejected expression, thought he had eaten the donkey and asked, “Where is the donkey?” The lion stood in silence, hanging his head in shame. The elder praised the lion for not running away after his evil deed and instructed him to do the work of the donkey from then on. The monks loaded a large barrel on the lion’s back, as they had done before with the donkey, and sent him to the river to fetch water. One day a soldier came to the monastery to pray, and seeing the lion carrying the water, took pity on him and gave the monks three gold pieces to buy another donkey. The lion once again resumed his former obedience of guarding the donkey.
Some time later, the Arabian merchant once again passed by the Jordan on his way to sell wheat in Jerusalem. The donkey was still with him. That day, the lion happened to be near the river and as the caravan approached he recognized the donkey. Roaring loudly, he rushed towards him, frightening the merchant and his companions who fled in great terror. The lion grasped the donkey’s reins in his teeth, as he had done previously, and led it together with the string of camels to the saint. When he saw the saint he roared joyously at having found the lost donkey. St. Gerasimos smiled gently and told his monks that the lion had been blamed most unfairly. The lion was given the name ‘Jordan’ and he continued to be a most faithful ‘disciple’. He was never absent from the monastery for more than five days at a time.
St. Gerasimus fell asleep in the Lord in the year 475 and was buried by his sorrowing brethren there in his monastery. The lion was not in the monastery at that time. When later he arrived, he began to search for the saint. Father Sabbatios tried to explain why it was that the elder could not be found. “Jordan, our elder has left us orphans; he has departed to the Lord.” The lion was not to be comforted; he refused the food that was offered and continued searching for his St. Gerasimos, roaring in great confusion. Fr. Sabbatios and the other monks stroked Jordan gently on the back and pleaded, “The elder has gone to the Lord; he has left us!” No words or explanations could stop the sorrowful roaring of the lion. He kept searching, now in great distress.
Finally Fr. Sabbatios said, “If you do not believe us, then come with us: we will show you the place where the elder rests.” Jordan was led to the tomb near the church where St. Gerasimos was buried. Fr. Sabbatios explained to the lion, “We have buried our elder here.” Fr. Sabbatios then fell to his knees and with a heavy heart began to weep. The lion now realized what had happened. He gave one last mighty roar, struck his head on the ground and died on the elder’s grave.
The lion’s love and devotion for St. Gerasimos is an example of the love and obedience the animals had for Adam before his fall into sin and his expulsion from Paradise.