St. Jerome (341-420)
The Serpent and the Blessed Monk Ammon
One of the brothers of the monastery of the Blessed Apollo related to me this story:
In the times which are past a certain holy man, whose name was Ammon, used to dwell in this monastery, and he it was who converted me. Thieves would sometimes vex him, for they stole his apparel and food, and by reason of their vexatious attacks he went forth and departed into the desert. And he returned with two great serpents and commanded them to guard the door of his abode. When the thieves returned, according to their custom, they saw the serpents and marveled, and, by reason of their fear, they fell down on their faces upon the ground. Then, having gone forth and seen the thieves, the blessed man spoke unto them, and reviled them, saying, “Observe how much more worse you are than the serpents! These creatures are, for God’s sake, obedient to our command, but you are neither afraid of God, nor do you hold His servants in respect. And he took them into his dwelling, and fed them, and admonished them, and told [them] that they ought to change their way of life. And straightway they repented and took up their habitation in a monastery, and they excelled more than many in spiritual works, until at length they also were able to work miracles.
~ “Accounts of the Desert Fathers, as quoted in Joanne Stefanatos,” Animals and Man: A State of Blessedness, Life and Light Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1992, p. 116.
The Mind of Christ in Animals
We admire the Creator, not only as the framer of heaven and earth, of sun and ocean, of elephants, camels, horses, oxen, leopards, bears, and lions, but also as the maker of tiny creatures. Ants, gnats, flies, worms and the like – things whose shapes we know better than their names. And as in all creation we reverence His skill, so the mind that is given to Christ is equally earnest in small things as in great, knowing that an account must be given even for an idle word.
~ Letter to Heliodorus, Nr. 12. (PL 22, 596). Quoted in Friends of God: Homilies. Scepter Publisheres, 1981, p. 31.
One of the four western fathers, Saint Jerome is especially known for translating the Bible into Latin, which we know today as the Vulgate translation. Jerome chronicled the stories of the monks of the Egyptian desert and graphically related the amazing levels of spiritual development to which they attained. His ecological importance is primarily as a chronicler of fourth and early fifth century Christian experience and suppositions about wilderness and the animals. He describes in great detail the rapport and friendships which often developed between the desert monks and the wild animals which lived near their austere dwellings. These stories he provides us from the conventional understanding of his day which was shaped largely by monastic experience.
Why the Saints go to Wilderness Places
Jerome relates that the desert fathers and mothers went to wild places to flee the corruption of cities, to wage war with their passions, but especially to encounter the holy. He writes, “to me the town is a prison, and solitude is paradise.”
~ Quoted in Keith Warmer, OFM, in “The Sacredness of Wilderness in Christian Thought,” Green Cross magazine, Vol. 2, Nr. 2, Spring, 1996, pg. 8.