A startling video on YouTube made the rounds a few years back, about a lion named Christian and the two men who had raised him. The background is that in 1969 these men saw a lion cub for sale in London (let’s not even begin to talk about how this could have been legal) and brought it home, raising it in their apartment and exercising it in the neighboring churchyard. Inevitably, this male lion (named Christian) became too big, and the young men did what they must to reintroduce it to the wild in Africa. More than a year later they returned to look for their old friend; the lion came to them and embraced them, rubbing against them like an overgrown kitty, and even introduced them to its wild-born mate. Watching this video (with a power ballad soundtrack!) brings tears and also the question – how could those men be so sure they were safe? What sort of courage is that?
It immediately brought to mind the story of Androcles and the Lion, one of my favorites from childhood and a great example of emotional courage.
A Greek slave named Androcles was badly abused by his Roman master for many years. One day, when an opportunity presented itself, Androcles ran away, choosing the unknown dangers of the forest over the known dangers of life as a slave. He wandered for many days, hungry and exposed to the elements. At last, he found a cave where he could take shelter, and lay down to rest.
Hours later, a sound awakened him. To his horror, he saw the daylight at the mouth of the cave obscured by a great shape, and by its shaggy mane and powerful frame he recognized his terrible mistake: he had taken shelter in a lion’s den. With a short prayer he resigned himself to his fate and closed his eyes, but when minutes passed with no attack he peeked. The lion lay just within the opening of the cave, grunting as if in pain and licking at a front paw.
Androcles crept closer, and saw that a large green thorn was stuck in the paw, which was swollen and infected from the sap. His heart was pounding with fear, but when the man crept even closer the lion stretched out his leg, as if asking for help. Trembling, Androcles reached out and, bit by bit, worked the thorn loose. The lion sighed, and lay his head down, blinking tiredly at Androcles before falling asleep. Androcles too, exhausted by the fear and relief, soon gave way to sleep.
For several days, Androcles and the lion shared the cave with growing trust and friendship. The lion brought food to Androcles as if the man were the lion’s cub, and they both regained their strength and walked among the trees together. One day, however, a team of hunters ensnared the lion in a net, and guessing that Androcles was a runaway slave, they captured him as well.
In those days, it was the Roman custom to watch criminals be torn to pieces by wild animals as a spectacle in the open-air theater called the Coliseum. This was to be Androcles’ fate, as a warning to other slaves not to try running away. On the appointed day, Androcles was thrown into the ring, while hundreds of spectators cheered and applauded from all sides. On the far side of the arena, a gate was drawn open by a chain, and a ferocious lion burst out, roaring and snarling in rage.
Androcles stood his ground as the lion charged, and a hush fell upon the blood-thirsty crowd. To their astonishment, the lion stopped when it reached the slave and licked his face. Androcles wrapped his arms around the lion’s neck, for it was the same lion who had been his friend in the forest. So great was the wonder of this event, that the emperor granted pardon to both slave and lion, who spent the rest of their days together as free citizens of Rome.