Many people are familiar with St. Francis of Assisi and his relationship with wild animals. There is, of course, the well-known story about how he tamed the wolf which had been terrorizing the villagers of Gubbio. And, Francis was a great friend to birds. Often, he would purchase birds that had been captured in order to free them with a warning to the birds that they needed to be more careful in order to not be caught. However, Francis was not the only saint who was on good terms with animals.
Another saint who lived before Francis named St. Godric (1069 - 1170) was also a friend to animals. However, he did not start out that way. In fact, he really did not resemble a saint very much for many years. His name is St. Godric and here is a little bit of the story of this lesser-known saint and friend of animals.
The Sailor's Life for Me
Godric was the oldest of three children born in Walpole England to an Anglo-Saxon freedman who farmed the land for a living. Like many young men on the British island who lived near the coast, he was drawn to the life of a sailor.
He began a career that involved sailing for merchant vessels along the British coast and to the mainland of Europe. Eventually, he became a captain. However, like the stereotype of a sailor, Godric was a rough sort given to fighting and too much drinking. He was also known to be a swindler, and in one manuscript of the time, he was referred to as a pirate.
Then his seafaring travels took him to the island of Lindisfarne which is a small island off the northeast coast of Britain. This island, beginning in the 6th century was an important center for Celtic Christianity and its history is tied to many saints including St. Cuthbert (c. 634 - 687). Cuthbert was a monk, hermit, and bishop who was associated with the monastery on Lindisfarne which had been founded by St. Aiden in the 6th century.
For some reason, Godric was drawn to this holy place and his biographer credits his interest in and the intercession of St. Cuthbert for his profound conversion. Immediately, Godric stopped traveling for money and pleasure and began a series of pilgrimages including traveling to Saintiago de Compostela, the shrine of Saint Gaul in Provence, and Rome.
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The Life of a Hermit
After his pilgrimages, he returned to England and lived with an older hermit named Aelric for about two years. After the death of Aelric, Godric went on one final pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the Holy Land, Godric resolved to never wear shoes throughout the year, lived as a hermit, and served at a hospital in Jerusalem.
Upon his return to England this time, he settled in Finchale by the River Wear in the area of Durham on land given to him by the bishop.
With his devotion to St. Cuthbert, it was appropriate that Godric would settle near Durham. Although St. Cuthbert had died on the island of Lindisfarne his remains had been taken to Durham and buried there. The site became a major place of pilgrimage due to devotion to the saint.
For most of the remaining 60 years of his life, Godric lived as a hermit. As would often happen with holy hermits, his reputation became known and he would receive visitors and was sought for advice. Both St. Thomas Becket and Pope Alexander III are reported to have asked for Godric's counsel. At at time when many men died at a fairly young age, Godric lived into his 95th year.
After being a hard-bitten and rough sailor, Godric's character must have softened. He not only gained a reputation as a holy hermit, it was also recorded that he was a friend to God's creatures. Here are three examples of his friendship with animals.
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St. Godric and the Cow
As a hermit in Finchale, St. Godric was known for the time he would spend in prayer. Some of his disciples became concerned that he was not taking enough care of himself. They suggested to him that he needed someone to help him. Godric agreed and thought that perhaps his nephew might be able to fulfill the small amount of duties which would be required. Godric's brother thought it would be beneficial for his son to spend time with his holy uncle and so the arrangement was made.
As the boy was still fairly young, his principle responsibility was to take care of the one cow that St. Godric owned. The lad was to take the cow out to pasture in the morning and then lead the cow home in the evening. Godric was responsible for milking the cow. However, the boy would often sleep in and fail to take the cow out in the morning, and he would also forget to bring the cow back in the evening.
Eventually, Godric decided to take matters into his own hands because he was finding that the help was worse than no help at all.
He went up to the cow and put his belt around her neck and then spoke very kindly to the cow. As the young boy listened, Godric explained to the cow that she needed to learn how to take herself out to pasture at sunrise and to bring herself back from the pasture before sunset. Godric then proceeded to show the cow by leading her gently out to the pasture. Later, he spoke to her again in the evening in a similar way and guided her back to his humble abode.
Godric also commanded the cow in the name of the Lord to come to him at any time that her udder was full and she needed to be milked.
To the boy's complete amazement, from that day forward, the cow, without any help from Godric or him, did exactly as she had been told. She would go out to pasture at sunrise and she would return home before sunset. When the cow was ready to be milked, she would find Godric. Many times, he had gone to the local church in order to pray and the cow would come to the church and stand in the yard and low until Godric came out to milk her.
The nephew served Godric for eleven years. As an old man he was fond of telling this account about his uncle and the cow.
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St. Godric and the Rabbit
In order to provide for himself and to give to others, Godric kept a small garden. Like many gardeners, he began to see that his plants were being eaten before they could become fully grown.
For a while Godric put up with the damage but eventually he had enough. He decided to hide himself near the garden and find out what was happening. After only a short time, he observed that a rabbit was coming to the garden to feed itself.
After seeing the rabbit eat his plants, he came out of hiding and confronted the creature. Instead of running away, the rabbit stood still while Godric spoke to it. He chastised the rabbit for eating food that was meant for the poor. Godric then asked the rabbit to not eat his food or to allow any of his fellow rabbits to eat the plants. As an act of goodwill, he produced a small bundle of vegetables and offered them to the rabbit. He then proceed to tie the bundle to the rabbit. The rabbit bounded away.
From that time forward, the rabbits did not come to his garden and eat the vegetables he was growing.
St. Godric and the Deer
On one fine day, some relations of the local bishop decided to go hunting for deer. They had come upon a very fine stag and had the set the dogs upon its scent.
The deer was swift and charged through the forest to escape the hunters. After racing for its life for some time it arrived near where Godric lived. Godric spied the deer, and he could tell that the deer was beginning to grow weary. The deer paused when it saw Godric.
Godric turned from the deer and walked back to his hut which was only a short distance away. He opened the door. The deer seemed to understood his action and intention, and the deer went inside after which Godric closed the door.
Exhausted from running away from the dogs, the deer collapsed on the ground of the hut.
Soon, the dogs followed the scent to Godric's hut. As the dogs began to bark, the hunters rode up on their horses.
When they saw the holy hermit, they were embarrassed to bother him and apologized for interrupting him. However, they still asked if he might know where they might find the magnificent stag. Godric replied that, "God knows where he is." As it was clear that no other answer was forthcoming, the visitors grew embarrassed again. With his answer in their ears, they again apologized and decided to not trouble Godric any more as they left him to continue their hunt.
The deer remained with Godric until the next day when it had fully recovered. Early in the morning Godric opened the door and the deer bounded off into the forest. However, in gratitude for his kindness it would every so often visit Godric and allow him to pet it.
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Want to Learn More About the Habits of the Saints?
In A Bedside Book of Saints, Fr. Aloysius Roche shares the full humanity of the saints through precious ancedotes of their lives. Through the short quotes and recounting of stories, we see how God created each of His saints, and indeed each of us, as unique creatures with different dispositions, likes, and gifts.
Consider this nugget that is from the book and shows the humility and playfulness of St. John Vianney:
For many years, there were a great number of people including fellow priests who wanted to see St. John removed as the parish priest of Ars because they considered him a hapless priest. A petition was started in order to request his removal. Accordingly, St. John signed the petition himself and remarked that with his signature added, the efforts for his removal must surely succeed. Nonetheless, despite his agreement with their sentiments that he was wholly inadequate as a priest, he remained the priest of Ars until he passed away.
Feast Day (Memorial): May 21st