Saints and Lions, a Travelogue

A painting of St. Tekla

And now for something completely different. Far from my typical frugal fare, I have a story to tell, and can’t think of where to tell it, so here it goes.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting the Debre Lebanos Monestary in Ethiopia.  It’s a beautiful two-hour car ride from Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, and houses a few small tourist attractions and the Debre Lebanos Monestary, which has operated continuously for 750 years.

We hiked to the cliff-churches with many penitents and pilgrims making their Lenten journeys up the jagged, rocky cliff—many barefoot.  At the top of the mountain, we found a beautiful tiny church tucked into a natural cave.

Jagged stone trail to the church of St. Tekla

This jagged stone trail, often littered with thorns and sharp stones was climbed daily by many lenten pilgrims, evidenced by blood over many stones from the bare feet of visitors.

 

This, we were told by a kind abbot, is where St. Tekla Haimanot stood for 28 years, 22 of them on one leg.  We got conflicting stories on why/how he lost his leg, but the stories were clear in that he spent those years, praying without ceasing, with spears pointed at him in all directions in case he fell asleep.

 

This evening, I was re-reading an Ethiopian legend to my daughter. A Saint and His Lion”  by Elaine Murray Stone, is a children’s story we purchased several years ago, and have read many times, but for some reason, I’ve never connected my saints…

You see, St. Tekla is a bit of a legend, even for a saint.  There are many stories about him, many true, more not.  It’s clear from stories that he had an injured leg, and was revered in life and death.  Trying to determine if it’s actually the same St. Haimanot (pardon my very-Western perspective, but how many could there possibly be?) I did some more research, and found this very old newspaper article about the author of the book, the legends of St. Tekla and the books.

 

The story in the book is simplified, it explains that he had a “special birth” (a star rose over his parents hut, and their family was invited to meet the King, because he wanted to know more about them). The story tells us that he injured his leg as a child, falling from a tree, and that after being nursed back to health by his family and the village priest, he wanted to become a priest. He was told he was too crippled to do that, but snuck away to the monastery anyhow.

On the way to the monastery, he found a lion—the book refers to it as Anbassa, the Amharic word for “lion.” The lion had a badly wounded leg, and being wounded himself, Tekla took pity on the lion, and treated its wound before continuing on.

At age 20, he became a priest, and was sent as a missionary to Western Ethiopia (my ultimate destination was also Western Ethiopia and South Sudan, which at the time of Tekla was also part of Ethiopia).  Just after leaving the monastery, however, Tekla’s crutch broke, and he was unable to move. He was afraid he would die, and a lion approached him. The lion was the same lion that had been injured, and it allowed Tekla to ride on his back to West Africa, where people saw the man riding the lion, and knew that God must be protecting him. The story tells “the fierce people of Gallas begged him to baptize them.”  (The Gallas people are now called the Oromo people that range through what is now Western Ethiopia, and some in Northern Kenya).

He became a monk at Debre LIbanos later, and spent the last 28 years of his life in the cave there praying. The story is told that he lost one leg there—some say from lack of circulation because he stood praying, others say because of an earlier injury. The lion story is likely fantasy, but legend repeated none the less—the lion (the lion of Judah especially) is a revered and important symbol in Ethiopia.

Paintings of St Tekla always show him standing and on one leg, sometimes even showing the severed leg separately with angel wings. The Egyptian Orthodox Church in Alexandria also reveres St. Tekla and says that he’s the only saint ever given wings while on earth.

Mysticisim surrounds St. Tekla, even on our visit to his Cliffside church, we found on a dry day, in a dry place, the inside of the cave rained steadily.  We first blamed condensation for collecting water which then dropped, but on further examination, the ceiling of the room—where the drips came from—was completely dry.  Also, despite a multitude of photographs, not a single one turned out—they all had horizontal blurring.   (An example of one or our better photographs is attached, showing the plastic basins that are collecting the water, which will later serve as holy water for the church’s Lenten rites. 

St Tekla died of the plague between the ages of 97-98 years old.

He is one of the few Orthodox saints that has a birthday feast—the feast of St. Tekla is celebrated every August 17.

Lions in Ethiopia
As an aside, you’ll frequently see lions in Ethiopian church stories: The lion typically seen is the lion of Judah, not the lion of Tekla. In fact, I never once heard of Tekla’s lion while in Ethiopia (perhaps the story has been disregarded as mythology). The lion of Judah represents the family line of Solomon, including Ethiopian royalty such as the Queen of Sheba (married to Solomon), and most recently to Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975), also known as Ras Teferi Makonnen, who remained in that line.  Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie was the Lion of Judah, referred to in the Book of Revelations in The Bible. (See Revelations 5:5). In Christianity, the “Lion of Judah” is the symbol for Jesus Christ.

Ethiopia is also the only home to the black-maned Abyssinian lions (Panthera leo roosevelti ), an endangered species.

 

The gate to St. Tekla’s Church, which was a little deceiving in that there was another fifteen minutes of uphill climb beyond this. Many who hadn’t taken shoes off, took them off here and left them outside the gate. Did I mention that the “bottom” of the climb begins at an altitude of approximately one mile, so tying one’s shoes is feat, let alone climbing this hill, and many of the pilgrims and monks who passed us would climb several times a day bringing holy water to their family or the monastery below.

 

 

Debre Libanos Monestary

The beautiful Debre Libanos Monestary. This modern version was built by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1961


  • Tzegemariam

    Thanks for this God bless you!