The Next Faithful Step

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"The Lion is God"

from Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979) pp. 61-64

The book is an autobiographical account of what a Roman Catholic missionary learned about his own Christian faith when he introduced the gospel to the Masai people of East Africa in the 1960s.  


I was sitting talking with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me—his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally "to agree to." I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said "to believe" like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word.

He said for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.

I looked at the elder in silence and amazement … But my wise old teacher was not finished yet.  "We did not search you out, Padri," he said to me. "We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for [God]. [God] has searched for us. [God] has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God."

The lion is God. Of course. Goodness and kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were here before I got here. Even the fuller understanding of God's revelation to man, of the gospel, of the salvific act that had been accomplished once and for all for the human race was here before I got here. My role as a herald of that gospel, as a messenger of the news of what had already happened in the world, as the person whose task it was to point to "the one who had stood in their midst whom they did not recognize" was only a small part of the mission of God to the world. It was a mysterious part, a part barely understood. It was a necessary part, a demanded part—"Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." It was a role that would require every talent and insight and skill and gift and strength I had, to be spent without question, without stint, and yet in the humbling knowledge that only that part of it would be made use of which fit into the immeasurably greater plan of the relentless, pursuing God whose will on the world not be thwarted. The lion is God.