Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Lesson of the Burdened Bear

The Lesson of the Burdened Bear

The Hidden Messages of the Burdened Bear

The familiar "burdened Bear" was illustrated in charming storybook fashion by the Bear's talented daughter, Ragan (or "Ragsy" as Bear calls her still). Is it just a cute illustration, or might we learn something from it? (For those unfamiliar with the Bear's story - official and unofficial - it is recounted here.)

The Burden

First of all, the Bear is burdened. What all is he carrying? We're not sure, except that a saint put it on him. It is likely St. Corbinian was wise and kind, and did not overload the Bear. He was a hermit outside of Paris who made a pilgrimage to Rome. The Pope, recognizing something in the man, sent him off as the first Bishop of Munich-Freising. The local warlord and his wicked wife, Biltrudis, immediately "put out a contract" on the saint, causing him to go into hiding.

Ironically, the Bear was free, but the saint was now burdened with difficult and dangerous responsibilities. He must leave his life of solitude and bring Christianity to a warlike people.

Perhaps, for us, the burden represents our sins, much as the pack on the back of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress. The Bear himself is a fine symbol of our own Bearish passions. Ah, the ponies are so fat and plentiful. It is so hard sometimes... (There is a good reason this ephemeris is entitled "St. Corbinian's Bear" and not "St. Corbinian.")

Forgiveness and Contemplating Our Sins

We may imagine St. Corbinian's forgiveness of the Bear for killing his beloved pack animal (whose name was "Binky.") He did not harm the Bear. The day would always come when the Bear would be freed from his burden and returned to his native Woodlands. It was an instruction that caused the Bear to suffer, but did no harm. A sweet, instructive suffering with many a day trudging through the Alpine passes and across the plains to Rome, and much time to contemplate his sins.

"Contemplate your sins,"  is sometimes heard as a joke. Do we contemplate our sins with the same attention as the Bear, step by step? It is good to learn our weaknesses and humble ourselves; to recognize our near occasions of sin and avoid them. It is harder today, with so many distractions to hand, to truly know ourselves. 

And yet, it is all too easy to fall into an unhealthy shame. It is the wise Catholic who can contemplate his sins and benefit without succumbing to shame and discouragement. It would be discouraging if we had to earn our way into Heaven. But that is not the provision God has made. We can do nothing ourselves. We must cooperate with the grace we are given.

"For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation not to be repented of; but the sorrow of the world worketh death." (2 Coringhians 17:10.) This is a very wise saying.

The Goal of the Pilgrimage - Dim Perhaps at Times 

Indeed, what do we barely see at the right of the banner at the top of this ephemeris? What does that mean to you, dear reader, and the form in which it takes?

Might we imagine St. Corbinian and his Bear shrouded in early morning fog, barely able to see hand or paw before their faces? Yet the road beneath their feet was well traveled. Indeed, "all roads lead to Rome."

We are all burdened Bears, are we not? Are we overloaded by care? Savage of tongue? Cruel of heart? Do we take pride in the gifts God has loaned us? Do we rely on our own brute strength, like the Bear, or do we let Jesus share our burdens? Does this burden look light? No, but that's what we're promised, which seems odd. Have you ever wondered how a cross could be "light?" This is indeed a mystery.

It gets heavy when we think about it. About ourselves, and our weakness. One thinks of St. Paul.  Jesus called him a horse, or at any rate, some working beast. "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." (Acts 26.14.) Paul was a great one for thinking, as his letters reveal. Yet he found himself knocked off his horse, in the dirt and blind, having to trust others to lead him to a different life.

His destination was more than dim, wasn't it? He could not see it at all, yet he could hear that Voice cutting through the blindness.

Pope Benedict saw the burden of the Bear not as sin, but as his burden of office. One, it must be said, he laid down before the end of the journey, alas.

Benedict: "The Pope Who Was Really a Bear"

Pope Benedict's Coat of Arms.
Note St. Corbinian's Bear in the upper right quadrant.

Pope Benedict found special meaning in St. Corbinian's Bear, which adorns his coat of arms, and that of the Munich-Freising see.

Pope Benedict, in his autobiography, Memoirs, 1927-1977, says, "The Bear with the pack, which replaced the horse, or, more probably, St. Corbinian's mule, becoming, against his will, his pack animal, was that not, or is that not, an image of what I should be and what I am?" Source: Catholic World Report. See also, "The Pope Who was Actually a Bear," Crisis Magazine.

We can only imagine St. Corbinian thinking the very same thing as he assumed his new responsibilities among a strange people.

The Chastened Bear

Second, notice the chastened expression. The Bear is downcast. He is far from the proud apex predator. His whole body language expresses his weariness. He is strong, but the burden is heavy. More to the point, it is galling to play the part of a beast of burden! Bears eat ponies and pack mules! They do not permit themselves to be employed as such.

The Bear may indeed be wearied and chastened by his burden, yet he does not rebel against the saint. The original story does not say what the Bear thought about during all those trudging miles to Rome. Was he sorry for eating the saint's pack horse? One hopes the burden taught him something. We only really learn from our burdens and mistakes.

Experience is not what happens to you. Experience is what you learn from what happens to you.

Without making too much of it, does the color green symbolize growth? 

The Cup of Service. Or Beer.

Note the cup. He does not himself carry water. Yet he is ready to help the thirsty if he receives water from some other source. Perhaps the "living waters" of Christ? Perhaps we recall the water that flowed at the command of Moses in the desert. Or, maybe St. Corbinian just liked his beer. His abbey was one of the earliest breweries for which we have records. God does not want us to go through life without refreshment and enjoyment.

That cup, small though it be, more than balances the burden of the Bear when the draft is poured by He who turned water into wine.

(St. Benedict grudgingly allows monks about ten fluid ounces of wine per day, but deems it unsuitable for monastic life. "But whaddya gonna do?" he pretty much says in Chapter 40 of his Rule.)

Ah, the Horseshoe

The final detail to which the Bear would invite your attention is the horseshoe, hanging right in the middle of the green sack.

Undoubtedly, it came from the pack horse of which the Bear made his famous snack. Why would St. Corbinian decorate poor Bear with an image of his disgrace?

Sin is like that. It leaves its mark. Without the horseshoe, the picture would not be a true illustration of his condition. It would just be a pretty picture. After the humiliation of carrying the saint's heavy load ("He seems to have a lot of stuff for a simple hermit," the Bear is thinking) what happened to the horseshoe, do you think? What do you imagine the Bear's thoughts were when he arrived at Rome, and was released into the Woodlands?

The Bear will allow you to complete the ending of the story.


  1. Beautiful and thoughtful piece. Thank you for this.

  2. The road well-traveled,but seemingly shrouded...and all roads lead to Rome...the horseshoe to remind of the sin...
    Your gift of putting thoughts into writing is something i thank God for.
    P.S. maybe you and Red Death could practice lassoing skills on the roaming goats?

  3. Today, everything I see, think or hear reminds me of the Love of God even this.. . incongruous as that may seem.

  4. One of your very, very best, Bear.

    I'll be revisiting it often. Thank you.

    1. Thanks. And Mr. and Mrs. Badger have real mail coming!

    2. Is it a horse head???


    3. It's a love letter to the Badgers!

    4. awwwww, ya big softy....you really are a teddy-Bear at heart.

      Did you guys ever get the goats corral'd, or are they currently terrorizing the Illinois countryside?

    5. Southern Illinois is safe from caprine depredations. Our first herd sire "Billy" (how original) was a street goat who eluded police for weeks as terrified citizens of the nearby burg called in reports.

      Now, the kittens are learning to venture out of our closet. Is there anything cuter than kittens? Their wee tails and big slate gray eyes. I've named one "Molly" and we're keeping her.

      Anybody wanna kitteh?

    6. ahhhh...your an Adrienne reader.

      and you're certainly right about the kittens, they're wonderful....
      'specially with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti.

  5. JFK: Sorry, Bear clumsily accidentally deleted your D&D reference. He said in early D&D adventurers were advised to carry a ten-foot pole which would have allowed St. Corbinian to fend off the Bear.

    But then he Bear would not have eaten Binky, and there would be no Bear and St. Corbinian would just be some other old saint you never heard of. So all things work out to them that love God.

    1. BTW, the Bear actually invented Dungeons and Dragons. It was originally Bears and Bards. Gary Gygax did improve it however, by adding "characters" so no players actually died.


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