(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The setting for “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is a Franciscan monastery during a bleak, snowy winter. Father Didymus, an aged priest, is being read to by his friend, Brother Titus, a simple, holy, and rather forgetful old man. As this elegaic story opens, Titus reads from Bishop Bale’s critical Lives of the Popes, which reminds Didymus of the foibles of even great church leaders.

As the two friars go for a walk in the cold snow, Didymus meditates upon his own spiritual lapses. He is especially distressed with his decision not to visit his ninety-two-year-old brother, Seraphin, also a priest, recently returned from Rome after twenty-five years. Didymus feels that by adhering to the letter of his vows as a cloistered priest in not visiting his brother he has exhibited spiritual pride and has hurt his brother. Upon returning from his walk, he receives a telegram informing him that his brother has died.

Later, during the Vespers ceremony, Didymus collapses and wakes to find himself confined to a wheelchair. Titus brings a caged canary to his room for companionship and continues to read to him. This time, however, he reads from the writings of the mystic saint and poet Saint John of the Cross. One of Saint John’s paradoxical tenets is that one may be closest to God during the moments one believes oneself to be abandoned by him. Powers clearly implies that Didymus, despite his religious scruples and his sense of failure, achieves a...

(The entire section is 502 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The striking title, “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” is from a passage in Saint John of the Cross: “Birds of swift wing, lions, harts, leaping does, mountains, valleys, banks, waters, breezes, heats and terrors that keep watch by night, by the pleasant lyres and by the siren’s song, I conjure you, cease your wrath and touch not the wall.” Titus, who is a devoted but slow-witted Franciscan brother, reads this lovely prose to the companion whom he attends in the monastery, the octogenarian priest Didymus. The lines well suggest the plangent lyrical tone of this narrative of the aged Didymus’s struggle to find grace.

When the story opens, Titus is reading to Didymus from Bishop John Bale’s Pageant of Popes’ Contayninge the Lyves of all the Bishops of Rome, from the Beginninge of them to the Year of Grace 1555 (1574), an idiosyncratic and splenetic chronicle to which Didymus refers as “Bishop Bale’s funny book.” Titus also quotes from memory fragments from Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ (fifteenth century), silently challenging Didymus to identify the source in an “unconfessed contest.” This introductory scene fixes the characters of the two Franciscans and reveals their warm relationship. Titus is a saintly innocent, full of childlike glee as he spars mildly with Didymus in an attempt to please. Didymus is a geometry teacher who is always alert to impulses of spiritual pride in himself and feels ashamed at impatiently patronizing Titus.

As they walk the monastery grounds together at the close of a frigid day, Didymus ruminates on the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience that he has led. He concludes that “it was the spirit of the vows which opened the way and revealed to the soul, no matter the flux of circumstance, the means of salvation,” and this realization saddens him with a sense of having sinned against his older brother, Seraphin. The dying Seraphin, also a priest, had asked Didymus to visit him in St. Louis, but Didymus had refused out of what he now judges to have been a false interpretation of his duty to obey God. Didymus ruefully admits that “he had used his...

(The entire section is 882 words.)