His matted mane rested heavily on the slivered wooden floor. A large paw stretched forward and began to knead the cold iron bars. Leo, not a very original name for a lion, gazed longingly across the parking lot from his circus trailer. It had been many years that he had traveled through the countryside…but tonight he longed for something different, something more. Weighted pants pushed dust from the floor into the night air. He knew not what laid beyond the darkness, but wondered. There must be something…right?
As a cub Leo was bought and sold to a travelling circus. City after city, show after show he would be presented to the crowds as they oohed and awed at his cuteness. A story was told during each exhibition of how young Leo was saved out of a cruel life of caged captivity from the small breeder. He would now enjoy the luxurious life that few lions would ever get the privilege of experiencing. There would always be new places, new people, new experiences for Leo. All his needs would be met from food to water to exercise and companionship. The lion tamer traveling with the circus was world-renowned and had years of experience training young lions like Leo. Surely this would be a wonderfully exciting life for this little cub.
Within a few months of his life as a circus lion Leo started his training. He would not be small and cute forever, he had to learn the tricks and routines that would keep audiences packing the big tent. Three other lions filled out the small pride that became Leo’s family, two lionesses and one alpha male. During the early training sessions the small cub would listen to the tamer bark commands at the older lions. Upon hearing the tamer they were all impeccably obedient. They climbed ladders, jumped from platforms, and leaped through hoops as Leo observed with wide eyes. One particular trick really held his attention. The large alpha sat gracefully before the tamer. The man reached forward with two hands and opened the massive jaws of the great lion. To Leo’s amazement the tamer then slid his head between the razor-sharp teeth of the great cat. He knew then that this man wielded an awesome power that brought submission and compliance from even the strongest lion. As Leo continued to watch the older lions obey every command an awareness began to form in his mind…this is what lions were meant to do.
After a few days of observation Leo was led into the middle of the training pen by the tamer. One of the lionesses joined him. A command was given and the lioness reacted by jumping up onto a platform. He heard the command once again and looked nervously at the lioness…CRACK! A whip had snapped behind him, startling him as he instinctively jumped onto the platform that was in front of him. He was frightened, but quickly the tamer threw a chunk of meat in front of him. Apparently he did something right, he was being rewarded.
The training continued day after day, month after month, with intermittent weekends of performances. Leo learned quickly and was soon catching up with the skill of the older lions. During one memorable training session he was going through the motions as he jumped through a set of hoops, a section of the act he had gotten particularly good at. The tamer broke their normal routine as he went over to the hoops, fiddling with them for a while…then WHOOSH! As flames danced around in frightening circles Leo felt his heart drop. He cowered and began to crawl towards the pen door…he heard the command, but did not jump. CRACK! The whip was back but this time Leo didn’t jump, he only sunk lower. CRACK! A burning pain crossed his back. He looked fearfully at the tamer with a slow side glance. He had never experienced such pain, but he knew that he deserved it…he did not leap, he did not jump. Tacitly he positioned himself to jump through the flaming hoops. As the command was uttered once again, he leapt as quickly as he could. Leo could feel the heat from the fire as he passed through the flames. When at last he was past the danger he dropped down in the dirt. A chunk of meat dropped before him…this time he did not eat.
The details of that day blurred over time, but the lesson did not. Leo did not want to disappoint the tamer by disobeying a command. He remained obsessively attentive in his presence. As a result the young lion grew into a great performing cat. He mastered the performances…jumping higher, roaring louder, and projecting more personality than all of the other lions in the little traveling pride. The older alpha waned with age and Leo soon found himself as the centerpiece of the circus. He enjoyed a couple of years of spotlight success. His connection with the tamer was never better. During performances the tamer hardly needed to gesture or call a command, Leo knew exactly what to do and when. Leo was happy. He had what he needed and enjoyed a purpose in doing exactly what he was trained to do.
As happens, life cannot sustain a single peak of joy and happiness perpetually. Eventually the circus stopped drawing the crowds that had made it successful. Financial difficulty soon followed. The owners ended up selling the other three lions, leaving Leo as the sole big cat in the show. The tamer was disgruntled at his loss, yet remained determined to bring success back to the circus. As such, the stunts that Leo was expected to perform became increasingly difficult and dangerous as his leader became more aggressive. Leo did his best to keep up with grueling training sessions only to find brief relief in short periods of rest. The weight of obligation rested heavily on his broad shoulders.
It was during this difficult time when he found himself staring into the darkness that fateful night. Somehow he wished he had done more in the past. Every stumble in a performance haunted his thoughts, every time it took longer than expected to learn a routine, every disappointed look from the tamer. He had done so much, tried so hard, but it wasn’t enough. He came to the realization that there would always be more pressure, more hoops to jump through, more commands, more whips. Hope clawed back from despair as, for the first time, he questioned what it meant to be a lion. There could be something else, something more, something meaningful. Whatever that was he knew that he would not find it from the tamer who told him what he was, what he was to do, where he was supposed to go. He felt a surge of self-realization rise from within his gut. He could seek meaning for his life, he decided that nobody else could do that for him.
Yet Leo still laid on his side in his cage. For all the internal turmoil and wrestling…his body barely moved. He knew the bars would keep him in place. He knew that he couldn’t escape. As hopelessness creeped over his body with an eery chill he continued to knead the equally chilly iron bars. His large ear twinged as the faint sound of a click pierced the silence. The cage door moved slightly under the pressure of his paws. Apparently the tamer had failed to make sure the lock was secure before he left for the night. Moonlight caught his large brown eyes. With a shove the door flew open. Quickly he hopped down, shuddering with excitement as his paws dropped onto the asphalt. For a moment he hesitated. Could he really do this? Could he really run?
Just then he heard a holler from a nearby trailer. The tamer had spotted Leo. Immediately he found himself at a sprint. A tree-line appeared in the distance, providing a target for his flight. The oaks moved closer…closer…closer…BANG! Leo’s right hind leg collapsed under his weight as he tumbled into some loose gravel. Burning consumed his thigh. The determined lion found his way back to his feet…he had been trained to push through pain to accomplish a task. Leo now sprinted faster than ever and disappeared into the thick forest. His pace slowed to navigate through all the obstacles, but he continued to flee. He would not stop, he would not go back. He ran with chilled nocturnal air rushing through his mane. Leo felt alive.
Eventually the light of morning sun shone across the horizon. Exhausted the large cat found a place in the underbrush that seemed safe to collapse. As breath caught up, Leo’s attention turned to his injured leg. The dart had grazed him, the wound was shallower than he expected. It seemed excruciating at the moment of impact but now the pain was little more than dull now. He licked his wound but felt confident it would heal.
Leo surveyed all that surrounded him. No concrete, no cages, no tent, no tamer. Freedom rang in the relative silence of the forest. A subdued breeze rustled through leaves. Leo closed his eyes as his thoughts finally caught up to him. He knew he was free now…captivity and control were in the past. The emotions of new reality were overwhelming.
Leo had never felt the tensions of such complex emotion before. He didn’t know what life would hold for him from this point forward. He felt confident that he was moving into a more authentic life…he was now embarking on a journey to find what it really means to be a lion.
This allegory was prompted in part by the story of a man who was excommunicated recently from Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church. The story was told to the world on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog. Read about it here:
It is important to note though that this allegory is not meant to simply re-tell Andrew’s story. Over the past week many have been sharing their stories of spiritual abuse and the difficult process of escaping religious control. Their stories can be found in the comments sections of the linked posts, other blogs, on social media, likely (if you run in religious circles) amongst your friends, or possibly in your own life experience. The volume indicates that there is a serious and systemic issue that needs to be addressed. Too often religion has been used to control others. I agree with MPT, it must stop. This is my contribution to the fight against the dehumanizing process of caging a diverse, complex and beautiful humanity in the constricting boxes of religious regulations and systems.