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Lenten Lessons from Favorite Fables

By the Rev. Gregory I. Carlson, S.J.
Associate Professor of English and Theology, College of Arts and Sciences
Associate Director of Deglman Center for Spirituality
Creighton University

Note: The author has amassed more than 6,000 books and 4,000 related fable objects. Fables entertain us but often use the story to provide a moral insight.

Lent is a good time to find ourselves a little less at the center of things. Fables can help us get perspective on the big universe around us when we get lost in our egocentric little world. Consider the fable "The Gnat and the Bull"

A proud gnat once found himself exhausted from hours of buzzing around the farm. He looked for the nearest place to land and found it on the tip of a horn of a gigantic bull. When he had rested for some time, the gnat walked up the horn closer to the bull's ear and buzzed: "May I have your permission to leave now?"

The bull answered "I didn't feel you come. What do I care if you go?"

The people with the weightiest sense of their own importance are usually lightweights.

Next is the delightful and surprising story of the mother frog who seriously overestimated herself:

"The Frog and the Ox"

A big ox was once grazing near a pond when he happened to step on three young frogs. One frog remained, and he hopped off immediately to bring the sad news to his mother. "Some big beast killed them all!" he blurted out as soon as he found her.

"Big?" the foolish mother asked. She puffed herself up and asked "As big as this?"

"Bigger," answered the young frog.

"As big as this?" the mother asked as she puffed herself out some more.

"Much bigger" answered the young frog.

"Then as big as this?" asked the mother as she strained to puff herself up just as much as she could.

"No, mother. Much, much bigger" answered the young frog. The mother was about to ask again when she puffed so hard that she exploded.

Proud people get too big for their britches. Really proud people get too big for their skins!

We learn a related helpful Lenten lesson from the great story of the fox and the crow:

It seems a hungry fox once came upon a crow perched in a tree with a big piece of fresh cheese in its beak. "My, what a beautiful, splendid creature you are," said the flattering fox. "In the whole forest, there is no creature that can begin to compare with you for beauty. A body as beautiful as yours must have a splendid voice to match."

This invitation was too appealing to the proud crow. To demonstrate his splendid voice, the silly crow opened his craw and cackled out an awful, screeching song. The tender morsel of cheese fell straight into the greedy open mouth of the fox.

The fool who trusts a flatterer will pay for it.

If we generalize that good lesson a little, we may well find that we pay altogether too much attention to other people's opinions. We may need to live our own lives and worry less about pleasing everyone else, as this miller learned:

"The Miller, His Son, and Their Donkey"

Once a miller and his son were walking their donkey to town to sell him at the market. Along their way, they passed a farmer working at the edge of his field. "How stupid you are!" the farmer said to the miller. "You have a donkey, but neither of you rides him!" The miller took the comment to heart, stopped, and put his boy on the donkey's back.

They had not travelled long before they passed some older men talking by the side of the road. "How disrespectful young people are today!" they said. "Look at that boy who rides while his father must walk!" The miller took the comment to heart, stopped, hoisted his boy down from the donkey, and got on the beast himself.

They had not travelled long before they passed some women and children near the road. "How cruel you are!" one of the women said to the miller. "You are a strong, grown person and you ride, while your poor little boy has to walk!" The miller took the comment to heart, stopped, and pulled his boy up with him on the donkey.

As they came closer to town, they met a traveler leaving town. "Are you trying to kill that beast?" he asked the miller. "No," the miller answered. "I'm taking him to market to sell him." "Well, you're not delivering him in the best of shape!" the traveler commented. The miller took the traveler’s comment to heart and stopped. Wanting to deliver the donkey in the best of shape, he looked around him and found a long straight branch that had fallen from a tree. With some effort, he tied the donkey's front and back hoofs to this pole. Then he and his son each shouldered an end of the pole and carried him into the town.

The townsfolk laughed when they saw two people carrying a donkey! They clapped their hands and danced around the sweating miller and struggling son as they approached the bridge that led to the marketplace. Frightened by their noise and uneasy with having his legs tied, the donkey finally slipped one of the knots. The surprised boy dropped his end of the pole, and the donkey fell over the side of the bridge and into the river, where the torrent carried him away.

Try to please everyone and you'll please no one.

If others sometimes lead us astray, we also misperceive ourselves and so hurt ourselves, as the sad fable about a stag dramatizes:

"The Stag at the Pool"

A beautiful stag was once standing in a pool of clear, cool, quiet water. As he gazed down on his reflection in the pool, he thought to himself: "How proud I am of my magnificent set of antlers. But how ashamed these spindly and scrawny legs of mine make me! I only wish that they were as magnificent as my antlers!"

As he was looking, he heard the barking of approaching dogs. In a moment he was running away from their sound. Across open meadows he galloped, gradually distancing himself from the dogs. But they kept up their pursuit. Before long the deer had crossed the meadows and had come to woods. Soon after the stag entered the woods, his antlers got caught in the branches of trees. He was quickly so entwined in them that he could not move at all. As he heard the dogs moving in on him for the kill, he realized that the part of himself that he had despised had saved him, and that part that he was so proud of would cost him his life.

What we despise is often our best friend. What we glory in is often our downfall.

We may especially misperceive ourselves because we let ourselves get infatuated with what ends up hurting us. The painful fable of the lion in love may help us love both wisely and well.

A lion once fell desperately in love with the daughter of a farmer whose land bordered on the lion's woods. At last the lion went to her father to ask if he could marry her. The farmer thought for a moment and then answered, "Yes, but on one condition. I am afraid that your sharp teeth and fierce claws might hurt my tender daughter. If you will let me remove them, you may marry her."

The desperate lion was only too happy to comply, and so the farmer got his tongs and pliers and set about removing the lion's sharp teeth and fierce claws. As soon as he finished, the farmer turned and called all the farm dogs and set them on the lion, who was now defenseless. Within minutes, the dogs subdued the lion and killed him.

Love can make fools of us all.

Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., enrolls 4,000 undergraduates and 4,000 graduate and professional students among nine schools and colleges. No other university its size offers students such a comprehensive academic environment with personal attention from faculty-mentors. Jesuit and Catholic, it affords incomparable interprofessional education, bridging health professions programs with law, business and the liberal arts – all on one walkable campus. Creighton has been a top-ranked university in the U.S. News & World Report for 20 years.