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St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

February 4, 2015


A couple of summers ago I went with a pilgrimage group to Ireland.  One evening, near the end of the pilgrimage, I went out for a walk by myself.  Wandering around the streets of the town, I walked into a small store that seemed to sale a variety of items.  Although the store did not seem to be a religious goods store I immediately noticed a little statue of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio.  I bought the statue and it sits on my window sill today. 

The story of the saint and the wolf is that the wolf terrorized the inhabitants of the small Italian town.  Not only did the wolf kill and devour livestock but it began to attack and devour humans.  All attempts to kill the wolf failed and the people of the town would literally shut the town down in fear whenever the wolf would appear.  St. Francis heard of this and decided to go and meet the wolf.  The huge wolf rushed toward Francis as soon as he saw the saint approaching his lair.  St. Francis made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf in the name of God to stop his terrorizing of the town.  Immediately, the wolf became docile before the saint.  Francis went on to condemn the wolf for his attacks not just on animals but upon men and women who are made in the image of God.  Francis told the wolf that if he ended his attacks he would see to it that the inhabitants of Gubbio would provide him with the food he needed.  The story goes that the wolf placed his paw in Francis’ hand in agreement.  Francis then walked the docile wolf back into the main square of Gubbio to the astonishment of the inhabitants and there reiterated the promise.  Again the wolf placed his paw in the saint’s hand in agreement.  The saint had tamed the wolf.

Recently, I have been reading Romano Guardini’s book The Lord.  I came across the following passage and it has cast a new light on the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. 

“It is also said that the sheep heed the Shepherd, because they know his voice. Is it true that men recognize Christ’s call and respond to it? In one sense it must be, for he has said so; yet much in me qualifies the statement. Actually I respond much more readily to the call of ‘the others’; I neither really understand Christ’s summons nor follow it. Therefore, in order that I may hear, he must not only speak, but also open my ears to his voice. Part of me, the profoundest part, listens to it, but superficial, loud contradiction often overpowers it.  The opponents with whom God must struggle in order to win us are not primarily ‘the others,’ but ourselves; we bar his way.  The wolf who puts the hireling to flight is not only outside; he is also within.  We are the arch-enemy of our own salvation, and the Shepherd must fight first of all with us – for us.”

Guardini gets at the paradox that is the human condition.  We yearn for God and the profoundest part of who we are listens for God’s voice; yet so easily we let superficial contradiction win the day.  We disregard the very thing we most yearn for.  The first fight that the true Shepherd must undertake is the fight “with us – for us”.  The strongest and most terrifying wolf that puts the hireling to flight is not without, but within!

My hunch is that we all have a wolf within; the question is to what extent is the wolf ravaging and to what extent is it tamed?  The story of the poor man of Assisi offers some thoughts for consideration. 

The town of Gubbio shut down out of fear of the wolf.  A “town” is the moment of encounter, relationship, friendship, creativity, new possibility and life.  When a wolf ravages in our hearts all of these things are shut down and boarded up!  Life becomes dull and stagnant.  Maybe people even fear to approach us?  Maybe we even fear to approach ourselves?   I have heard it said that depression is anger turned within, like a wolf ravaging.

The wolf did not just devour livestock but even dared to attack and devour humans, made in the image of God.  If left unchecked not only will a ravaging wolf inhibit the growth and possibility of life but will even begin to devour life as well as the dignity of the person – oneself and sadly even others if allowed.  St. Francis strongly condemns the wolf for this sin!

How to tame the wolf?

First off, unlike the others who went out and were defeated, St. Francis went out to tame the wolf, not destroy it.  The wolf is a creature of God, a brother.  If we try to destroy it we will fail.  The wolf within is part of who we are therefore we need to have the trust and courage of St. Francis to even approach its lair and encounter it on its turf not with the intent to destroy but tame. 

John tells us that perfect love casts out all fear.  The first thing Francis did as the snarling wolf approached him was make the sign of the cross.  Francis did not fall back on his own resources but rather called on that perfect love, the grace of God won for us by Christ!  There is a depth to our brokenness that we, alone, can never overcome.  Only God can.  Only by God’s grace can the wolf be tamed.  As Guardini notes; “Therefore, in order that I may hear, he must not only speak, but also open my ears to his voice.”

Francis condemns the wolf for his sin of attacking and devouring humans but then gives mercy.  Elsewhere in his book Guardini points out that true justice and true healing can only be achieved when we strive for that which is beyond mere justice, which is Christian love.  We have to move beyond the sad logic and bitter cycle of violence in our world.  It is mercy that allows us to do so. 

The saint recognized that the wolf was acting out of hunger.  So often we sin not out of pure malice but rather out of our own hunger, need and fear.  Francis knew this and sought to heal the root cause and what is uniquely worth reflecting upon in this story is that the saint does this by bringing the wolf back into relationship with the very ones he had been terrifying!  The saint crafts a pact between the wolf and the inhabitants of Gubbio.  It is the very people of Gubbio and their relationship with the wolf that will allow the wolf to overcome his hunger, need and fear.  Francis does not tame the wolf and then send it off to a distant location.  No, the process of taming continues within the very context of the wolf’s ongoing relationship and life with the townspeople.

There is much to be learned from the story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio as well as Romano Guardini’s recognition that the fiercest wolf is often the one within.  Much to be learned for our own lives, for recognizing what is at work in the lives and actions of others and even regarding what is at work, writ large, in our world today. 

St. Francis, tamer of wolves, pray for us!