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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

If you spend a day at the museum with lots of old paintings, one of the easiest saints for children to recognize in sculpture and painting is St. Francis. A gentle monk surrounded by forest creatures is a benevolent and appealing image, and I suspect it mirrors the secret longing of so many children – talking with animals. This story of Francis, like many traditional tales, features danger in the form of a ferocious wolf. 

Francis was staying for a time at the devout hill town of Gubbio, in Peruggia, whose high stone walls had protected it from its enemies for many generations. Yet now the people faced a different sort of enemy, a wolf dwelling among the high hills that had seized and devoured many sheep and cattle and even people. Townsfolk dared not venture outside the walls without arming themselves as if for battle. Every man, woman and child was filled with mortal terror of the wolf.


The good Francis felt compelled to help the people and deliver them from this threat, and went forth into the woods above the city to meet and tame the ferocious beast. Many in the town despaired of his return, but his faith was strong and he believed he would be protected. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the snarling wolf approached him, ready to attack, but this holy man made the sign of the cross, which stopped the wolf’s advance.

Coming closer still, Francis spoke with the wolf, beseeching him in God’s name to leave the people of Gubbio alone, and promising in return that the people would not seek to destroy him but instead feed him and care for him. As a token of this pledge, Francis held out his hand, and the wolf put his paw into it as a sign of his agreement.

After this, Francis returned to Gubbio with the wolf walking meekly at his side, as tame as any dog. Francis promised the people of the town that the wolf had attacked out of hunger, and if they would feed him and treat him as a friend he would go in peace among them. Until the wolf’s death of old age it lived among the people of Gubbio, who fed him at their doorsteps and blessed him.

Without wishing to offend anyone who venerates Francis as a saint, I should say that I treat this story purely as a metaphor, rather than as a historical account. As such, I think it’s a good story about spiritual courage, as all the legends about saints are. Sometimes we do have to face terrifying wolves, and sometimes it is only our confidence in the rightness of our actions that will protect us from harm.

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