Daily Thought For August 3, 2019
St. Francis of Assisi & Taming Wolves
However beautiful and various the created world may be, it is also, as Tennyson wrote famously, “red in tooth and claw.” Which brings us to the matter of wolves. According to several sources, Francis helped the peasants of Greccio protect themselves from the ravening wolves who attacked both man and beast in winter by taming the wolves. The most famous story of wolves in relation to Saint Francis is the charming tale recounted in the Little Flowers of Saint Francis about the wolf of Gubbio. Gubbio is a small Umbrian town northeast of Assisi where Francis stayed early in his wanderings. According to the story, a ferocious wolf attacked both people and beasts in the Umbrian town of Gubbio. Francis went outside the town, spoke to the wolf who agreed to stop his attacks (Francis shook his paw as a sign of assent) for which, in turn, the people of the town would provide food for the wolf. Brother Wolf observed his part of the bargain for two years; when he died, the townspeople buried him, and according to the guidebooks his burial place is marked to this day at a church aptly named “della pace” (“of peace”).
That story may have a historical core with the wolf being, in fact, a pitiless ruler who terrorized the citizenry by his rapacious demands and depredations. A medieval commentator on the story said that the wolf was a symbol of the Italian people! Saint Francis, who made a vocation out of pacification, may have reformed a bellicose warlord. Whatever the origin of the story, there is a fundamental and theological motif within it. After all, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the coming messiah would inaugurate a time when the wolf would lie down with the lamb in a peaceful kingdom. The story might well illustrate the common perception that Francis was another Christ—an alter christus. In other words, behind the charming folktale recorded in the Fioretti may well be a complex theological observation about Francis as an imitator of Christ and Francis as a preacher of peace and reconciliation.
There is more. According to the biblical tradition, in the period before the Fall, the animals were in harmony with human beings—Adam, according to Genesis, naming the animals. It was only through sin, according to tradition, that this harmony was interrupted. To return to an Edenic simplicity through the cultivation of virtue and the erasure of vice was the mark of those saints who had achieved purity of heart. The ability of Francis to live in peace with the animal world, then, was a sign of his purity and holiness. The stories about his rescue of lambs, the tame pheasant given to him by a nobleman of Siena, the cricket that would perch on his shoulder, the birds who would listen attentively to him as he preached, and the other stories that make the early legends so charming have behind them a theological perception about the state of the soul of Francis.
Cunningham, L. S. (2004). Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life (pp. 95–97). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.