Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Wolf of Gubbio, the Wolf Within

Legend has it that a vicious wolf was terrorizing the village of Gubbio, Italy, in the early 13th century. The townspeople were petrified; they’d seen their neighbors—even children—killed and eaten, and they were afraid to leave their homes or go about their daily lives. At their collective wits’ end, they asked a young man named Francesco Bernardone to talk to the wolf and broker peace.

It’s worth noting two key points: Francesco Bernardone was on his way to becoming the saint we know as Francis of Assisi; and it’s important never to let the facts get in the way of a good story when it has a real message to convey. St. Francis of Assisi is renowned today as a champion of peace and a lover of animals. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it’s not exactly wrong.

In his day, Francis gained a reputation as having been a merchant-class kid and up-and-coming soldier who gave up everything to follow Jesus. He literally gave up even his clothing—in public, no less—to live in poverty among the sick and the outcast. As people heard of Francis and his friends, his “brothers,” they came to appreciate the work the men did and the spirit of selflessness with which they did it.

That’s why, when all else had failed, the people of Gubbio sought Francis to help tame the wolf. They needed a miracle, and they believed that if anyone could give them one, it would be him.

Brother Wolf

And so the story goes that Francis spoke with the wolf. He asked the wolf why he was attacking the villagers and explained what a problem that was. Francis learned about the wolf’s needs and came to understand the animal’s motivations. From there, he was able to solve the problem, and the wolf threatened Gubbio no more. Over time, the story has been changed

by some who struggle, presumably, with the supernatural elements of such a tale. Instead, they say, the “wolf” was really a madman—lupo, in Italian—who was murdering people. They say Francis talked to him, calmed him, saw his true nature, and basically “cured” him of whatever mental illness had sparked his behavior.

Whichever story is true, if either of them is, the point is clear: the crucial step in solving the problem, in taming the wolf, was to understand the real issues at the heart of the matter. The legend of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio is one of compassion, concern, love, and peacemaking—and it’s every bit as applicable today as it has been over the course of the past 800 years. Perhaps it’s more relevant than ever.

In each of our lives, don’t we all have a “wolf of Gubbio” somewhere in our souls? Don’t we each have some element of our personality that we need to address or some behavior we wish we could change?

How often do you say to yourself, “No one gets me”? How often do you feel alone?

There is plenty of writing and research available on the idea that—even as we grow increasingly connected technologically—real personal connection has suffered. It’s something we all probably know intellectually, but the emotional impact of it is still hard to grasp.

Loneliness leads to isolation, which can create confusion. That confusion can cause depression. And thus begins a self-perpetuating cycle in which we feel so detached from other people that we are prevented from making or renewing the very attachments our hearts crave.

A Place to Hide

Back we go to Gubbio, which is also part of another chapter in Franciscan history that speaks to us centuries later. Francis’ immediate family had relatives in Gubbio, and it was to them that Francis retreated after he had denounced his father and boldly proclaimed he would forge a new path for himself, alone.

Even Francis, whom we remember through the gauzy lens of sainthood, needed a sounding board. He needed a place to run to where he could stop, rest, think about what he had just done, and then muster the courage to move ahead. He needed, quite simply, some loving arms to embrace him and a shoulder to cry on. I love that even someone who was holy needed friends—just as I do. Francis was far from bulletproof. He hurt; he was scared; he was nervous; he questioned his own choices sometimes.

And he had friends who helped him get through all of that. In their loving reaction to him, he found an example to follow and treated others the same way. He found the strength to serve the poor and be courageous in his decisions and actions. He also found the softness to empathize with others who just needed to be heard and understood.

Being There

We all have that same capacity. Maybe we can’t all be saints, but we can be saintly.

It doesn’t take much looking to find someone in need; the opportunities to serve are around every corner, in the faces of friends, family, and coworkers. Service isn’t just about giving money or donating canned goods. Service can be about simply being present.

Be the sounding board for someone who’s struggling. Be the reassuring smile for someone whose day is terrible. Be the friend who reaches out to another when it’s been too long between phone calls. That person you miss? She probably misses you, too.

Never miss an opportunity to connect. Everyone has a story, and often the details aren’t as important as the telling of the story itself. When you understand, you can help. When you understand, you can be understood. The story of Francis and the wolf, whether it happened or not, reminds us of that.

St. Francis of Assisi collection

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