San Francisco is a city close to the heart of many. It draws more than 3 million visitors a year and is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is also the namesake of Francis of Assisi - Saint Francis. Since today, October 4th - is his feast day - a story about him is entirely appropriate.
I think that I'm drawn to stories about wolves. I'm sure that my first impressions come from the appearances of the Big Bad Wolf to Little Red Riding Hood as well as the menacing wolf well-portrayed in Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs. It's a fairly good guess that most baby boomers know the words and cadence of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"
Now I recently wrote and published a book titled The Wolf At the Door: Undue Influence and Elder Financial Abuse. I must admit that the wolf is not shown in the best light. But there are much nicer stories about wolves - and whether legend or true the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio is worth telling. I'll tell the story and I give due credit to the narrative provided by the medieval book, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis as retold by Brian Ellis, author and storyteller. My revisions are made for the sake of brevity and hopefully do not impact the essence of the story.
Some 900 years ago the town of Gubbio was being harassed a vicious wolf. It started when a few sheep began to disappear late at night. Then the wolf grew bolder and started stealing sheep in broad daylight. The wolf grew fearless. Hounds and hunters were useless. The wolf grew so bold it began to creep into the village late at night. Some say it devoured a few small children who did not come home when their mothers called them, but maybe that is just something mothers told their unruly children.
People were afraid to leave the city walls at night, others were afraid to leave their children playing in the fields at dusk. Saint Francis was already well known; most folks knew about St. Francis and the doves, his sermon to the forest creatures, and his love for all things wild and free. Someone heard he was near Gubbio, so messengers were sent to see if he could help. "I'll make no promises," he said, "but I will see what I can do."
When Saint Francis arrived in the square, a crowd soon gathered. Francis asked, "Who has seen the wolf?" Several nodded. "Who knows where he lives?" At first, no one responded. One timid hand went up in the back of the crowd. A young woman said, "While tending my sheep, I thought I saw a cave were the wolf took my lamb..." Her voice trailed off. "Please, take me to this cave," St. Francis asked.
"You want me to take you to the cave?" stammered the young woman. "Yes, please," he said, "You seem to be the only one who knows." Because St. Francis had faith in her, she took a deep breath and seemed to find the courage in herself. She led the way. Francis followed. The rest of the village followed the two of them... at a safe distance.
The woman, formerly a reluctant guide, paused and said, "Over there, that larger cave," pointing to the foot of the mountain. Saint Francis led the way, she followed, and the rest of the village, well, they could see just fine from where they were. Suddenly, the wolf rushed out of the cave growling, howling and foaming at the mouth. Francis crossed himself, thinking he might die, but with the sign of the cross the wolf stopped short, growling and bearing his teeth.
Saint Francis plucked up his courage and began to scold the wolf, "How dare you scare me like that!" The wolf cowered, tucked his tail between his legs and whimpered.
Francis immediately had a change of heart. "Oh, brother wolf," he apologized, "Who am I to scold you, one of God's creatures. You are only doing as you were made to do. When you are hungry you must eat. You live by the laws of God, the laws of nature."
Divine inspiration interceded and Saint Francis' face lit up. He said to the wolf, "I will make a deal with you! The people of Gubbio will feed you so you will never be hungry again, therefore you shall not harm the people of this village." He added, "And in exchange, you shall protect these kind people, watching over their village at night."
Though at first they were not sure of this bargain Francis was making for them, when they saw the wolf wag his tail like a puppy and place his paw into the hand of Saint Francis, as if he wanted to shake on it, everyone heartily agreed. From that day forward the people of Gubbio fed their scraps to the wolf and the wolf patrolled the village at night. Not only did Francis save the village and save the wolf, but still to this day, in the piazza of Gubbio is a statue of Saint Francis and the Wolf, there to remind us of this small miracle, proof of God's promise that there is room for redemption in every heart!
So now back to the 21st Century. The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi is located in San Francisco's historic North Beach. It is a California historical landmark. The Shrine is a beautiful place of peace in the heart of the City. Some say that the gentle spirit of Saint Francis may touch our hearts and calls us to the better angels of our nature. His story has surely touched many hearts - he is known for his great love for animals and nature and he is the namesake of Pope Francis, a missionary for hope and peace.