Consider the Wolf of Gubbio

Taming the wolf—in the field, on the trail, or within—seems impossible, even reckless. The Legend of Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio shows us how it’s done. (Photo courtesy of


Approx. read time: 3:35 min.

This week a U.S. Congressmember acknowledges, of the aggressions in Ukraine, that the United States essentially is at war with another nuclear superpower. “And it’s important that we win.”

I was not ready to have my heart and my attention seized by this long-distance bloodbath, which now suddenly feels quite near.

And likely, neither were you.

That phrase, “it’s important that we win,” feels like a stake to the heart. It’s the pinched thinking of either/or.

But life, real life, the flourishing of life, steps courageously beyond pinched thinking to new generosities of peace.

I think now of the Legend of the Wolf of Gubbio.

Gubbio, a prosperous town in early 13th-century northern Italy, had a problem. A wolf was ravaging the livestock, even attacking the herders. Fear gripped the town.

“Let’s call in Francis, that holy man from Assisi,” the townsfolk said. He was known throughout the region for talking to animals.

But what they really wanted was the wolf killed. The mayor of the town had a plan: Have Francis strike the wolf dead, or send it to a neighboring (and rival) village.

Seeing the wolf, the legend goes, Francis approaches him with an invitation. “Come, Brother Wolf,” he says, “I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.”

The wolf freezes in mid step. Finally, understanding that Francis means him no harm, the wolf walks to Francis and sits back on his haunches, ready to listen. 

Okay, stop the reel. The Brother Wolf we’re talking about today is not likely to sit back on his haunches, ready to listen. He’s ready to pounce.

And so are we.

Francis tells Brother Wolf about how the townspeople have been deeply traumatized by the wolf’s actions. “How did this come to be?” Francis asks.

The wolf tells of his own early wounds, abandonment, and his need to rely on sheer instinct for survival.

Through Francis, Brother Wolf comes to feel the pain of the people he has terrorized, and he feels remorse. 

Francis proposes that the townspeople could feed him, and in return, the wolf would stop killing the people and their livestock.

The two of them return to the town. 

But the people need to undergo their own change of heart, change of attitude. “Remember Jesus’ teaching,” Francis says to them: “Love your enemies. Don’t kill them.”

Love your enemies. Don’t kill them!

The first way to love your enemy is to recognize their humanity, their early and hidden wounds, their need to survive.

Is such acknowledgment easy? 

No! Black-and-white judgment and violence are the easier path, bringing the satisfaction of quick, short-term victory.

Jesus’ complete rejection of violence, played out in the life of Francis, is never easy. It’s risky, even appearing irresponsible. But it’s the opening to grace, and healing, that cannot occur in any other way.

Healing of the heart. Healing of the nations.

Now, are world leaders going to channel Francis of Assisi? Not likely. If I want my enemy to put down their weapons, I have to model that behavior by putting mine down first.

Entire economy-boosting industries depend on our warrior spirit, and prey upon our tendency to fear.

Yet in this Easter season we celebrate the One who resisted the urge toward violence, entered into death, and came out alive—not with the same life, but with new life. Violence was unable to destroy him, unable to win.

The great question is: How to hold firm in our contest against the crippling interior forces of violence?

Crushing the enemy is not the answer.

We can take our cue from Francis. Address the enemy as Brother Wolf, as Sister Wolf. And invite that ferocious and wounded wolf into conversation.

It may not be direct conversation with an isolated and fearsome world ruler. 

But the tyrant may live somewhere in your own heart. Somewhere in mine.

Tame Brother Wolf, Sister Wolf.

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Find the beautifully illustrated Legend of Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio at

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