A couple of summers ago I went with a pilgrimage group to Ireland. One evening, near the end of the pilgrimage, I went out for a walk by myself. Wandering around the streets of the town, I walked into a small store that seemed to sell a variety of items. Although the store did not seem to be a religious goods store I immediately noticed a little statue of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. I bought the statue and it sits on my window sill today.
The story of the saint and the wolf is that the wolf terrorized the inhabitants of the small Italian town. Not only did the wolf kill and devour livestock but it began to attack and devour humans. All attempts to kill the wolf failed and the people of the town would literally shut the town down in fear whenever the wolf would appear. St. Francis heard of this and decided to go and meet the wolf. The huge wolf rushed toward Francis as soon as he saw the saint approaching his lair. St. Francis made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf in the name of God to stop his terrorizing of the town. Immediately, the wolf became docile before the saint. Francis went on to condemn the wolf for his attacks not just on animals but upon men and women who are made in the image of God. Francis told the wolf that if he ended his attacks he would see to it that the inhabitants of Gubbio would provide him with the food he needed. The story goes that the wolf placed his paw in Francis’ hand in agreement. Francis then walked the docile wolf back into the main square of Gubbio to the astonishment of the inhabitants and there reiterated the promise. Again the wolf placed his paw in the saint’s hand in agreement. The saint had tamed the wolf.
Recently, I have been reading Romano Guardini’s book “The Lord”. I came across the following passage and it has cast a new light on the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio.
It is also said that the sheep heed the Shepherd, because they know his voice. Is it true that men recognize Christ’s call and respond to it? In one sense it must be, for he has said so; yet much in me qualifies the statement. Actually I respond much more readily to the call of ‘the others’; I neither really understand Christ’s summons nor follow it. Therefore, in order that I may hear, he must not only speak, but also open my ears to his voice. Part of me, the profoundest part, listens to it, but superficial, loud contradiction often overpowers it. The opponents with whom God must struggle in order to win us are not primarily ‘the others,’ but ourselves; we bar his way. The wolf who puts the hireling to flight is not only outside; he is also within. We are the arch-enemy of our own salvation, and the Shepherd must fight first of all with us – for us.
Guardini gets at the paradox that is the human condition. We yearn for God and the profoundest part of who we are listens for God’s voice; yet so easily we let superficial contradiction win the day. We disregard the very thing we most yearn for. The first fight that the true Shepherd must undertake is the fight “with us – for us”. The strongest and most terrifying wolf that puts the hireling to flight is not without, but within!
My hunch is that we all have a wolf within; the question is to what extent is the wolf ravaging and to what extent is it tamed? The story of the poor man of Assisi offers some thoughts for consideration.
The town of Gubbio shut down out of fear of the wolf. A “town” is the moment of encounter, relationship, friendship, creativity, new possibility and life. When a wolf ravages in our hearts all of these things are shut down and boarded up! Life becomes dull and stagnant. Maybe people even fear to approach us? Maybe we even fear to approach ourselves? I have heard it said that depression is anger turned within, like a wolf ravaging.
The wolf did not just devour livestock but even dared to attack and devour humans, made in the image of God. If left unchecked not only will a ravaging wolf inhibit the growth and possibility of life but will even begin to devour life as well as the dignity of the person – oneself and sadly even others if allowed. St. Francis strongly condemns the wolf for this sin!
How to tame the wolf?
First off, unlike the others who went out and were defeated, St. Francis went out to tame the wolf, not destroy it. The wolf is a creature of God, a brother. If we try to destroy it we will fail. The wolf within is part of who we are therefore we need to have the trust and courage of St. Francis to even approach its lair and encounter it on its turf not with the intent to destroy but tame.
John tells us that perfect love casts out all fear. The first thing Francis did as the snarling wolf approached him was make the sign of the cross. Francis did not fall back on his own resources but rather called on that perfect love, the grace of God won for us by Christ! There is a depth to our brokenness that we, alone, can never overcome. Only God can. Only by God’s grace can the wolf be tamed. As Guardini notes; “Therefore, in order that I may hear, he must not only speak, but also open my ears to his voice.”
Francis condemns the wolf for his sin of attacking and devouring humans but then gives mercy. Elsewhere in his book Guardini points out that true justice and true healing can only be achieved when we strive for that which is beyond mere justice, which is Christian love. We have to move beyond the sad logic and bitter cycle of violence in our world. It is mercy that allows us to do so.
The saint recognized that the wolf was acting out of hunger. So often we sin not out of pure malice but rather out of our own hunger, need and fear. Francis knew this and sought to heal the root cause and what is uniquely worth reflecting upon in this story is that the saint does this by bringing the wolf back into relationship with the very ones he had been terrifying! The saint crafts a pact between the wolf and the inhabitants of Gubbio. It is the very people of Gubbio and their relationship with the wolf that will allow the wolf to overcome his hunger, need and fear. Francis does not tame the wolf and then send it off to a distant location. No, the process of taming continues within the very context of the wolf’s ongoing relationship and life with the townspeople.
There is much to be learned from the story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio as well as Romano Guardini’s recognition that the fiercest wolf is often the one within. Much to be learned for our own lives, for recognizing what is at work in the lives and actions of others and even regarding what is at work, writ large, in our world today.
St. Francis, tamer of wolves, pray for us!
I am not holy. My sins, failures and weaknesses are before me every day, but I believe in the possibility of holiness and it is this belief that keeps me in the Church.
I am not naïve to the sins and failures of the institution of the Church nor its representatives – past and present, universal and local – but neither am I naïve to the sins and failures of those outside the Church and those who deride “church”. I have also witnessed their sins and their hidden despair and I want none of it. The louder and more forced the laugh; the deeper the despair, I believe.
I do not want nor need a “Church” made in my image. I know my sins. Holiness is challenge – lived daily and without fanfare. I am a creature and I need my Creator to heal what is broken within me. To pretend that there is no brokenness is, in fact, to deny my Creator.
Holiness is simple. I am tired of a presentation of faith that needs to be hyper-stimulated. I feel sorry for our young people who are growing up in such a world. I am sorry for the times the Church buys into this. Holiness cannot be manufactured. Holiness grows simply and quietly. What is manufactured quickly fades and leaves a void. Maybe holiness can begin to grow in this void maybe it cannot. I know that God can work as God so chooses and I have to trust in this.
Holiness is not argument and it is not philosophy. Debate does not lead to conversion, the witness of holiness does. Philosophy and its structure is a good tool but it is not salvific faith. The wise steward, we are told, is the one who can go to the storeroom and pull out both the old and the new as needed. Maybe there are other tools available?
Holiness does not isolate. Christ, the All Holy One, came into our very midst. He called us brothers and sisters and taught us to love one another. Holiness is found in my encounter with the other although it may not be immediately apparent. The holiness uniquely found in community forces me out of myself and I need this. If anything, the direction of holiness is from the mountain back down into the valley of the everyday.
Holiness is not on a mountaintop somewhere but in the Gospel, the sacraments and community. I need these every day.
Many people like to point to the sins of the Church. It is nice to have an excuse isn’t it? Pointing out the perceived sins of others does not grow holiness in my own life; it just gives me a way out. I need to stand before my Creator on my own and not in contrast to what I perceive as the sins of others.
Holiness is beautiful and I need beauty – a child playing peek-a-boo, friends laughing, feet being washed.
I feel sorrow for those who have left the Church. Christ loves the Church … how can you love Christ and not love what he loves? Maybe Christ’s love should be bigger than my own resentments and excuses?
Holiness is living in friendship with God.
Fr. Robert Barron is a respected theologian, author and speaker. I was privileged in seminary to have him as one of my professors. He shares a sports analogy that I have made use of a number of times because, I believe, it speaks so well.
Imagine a sporting event. It can be anything – a soccer match, a football or basketball game, a tennis match, volleyball, whatever. Now imagine all the different characters and roles of the game. Picture the players (either or a team or an individual) striving with all their ability. The athlete’s job is to play with all of ones skill. Imagine the coach or coaches on the sidelines. Their job is to direct, strategize and encourage. Imagine the umpires or referees. Their job is to call foul, to penalize and to make sure that the game is played fairly. Picture the fans and the crowd. Their job is to cheer on the team, the athlete, to enjoy the game and to have pride. These are the different roles and characters of a sporting event and we can probably easily imagine them.
There is one more role that is critical to any game yet it is easily overlooked. It is the role of the field or the court itself. Imagine a sporting event, any type of game, trying to be played without a field or court, without in or out boundaries. Players can run anywhere, shoot from anywhere. It would not work, the game would turn to chaos! It is the field or the court itself with it’s “in and out” boundaries that keep the energy of the game directed and moving! The field or court itself has a critically important role to play to any sporting event.
The analogy is this. Just as the boundaries of a sporting field or court keep the energy of the game directed and moving so the commitments we freely make in our lives keep the energy of our lives moving and directed. True, authentic and freely entered into commitments do not deny freedom, rather they fulfill our freedom! If our lives are to go anywhere then they need commitments. Without commitments it would be like playing a game without any boundaries. There may be a lot of running around and energy but it is really not going anywhere.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord can be approached from different angles. The voice of the Father and the coming of the Spirit validates Christ as the Son of God. The humility of Christ is revealed in his willingness to be baptized by John “in order to fulfill all righteousness”. In Christ, earth and heaven are once more reconciled. All of these are true and worthy of deep reflection but what has stood out for me in my prayer over the readings this last week is Christ’s commitment to the will of the Father.
The one undergirding and guiding principle of our Lord’s life is his obedience to the will of the Father. Romano Guardini, in his book “The Lord” notes that at different times people have tried to define Christ in different terms – radical revolutionary, utopianist, anti-bourgeois romantic, mystic, itinerant preacher, social reformer. All of these definitions for Christ, contends Guardini, fall far short of the truth of who Christ is. The identity of Christ is not to be found in political or social categories but goes much deeper to the very core of the human condition. Christ is the one who perfectly chooses and follows the will of the Father in all things! Because of this Christ can never be neatly boxed into any of our human and social categories because he transcends them all! Christ is just as comfortable having dinner with tax collectors and prostitutes as he is with the righteous and the Pharisee. He is not naïve to the sins of any group but he is faithful to the will of his Father that all might be saved and have life.
Christ is defined by his commitment to the will of the Father. In our baptisms, we have been baptized into the life and death of Christ and we have also been baptized into his commitment. It is in commitment to God’s will in our life that we find life and we find purpose.
In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. (1 Jn. 5:2-3)
Authentic and freely-entered into commitment is not opposed to freedom rather it fulfills freedom. We have been baptized into the life and death of Christ that we might share in his resurrection. We have also been baptized into his commitment. In this, life gains direction and it gains purpose which lasts even unto eternity.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is always a good time to reflect on the gift of “time” that we have been given. We take stock of the preceding year. What were the good moments and blessings? What were my mistakes, missed opportunities and struggles? We make resolutions for the coming year. “This year I resolve to … (fill in the blank).” In both taking stock on what has occurred and looking to the future is the realization that time is a gift and not necessarily a given (although we can easily think so) and how we make use of this gift does matter both for ourselves and for others.
In my own “New Year reflecting” I have gained some good perspective both by an insight given by Pope Francis and by a recent personal experience. The insight being the first of the fifteen spiritual diseases the Holy Father made mention of in his speech to the Curia: the illusion of immortality. The personal experience being my recent dislocated shoulder acquired on a ski trip to Utah.
The media has certainly picked up on Pope Francis’ Christmas address to the Curia and, as often seems to be the case, many outlets are demonstrating more their own particular slant on things than are offering good reporting. In the Catholic Church we are used the spiritual practice of the examination of conscience. It is a helpful and fruitful discipline in the spiritual life. As I read the address given by the Holy Father to the Curia, I heard a pastor leading his community in an examination of conscience in order that the community might advance on the way of discipleship. Are these maladies present in the Curia and its work? Probably, more or less, but neither are these maladies limited to ecclesial circles alone. Any institution (corporate, media, government, educational) would do well to undertake such a thorough examination. Something tells me not to hold my breath on this possibility though. To those media and secular institutions chuckling about the Pope’s remarks, I would remind them that Jesus said something about focusing on the speck in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.
Here is what the Holy Father said about the first malady. The first is “the sickness of considering oneself ‘immortal’, ‘immune’ or ‘indispensable’, neglecting the necessary and habitual controls. A Curia that is not self-critical, that does not stay up-to-date, that does not seek to better itself, is an ailing body. … It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity, and of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service”.
The Community of Sant’Egidio has a saying, “Each one of us is given only so many Easters.” Only so many Easters to come to know the risen Lord, only so many Easters to let the truth of the resurrection and the gospel settle into our hearts and our very living. In other words, no one is immortal. We each have only so many years given us yet it is so easy to fall into the illusion of immortality. I can easily think “I can do that tomorrow” but I might not have a tomorrow. This is the “sickness of the rich fool” and it is very easy to catch, individually and even institutionally! The humility of knowing that I am not immortal, immune nor indispensable leads me to value each day, each setting and each encounter. It also allows me to cultivate empathy in my heart. “There but for the grace of God go I,” is a prized awareness gained by the person who knows that he or she is also not immune. An awareness of my mortality also leads me to better claim the possibilities each day offers. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. This is a dictate of good health and the Holy Father is applying it to the spiritual life both of the individual Christian and to the life of the whole Church. The Church must remain healthy! Striving for health enables health! The illusion of immortality does not enable good health because it leads one into the fallacy of thinking that what is necessary and habitual applies neither to me nor to the institution of which I am a part.
It is a humbling thing to wipe out on a ski slope and dislocate ones shoulder but humbling moments can lead to wisdom if they are approached correctly. Five days ago on a trip visiting my brother and his family in Utah I did just this yet, while certainly humbling, I am already learning from this experience. A body in pain will quickly cut through the illusion of immortality. This is one learning gained. As I ever so slowly made my way down the remainder of the slope after my fall, not able to put the slightest pressure on my right arm, and once I saw in the clinic my shoulder blade about an inch lower on my arm than where it should be I was under no illusion regarding my mortality! But there have been other learnings gained. My brother Tony, with whom I was skiing, is an avid skier as well as being a former Army Airborne Ranger. The skillset he brings to skiing is at a much higher and advanced level than mine. Maybe there was a brotherly sense of needing to prove something at work but I should have taken things slower and more elementary. There is an important value in the mundane work of developing the necessary skillset required rather than jumping right into something. There is also an important value in acknowledging the correct level at which ones skillset is! Another lesson learned (again, from my brother) was how I saw him staying aware of the risks involved and planning accordingly. (I think this also might harken back to his Ranger training.) He stays updated on the avalanche possibilities, he checks the weather, he takes the time to pack the needed gear before he and his family head out on an outdoor adventure, even when this causes his wife and son a little frustration. But the extra time given at the outset can prove critical later.
We are not immortal, the time we are given is a gift and we are called to be good stewards of the time we have been allotted. In our lives of faith we need to do the mundane work of developing the skillset that is needed and we must not be naïve regarding the situation and times we find ourselves in as Christians. Our Lord calls us to daily prayer, to the daily work of community and service and he calls us to be as cunning as serpents regarding the world in which we live. We need to know that the extra time given at the outset can prove critical later.
Not to boast but hopefully to acknowledge; one skillset I did bring to the table the day of my wipeout on the ski slope was a relaxed and calm approach to the event gained through the discipline of prayer. The doctor and clinic staff remarked how popping my shoulder back into place was one of the easiest they had ever done. “Most patients,” they said, “especially those with some muscle mass tend to tense up and this is what leads to a painful experience. You, on the other hand, were so relaxed and calm that the shoulder easily popped back into place!” When the staff gathered around me to begin the procedure and the nurse encouraged me to slowly breathe in and out and focus on my breathing I easily slipped into the Jesus Prayer in my thoughts. A prayer I strive to live with every day. (Breathe in) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, (breathe out) have mercy on me, a sinner.
Each one of us is given only so many Easters. How might I make best use of the time I have been allotted? As we make our New Year resolutions it might be worthwhile to reflect on this question. It might also be worthwhile to be open to insights coming from the most unexpected of places in our lives and experiences (i.e. the insight of a Pope as well as insights gained from dislocating ones shoulder).