Originally written in August, 2014
Last week, as our world continued to tear itself apart, I was hanging out with St. Francis of Assisi.
By that I mean I spent the week at a Franciscan retreat centre outside of Orangeville taking a week long class on Spiritual Formation as I kicked off my return to formal education. But, I did have at least one meaningful interaction with him.
One night before dinner I was looking at all these framed sketches arranged on a wall going up a set of stairs that pointed to different scenes from the life of St. Francis. One in particular caught my attention, it was a drawing of St. Francis embracing a large wolf in the woods. I admit I lacked context for it so I asked someone who looked like they knew stuff - I was right, he did. The drawing was referencing St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. The premise sounded intriguing so I decided to download The Little Flowers of St. Francis for 90 cents on Kindle and went to read ‘The Most Holy Miracle of St Francis in Taming the Fierce Wolf of Gubbio’ outside in the woods the next morning. I was trying to engage my imagination.
It turned out to be a fascinating story and I was particularly drawn to the weirdness of it. It can be easy for us to dismiss stories like these that came out of ancient and medieval Christianity; but I’ve had a bit of a love affair for them since I started reading Bede in my undergrad. Anyways, in this one, St Francis goes and confronts a wild wolf that has been terrorizing the village of Gubbio, devouring it's residents, and then somehow manages to broker a peace deal between the wolf and the villagers. I told you it was weird.
Yet as I reflected on the story, trying to figure out why it mattered, I began to think about monsters and fear and hatred. The villagers fearing the wolf, saw it as their enemy. The story even mentions that they armed themselves "as if going to battle" whenever they walked around. In their fear they saw a savage beast, which made it easy to hate, which in turn justified their own intended violence towards it. This is how it is with our enemies. Out of fear we embrace hatred because that's what it takes to survive.
We're allowed to hate monsters.
I confess I've spent the better part of the last year trying to understand how a pacifist ethic could possibly work in our world. I've struggled with not seeing it as cowardly or avoidance. Asking myself if it would be possible for a nation to take a pacifist stance? Or, is my pacifism just an allowance of my own privilege? What does it mean to work for peace in our world as it is? How can peace be made when there are so many monsters in our world?
It turns out St. Francis may have an answer.
As the villagers and the wolf are preparing for some sort of Thunderdome style show-down, Francis puts himself between the two parties in an effort to make peace between them. Pacifism is, apparently, not passive at all. You can't seek reconciliation by sitting back and hoping it will happen. It's not about theory. It requires active presence in the face of violence.
Peace work is a risky business.
Then St. Francis does something even more absurd. Rather than appealing to reason or threat, he opens himself up to the perspective of the wolf. "O brother wolf... as thou art willing to make peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil." For Francis, peace isn't made through the defeat of our enemies, it begins in empathy. It begins with a willingness to listen and to understand one another. To hear each other's stories. And this may be the most risky thing of all because it might ask us to give up our fear and our hatred towards our enemies. It might ask us to look past the vicious beast and to see a a broken and afflicted individual.
It's a lot harder to hate a monster with a story.
The way to reconciliation is messy. It's not simple, it's not reasonable, it's not even safe; but I'm struck by the way this story ended. "At last, after two years, [the wolf] died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly." Is this not the perfect Kingdom image? Those of us who hope for peace root that hope in a vision for the future where enemies are turned into friends, where monsters become our beloved neighbours. Some may see that future as an impossible reality, a feeling I admit I have been struggling with lately, but St. Francis invites us to imagine the impossible again. He asks us to see a different way than the usual ways of violence and fear and hatred. He calls on us to take a stand between enemies and to consider what working for peace might really look like in our world.
It's a step into the crazy redemptive work of all things.