Tag Archive for: st francis

St. Francis of Assisi and the Wolf

statue of st francis of assisi petting a bug

Image by JulianaSaldanha from Pixabay

When I began my research into St. Francis of Assisi for an interfaith seminary essay, I knew little of him beyond his designation as patron saint of ecology and the animals. I was curious how he became associated with animals and found a story about a wolf that intrigued me, especially in the context of wolf conservation challenges in the United States.

According to the tale, at the time St. Francis was living in the town of Gubbio in Italy, a wolf began attacking the livestock for food. After a while, there were also human encounters with the wolf and some humans were killed and eaten. Hunters failed to kill the wolf and people were afraid to be outside the city’s gates, especially alone. Gubbio’s human citizens were basically besieged.

Then Francis announced he would go out and meet the wolf. With a small group of followers, he left the city and went to the wolf’s lair. The wolf rushed at Francis, but on Francis’ command laid down.

Recognizing that the wolf was acting out of hunger, he promised that the people of Gubbio would feed him if he would stop attacking them and their livestock. The wolf placed a paw in Francis’ hand in agreement, then tamely followed Francis into the city. The people believed this was a miracle and followed Francis’ instructions to feed the wolf. During the two years before the wolf passed away, he went from door to door every day and was well fed. A church was built in St. Francis’ honor on the site where the wolf was buried. The wolf’s skeleton was found in 1872 during renovations and was reinterred in a place of honor inside the church.

I read the tale of Gubbio while I was feeling frustrated by the wolf hunts that were legalized just last year in the American West, for the purported purpose of protecting livestock. I wondered if a modern-day St. Francis could convince ranchers to feed the wolves instead, before decades of wolf reintroduction and recovery are undone and they disappear forever.

St. Francis, Shaman

Last October I was asked to perform an informal blessing of the animals at my local community church on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. I knew little about St. Francis beyond his designation as patron saint of ecology and the animals, so when he showed up as a choice for a research project for my interfaith seminary program, I dug in.

statue of st francis with a bird on his shoulder

Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

Despite years of working with guides during Shamanic Reiki sessions and in journeys, my logical mind tends to question what is going on when I am being called by Spirit to take some action. I project those doubts onto the visions of others, too, and wonder if their visions are just something they have conjured up in their imagination or the result of mental illness. All those questions surfaced when I read about Francis’ early life.

Francis, it turns out, liked to party. He came from wealth and privilege and behaved like a spoiled teenager. Francis thought it would be cool to be a knight, got himself top-of-the-line armor, and joined the army. Shortly after, Assisi went to war with Perugia and Francis’ first battle went horribly for Assisi. All of Francis’ friends and compatriots were killed, but Francis was taken prisoner because his expensive armor gave away his family’s wealth.

Francis was held prisoner in Perugia for a year while his ransom was negotiated. While imprisoned, Francis became seriously ill and began to receive messages from God.

Whoa. When I read that my alarm bells went off. Francis must have been insane, starving, or fevered when he “heard God,” right?

Contemplating further, I realized that most of the shamans and mystics I was aware of were fasting, praying, chanting, dancing, or meditating to intentionally alter their consciousness when they meet their guides. I use breathwork, drumming, and journeying to get myself in a receptive state. Perhaps the conditions of Francis’ imprisonment mimicked some of those practices, in the way that the initiation rites for shamans in some cultures did. Was St. Francis a shaman?

In one of his writings, Francis called his many illnesses “sisters,” which I interpret as acknowledging them as companions on his spiritual journey. I believe Francis understood that his illnesses created altered states which allowed him to hear messages from God, who was the spiritual guide of his understanding. While I suspect the Church would object to classifying St. Francis as such, in my mind he will always be a shaman.