The Bull of Gubbio

A priest I used to know hated St. Francis bird baths. He was Italian-American; judging by his stature and complexion, his ancestors hailed from one of those places south of Naples that the American popular imagination was once quick to associate with malaria and the mob. His rejection of Franciscan kitsch, then, might have formed part of a stereotype-bucking campaign, rather like the one an African-American woman of my acquaintance undertook by cultivating a taste for the GOP and Jack Daniels, neat.

This guy’s cracks about the cult of St. Anthony, which could have eaten through metal, tend to bear out this reading. But I wonder whether there was something else there, too. The image of man and beast co-existing contentedly — grooving, as it were, on one another’s vibes — is as misleading as it is seductive.

I say this as a disillusioned sucker. Toward the bird baths, I’ve never had any particular objection (though, as a teenager, when visiting certain parts of Brooklyn, I had more sense than to linger too long in front of any yard that sported one, especially when a security camera was in evidence). No, my opiate was the story of the Wolf of Gubbio, from The Little Flowers of St. Francis. You’ll know it, of course. With God’s grace, Francis secures the repentence of a big, bad wolf who has made mutton his gateway drug into man-flesh. After Francis promises the creature that the villagers will feed him daily, it places its shaggy head between his calloused hands in a gesture of perfect submission.

It would make a great cinematic moment. Voicing over the wolf’s lines, whatever they were, would be a perfect cameo for Jason Isaacs, who combines feral and dignified like nobody since Kirk Douglas. And, God help me, I’ve tried to act out this scene in my own life. I happen to live on the edge of a park which serves as home to at least one pack of coyotes. (I say “at least one,” because I’ve never been able to guesstimate their actual number. When they start howling, five can sound like 50.) One morning, on a cigarette run to Circle K, I saw one trotting up the sidewalk. What it was doing there in the daytime I have no idea, but I waved and said, “Hi, Mr. Coyote!”

He must not have heard of St. Francis, this coyote, because he put on the expression of a former sitcom star pestered for an autograph while eating at Denny’s. “Look, kid,” he seemed to be saying. “I don’t care what you’ve read in Carlos Castaneda — I ain’t some shape-shifting warlock who can tell you how to get high. And I don’t care what you’ve seen in Looney Toons — I ain’t here to make you laugh. Leave a guy alone.” So I did.

Dumb romantic that I am, what I didn’t do was learn. My invincible stupidity where animals are concerned smacked me in the face the other week, when Rusty, my part-time cat, managed to land on a bully’s radar. This bully had a grayish coat and pale blue eyes, and was half again Rusty’s size. In conventional terms, he was very handsome, but unbelievably stupid and mean-looking. Stick whiskers and a tail on the Cobra Kai sensei from Karate Kid, and you’ve about got him. His modus operandi involved crouching on the pavement while Rusty was eating, shooting him the evil eye through my door, and shadowing him through the complex at a distance, like a furry U-boat.

In tribute to Francis’ wolf — and, perhaps, to Sylvester and poor old Itchy — I decided that this cat was acting out because of some unrequited need. Without actually opening my home to him, as I had to Rusty, I did begin leaving servings of dry cat food for him, in a bowl on the pavement. At first, all seemed to go well. Unlike Rusty, he did not turn up his nose at the dry stuff (of which, unwisely, I’d bought a 15-lb bag without test-marketing). If he remained more aloof than Rusty tended to do, that was fine. This wasn’t about me or my need to have my legs rubbed; besides, I wasn’t sure I had room for more than one cat in my heart. Figuring he’d prefer to be thought of as an evil genius than an evil doofus, I formalized our new, if adversarial, friendship by naming him “Richelieu.”

Rusty continued to come around, more or less on schedule. But when he did, he looked nervous, jumping at every sudden noise and movement. Rather than stick around to roost on my futon or play, as had become his custom, Rusty now ate and ran, throwing furtive looks in all directions as he edged out my door. Clearly, the sight (and lingering scent?) of Richelieu around his crash pad did not agree with him.

I worried about Rusty’s digestion — partly because I was afraid that if he stayed spooked, it might start taking place on my doorstep, or even my floor. But, given enough time, I figured, the boys would adjust to one another’s presence. For them to start curling up together in baskets, Richelieu’s big, protective paw around Rusty’s narrow shoulders, seemed a little much to expect. But I did predict they’d come to share a gruff sympathy, like Mailer and Vidal are said to have done. “Hey, Russ,” Richelieu’s eyes would flash, any apology being an insult to Rusty’s dignity. “How’s it hangin’, Rich,” Rusty’s would flash back, claiming a small liberty in compensation for his suffering.

Maybe if I’d shown enough patience, that relationship would have evolved. But last week, after spooning Rusty’s tuna into the bowl we now both considered his, I heard the most awful keening. Looking down, I saw it was coming from Rusty, whose back was arched like the St. Louis Gateway. I followed his gaze out the door, expecting to see Richelieu, but saw nothing. As I stepped outside, something flashed in my peripheral vision. I turned 90 degrees and found myself staring straight tinto Richelieu’s smug, bright eyes. He had cached himself on the ledge under the steps leading to the units above mine. To all appearances, he was preparing to pounce.

This was dirty pool. Grabbing a broom, I charged, screaming, “GUESS WHAT, NO-GOOD CAT? THE RESTAURANT’S CLOSED!” At a distance where I knew I’d miss, I delivered a classic midfielder’s stick-check in Richelieu’s direction. He bolted and ran at full speed for 50 yards, his proud tail trailing behind him like a pasha’s banner in his retreat from the Polish cavalry.

Oh, who am I kidding? That comparison flatters me way too much. If anything, I looked like the Hattie McDaniels-ish housemaid in the old Tom and Jerry short. (“Thomas! Come heah!”) But the desired end was gained. Rusty’s back straightened out, his fur lay back down, and he ate his breakfast more or less in comfort. Since then, he’s been looking much more relaxed. He eats slower, stays longer, and once again offers his back for petting.

Maintaining the status quo ante has required occasional police actions on my part. Just this morning, on St. Francis’ own feast day, I awoke to the sound of Rusty’s spectral keening. Through my window, I saw that Richelieu had gotten right up in his face. Once again, I charged, Cantonese recipes in my eyes, before leading Rusty back inside and feeling, finally, like a good shepherd.

In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Flannery O’Connor has a social worker foster a juvenile delinquent. He ignores the boy’s influence on his biological son and lives to regret it. Could O’Connor’s point have been that charity begins at home? Or maybe it was that playing favorites is okay, since God does it all the time. For Him, the choice between Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau, was a no-brainer. As my conscience wrestles with my spurning of Richelieu for Rusty, I find myself grasping at both these points. I do wish, though, that whoever compiled Little Flowers had included another story, about a second wolf, a really obnoxious wolf whose skull Francis felt oblige to dent with a sling. A story like that would make Christianity seem so damn much more sensible.

  • calahalexander

    I love this post. I’ve never been a great fan of St. Francis, even though my father-in-law and various friends have tried to instruct me in how to convert to the cult of loving St. Francis. But I can’t ever quite get there. He just seems like a fairy-tale saint, a saint that is so unrealistic that contemplating him in my daily life is about as helpful as expecting cartoon birds to tie my hair into ribbons. I know this isn’t really the best attitude to have toward a saint, but I figure that that’s why there’s such a variety of saints. Some speak to us, some don’t.

  • Woodeene

    If you want to know the real Francis, read Augustine Thompson’s new book Francis of Asissi from Cornell University Press. The real Francis suffered from many demons, was a much darker and more troubled man than we traditionally believe. Most of the things we think we know about him, including the wolf of Gubbio and the talking crucifix are fictional.

  • Ted Seeber

    The real St. Francis of Assisi bears little resemblance to the cult-inspired myths about him. Especially post-Vatican II

  • joannemcportland

    Just because the Wolf of Gubbio story is fictional does not mean it is not true. But this one is much better written. “Trailing him like a furry U-boat” killed me.

  • Tim in Cleveland

    I’ve never read any of the St. Francis of PETA material, so I’m not too aware of the “friend to animals” aspect of the saint. But I have seen extremely lame pictures depicting him so, probably in my 1990s PSR “text” book.

    No, when I think of Saint Francis a picture of some wacko homeless guy running through the streets comes to my mind. But instead of asking for change he gives it out (but still yells at people in the process). I think this has to do with the story of St. Francis stripping naked and giving his clothes to some guy like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (but with more nudity).

  • Bridget N

    I have to agree with Joanne; the furry U-boat line was fastastic. Excellent piece, Max, and I didn’t have to look anything up on Google either! ;)

    [Aw, thanks, Bridget! You know, it just occurred to me: for a center-left peacenik, I never met a military metaphor I didn't like.]

  • Manny

    Oh Max, this is an outstanding piece. There’s a lot to comment on. I grew up in that Brooklyn neighborhood. If they had a St. Francis statue, they were probably not gangsters, if that’s what you’re referring to. Those guys are not that sophisticated. I consider St Francis my personal patron saint. Who says that wolf story isn’t true? I find it completely credible in its entirety. There was a place in Arizona I frequently traveled to on business, and at the main gate in the early hours there used to be a coyote who hung out waiting for the guards to toss him a donut or two. LOL, he lived on Mexican donuts. That coyote made the same deal as the wolf of Gubio. ;)

    [Now that you mention it, many things about that story are consistent with what experts know about lupine behavior. Wolves are pack animals; any wolf reduced to operating alone was probably kicked out of the pack for being old or sick. Such an animal might look fearsome to people, but he'd probably prefer handouts -- the chase would have been rough on his joints. Maybe the moral is that wolves, like all dog-type creatures, bond with with people with relative ease. Now if St. Francis had paused in Syria to tame a leopard, that might have counted for a miracle.]

  • Robster

    All due respect to St. Francis, I think we get a twee image of him doing nice, non controversial things that make us feel good. Preaching to animals, patron of environment, etc., urk; hurl!
    How about embracing a nasty putrescent leper, giving up his finery for ordinary clothes, rolling into thorn bushes to conquer temptations of lust, staying loyal to the official Church (corrupt as hell back then, as now!), etc. What about St. Anthony? Great preacher who converted a lot of people. Now remembered as a gofer for lost keys, glasses, etc! It shouldn’t happen to a dog!

  • Tim in Cleveland

    One whole month without Max… I’m lost and confused. Hope you are okay Max.

  • Pearty

    Tim: Bloody oath.

    Robster: I agree. But having just recovered an important set of keys that were lost for a couple of days – a friend literally said “St Anthony”, turned around, and there they were – I’m pretty happy with the arrangement.

    It’s good for school kids this stuff, but like many things of the faith, not many get past infantile stages. Perhaps for good reasons. Many of the more ‘serious’ modern hagiographies end up with the saint as some tortured, miserable soul. It can wear you down.

  • J Kok

    Missing your posts. I hope you’re okay and that the reason for your long silence is that you are working on your novel. Will say a prayer for you, whatever’s going on.