5 October 2017
This statue of St. Francis of Assisi stands outside Assisi’s basilica and shows Francis returning from the battlefield — obedient to God but a disgrace to his fellow citizens. It is emblematic of the saint’s profound commitment to non-violence in imitation of Christ. (photo: Elias D. Mallon)
On 4 October Christians around the world remember Giovanni di Bernadone — the earliest saint I know of with a last name.
But countless people know him better by his nickname, Francesco, and his home town, Assisi.
Francis of Assisi was born in 1182 and died on 3 October 1226. He is arguably the best known, most beloved and most frequently portrayed of any saint in the Catholic Church.
Francis is known and admired for many things, his love for nature being high on the list. But he also merits attention for a quality many easily overlook: he was profoundly committed to non-violence in imitation of Christ. This is more radical than it may sound. Francis lived in violent times and for a while was a knight — a warrior for his home town in the never-ending battles with the Umbrian villages surrounding Assisi. God revealed to him in a dream that he was to leave the battlefield — a disgrace for a knight — and follow a path of non-violence. A marvelous statue in front the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi portrays that pivotal event: Francis returning from the battlefield, obedient to God but in disgrace to his fellow citizens.
The world in which Francis lived was the world of the Crusades. Pope Urban II had called for the First Crusade on 17 November 1095, slightly less than ninety years before Francis was born. There were several different crusader expeditions until they came to an end in 1291. The Crusaders were a mixed lot, composed of high-minded idealists and low-minded soldiers of fortune. When Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099, there was a horrible massacre of Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians.
The time of Francis was not a time of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Nonetheless, some extraordinary people did some extraordinary things. Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085), for example, wrote a letter to al-Nasir, a Muslim governor in North Africa. The tone of the letter is remarkable and ends with Pope Gregory saying he “prays from (his) heart that God may receive you, after a long stay here below, into the bosom of ... Abraham.”
Another extraordinary gesture was one by Francis of Assisi himself He accompanied the soldiers of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) and went to Damietta in Egypt in 1219. While living in the Crusader battle camp, Francis was shocked by the un-Christian life of the Crusaders. He took it upon himself to visit Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the local governor and leader of the Muslim troops. The sultan was an open man and in times of peace had encouraged encounters between Christians and Muslims. This, however, was no time of peace. His meeting with Francis, then, was truly out of the ordinary.
Though little is known in detail about the encounter between Francis and Malik al-Kamil — and there is no first-hand report — a Google search will show that it has generated a cottage industry of books and stories. However, even stripping it down to its barest essentials, the meeting remains a high point in Catholic history. We know that Francis chose dialogue over violence and respect over hatred.
It was an act of tremendous faith and courage for Francis, the poor man of Assisi, to visit the sophisticated and cultured sultan. At least initially the sultan must have found him very odd and perhaps even a bit insane. Despite the legends, we have no idea what they talked about. However, we do know that Francis returned alive — no small accomplishment — and with gifts from the sultan.
In all its bare-boned simplicity, this act of respect and non-violence — exemplifying beautifully the Gospel teaching of loving one’s enemy — would not be repeated to Muslims or vice versa for centuries.
It was an event that clearly had a profound impact on the future saint. After meeting the sultan, Francis showed little enthusiasm for the Crusades; in fact, he spoke to the brothers of his admiration for the Muslim’s dedication to prayer. The encounter, it seems, made a lasting and positive impression on him.
Perhaps that is part of the uniqueness of Francis — a medieval man who speaks to us today in a way that is compelling and surprisingly contemporary.