Saint Francis of Assisi: Why a Peace Activist of 800 years ago Still Matters Today
Around this time of the year on October 4, people all over the world will be celebrating the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. In remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures, animals are led to churches for a special ceremony called the “Blessing of the Animals.” Every year, millions of animals are blessed by priests in a ceremony that touches the hearts of most of those in attendance.
Aside from his title as the Patron Saint of Animals, however, St. Francis is also well known for his unconditional love and service for humanity. In my book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice, I reveal how the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi shape my work for justice, teaching me the way of peace, love, humility, and service. Eight hundred years ago, this humble man transformed his world and renewed the Catholic Church by simple but revolutionary acts of practicing his faith as it had never been practiced before. Francis was a man of peace who was known for building bridges of communication, understanding, and cooperation between warring people, groups, and nations.
Francis was born about 1181 into an affluent family during a period of incredible violence and warfare. Francis dreamed of knighthood and he fought in battles against other towns and cities. Many historians believe that Francis participated in the killing and slaughter of other soldiers during battle. Italy during that time period was filled with daily violence on a large scale. During Francis’ lifetime, the once dominant feudal system was breaking apart, and Italy’s provinces and cities were engaged in ongoing strife that led to continuing military conflicts.
During his youth, Francis developed a reputation for self-indulgence and playfulness that made him a hero and leader of his town’s young people. He watched as his own town of Assisi was wracked by a civil war and a long-running conflict with the nearby town of Perugia. When Francis was 20, the conflict with Perugia erupted into an all-out war. Inspired by patriotism and deep pride, Francis enlisted and went off to battle. He was captured and put in prison for nearly a year.
Two years later, Francis set out for war again, this time as a young knight of a papal army bound for the Crusades. On his way to battle, Francis had a vision that caused him to become weak and very ill. He returned to Assisi, unwilling to take up where he left off. He was ill for almost a year and he struggled with dreams and voices telling him to repair the Church that had fallen. These dreams and visions led him to turn his back on his father’s wealthy business and the military heroics of his youth.
Francis was a tough and demanding revolutionary voyager of the human spirit. He was someone who chose to live not with the easy metaphors of poverty, but in real, harsh, grinding “poorness.”
Instead, Francis chose a radical life of caring for the poor through his acts of love and humility where he lived among lepers, homeless and others that were neglected by society. Francis was a tough and demanding revolutionary voyager of the human spirit. He was someone who chose to live not with the easy metaphors of poverty, but in real, harsh, grinding “poorness.” Francis had a relentless emphasis on real poverty and its necessary companion, humility. Francis was someone who lived his vision. His life (rather than his words) teaches us what it is like to live with spiritual joy in the service of other.
St. Francis was a strong voice in the nonviolent struggle for racial harmony and reconciliation. Francis lived in the political turmoil of the 13th Century “Holy Roman Empire,” locked in a culture of war as the empire united in a series of Crusades against Muslims, Jews and others labeled as “heretics.” The story of the meeting between Francis and Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil (Sultan al-Kamil) opened a door to respect, trust and peace. The Western portrait of Sultan al-Kamil was skewed by Crusader propaganda and lack of basic knowledge by Christian writers of Muslim society and faith. In Egypt, he was known for his tolerance toward the Christian minority. He was a cultured man who loved learned conversation with scholars in his court. Sultan al-Kamil was rooted in this spiritual belief of peace and compassion.
Francis followed his prophetic nonviolent resistance to the violence of the Crusades by embarking on a journey to meet with Sultan al-Kamil and deliver him his message of peace. He embarked on dangerous journeys three times, and strong weather storms prevented him from successfully crossing the sea to get to Egypt. His moment finally arrived during the summer of 1219 in the midst of a Crusade that was killing thousands of people in the sweltering heat on the banks of the Nile. Francis was warned by the leaders of the Christian army not to cross the bloody battlefield between the two armies to seek out the Sultan. He knew full well of the risk that he was undertaking.
Francis and his traveling companion, Friar Illuminato, crossed the treacherous battlefield and set foot on the outskirts of the Muslim camp. The Muslim soldiers seized them and took these two barefoot monks dressed in worn out patched brown tunics to appear before Sultan al-Kamil. Sultan al-Kamil was accompanied by his circle of Sufi holy men with him to help him with translation. When Francis made it clear, he was not there on behalf of the Pope’s army, but as an ambassador of his God, this intrigued the Sultan even more. When Sultan al-Kamil saw Francis’ enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him. They spent almost four days together in mutual respect and understanding.
Francis’ desire to share his spirituality and message of peace with the Sultan, without insulting Islam or refuting Mohammed, was unique and disarming. During that brief moment in history where Francis and Sultan al-Kamil were with one another, their dialogue turned into an embrace of each other as human beings driven by their religious belief for a higher good. According to many accounts, they both shared a meal together. The image of Francis peacefully breaking bread at a banquet with Sultan al-Kamil indicates the appreciation that they had for each other and the respect for their differences.
Francis was changed by the experience and came away deeply impressed with Islamic spirituality. His yearning for peace with Islam is especially apparent in his suggestion that his brothers and sisters live quietly among Muslims and “be subject” to them rather than engage in disputes, a provision that appears in an early version of the code of conduct for his order, its Rule. When Francis was ready to leave and return to Italy, Sultan al-Kamil showered him with many gifts and treasures. Because he had no interest in worldly wealth, Francis refused them all, except one special gift: an ivory horn used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer. Francis used it to call people for prayer or for preaching. The encounter between Francis and Sultan al-Kamil can teach us today about compassion and understanding in how we accept one another and embrace our differences.
St. Francis was a humble man with no formal education, but he had a gift of divine wisdom. He could go deep into the profound mysteries of his faith. He was a spiritual genius who can uncover the spiritual truths in everything he read or his encounter with those around him. Once a great university professor of theology confronted him with difficult question. After overcoming the intimidation of being in the presence of such a well-learned theological scholar, Francis replied to his questions from his knowledge of life and the scripture. The well-learned professor was so deeply moved that when he returned to his university colleagues, he mentioned to them: “The theology of this man arises from his purity of life and his contemplation. It is like a soaring eagle. Compared to his, our learning is earthbound.”
St. Francis teaches us that the interconnectedness between all of us in the social justice movement should become an indispensable part of our work. He lived and practiced daily the heart-to-heart connections with his band of followers. In our work for justice, we are all interwoven – ourselves, our lives, the communities we represent and what we are striving to accomplish. Francis had the capacity to go deep into someone’s heart and share the joy and sadness of that person. As activists, we too have the potential to connect through our hearts and let that connection be the driving force that enables us to struggle together, to strategize together, and to win together. After all, this is true solidarity in action – our interconnectedness with one other, the spiritual force of love and compassion for one another, much in the same way of the unconditional love that Francis had for all of creation.
We learn from St. Francis that spiritual poverty combined with humility creates space in our hearts for forgiveness. An unforgiving spirit blocks the flow of grace and mercy into our lives, causing us to live in a stagnant state of regrets, animosities and grudges. Forgiveness simply means releasing those who have offended you from your own hostility and anger. It is the freedom of no longer holding anguish or bitterness inside you. Francis teaches us that forgiveness creates room in your heart for love and mercy, which are necessary for bringing peace in the world.
Francis referred to the journey and the dream as being one in the same. He was only 45 years old when he died, but he left behind a spiritual dream with a journey to challenge everyone. For him, the journey and the dream of his spiritual life were of the same source of love and both were truly alive within his heart. Imagine what kind of social justice movement we would have if every step in the process of carrying out our work was driven by an act of love and compassion through our hearts, and not our minds.