The Saint and the Sultan

The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace

[A mixture of reflection and book review]

May the Lord give you peace.

It seems that the death of bin Laden has had a mixed effect on me, causing me to search for a real gospel approach to the problem of enmity and hatred. Through twists and turns I discovered the book The Saint and the Sultan by Professor Paul Moses. As soon as I entered its realm, I found myself open to its inspiration and nourished by its meaning. What I discovered was the 'sonorous voice of St. Francis' singing a neglected gospel canticle of peace and reconciliation to a world trapped in an unholy embrace of hostility and death.

The author is a journalist, not a historian, nevertheless he utilizes extensive travel and research into the life and times of St. Francis. The Seraphic Saint is revealed beyond the traditional sources through additional chronicles, journals, and documents. There are substantial notes and references, yet its very readable. The portrayal of St. Francis is very convincing, because we see him committed to the gospel in a way that signals his uncompromising belief in the transformative power of love and pardon. (see Article XIX, SFO Rule)

One of the goals of the book is to reignite Francis of Assisi's missionary vision of peace among peoples who are estranged.  To understand what Francis has to say we must first see his conversion in the context of his lived experiences, particularly his intimate contact with war; its bloodshed, imprisonment, and all the other demons that swirl around the battlefield. This perspective is what makes the book a success. It's into this wounded and tortured soul that the seeds of the gospel find their mortified soil.  Now the young Francis is sufficiently transformed to encounter the Savior in his vision.  From here he laucnches into a new life of penance and poverty with no restraint.

The Saint and the Sultan attempts to explain why the message of St. Francis (specifically regarding his attitude toward war) is clouded. According to the author, those attempting to convey the charism of Francis are caught in conflicting cross currents. Then as now, the first casualty of war is truth.  The aura of St. Francis had to pass through a Church mired in difficult circumstances. Even the rivalry within the early Franciscan Order plays some part in altering the sublime message.

Perhaps this 'cover up' is the most controversial claim of the book. Nevertheless, I chose to align with the stated goal of revealing St. Francis as the model of peacemaker in the highest order.  The radical expression of the gospel as shown in the life of Francis remains the more relevant message and overshadows the need to find a conspiracy. 

The Church of his time is in disarray, but we already knew this, since Christ himself spoke to the Poverello…'Francis, go and repair my Church, which you can see is falling into ruin'. The real and imagined heresies bred suspicion and anxiety and raised the specter of severe condemnation, even death to those taking opposing positions. Professor Moses reveals to his readers the historical scene and its relevant characters candidly, yet he meticulously sticks to his theme while sparing his readers a diatribe. This is one of the subtle lessons of the book.

During the lifetime of Francis, the relic of the 'True Cross' accompanied the Crusaders into battle. Thus the Cross became both divine protection and weapon against the foe. One's standing with God was manifested in the winning or losing of the battle; but either way, the mission was deemed sacrosanct. While the worldly Francis would have applauded this, the penitent Francis came to see through it with a more penetrating vision.

For Francis in his journey, the 'True Cross' remains a symbol of victory; but one of victory over sin and death. The power of the Cross is inherent in one's surrender to the Will of the Father, which Christ did in accepting the burden of the sins of the world. For Francis, this giving of oneself to God (for Christians through Christ) is in some manner recognizable in the belief of the Saracens. The term 'Islam' means 'submission to the will of God and obedience of His law'. Francis indeed wanted to convert the Saracens (not merely coexist with them), but he already recognized and affirmed the innate image of God in the hearts of the foe. For Francis, to enter into mortal battle with others contained no glory, but rather came to signify a tragedy; a nullification of the gospel itself.  'Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.'

For me there are two important findings in this work. One is a real satisfaction in having contemplated a more lucid understanding of St. Francis; he's always been more enigmatic than I'm comfortable with. For this alone, The Saint and the Sultan deserves to be recognized as a contribution to the understanding of the Poverello. I'm grateful for having seen a new perspective which actually strengthens my commitment to his way of life.

The second finding is the promotion of a message that's been obscure and badly needed. To my mind, the practice of gospel peacemaking as St. Francis shows is not tied to consensus thinking nor does it require the approval of others. It is willing to go it alone with its only requirement being a purified heart and faithful recognition of the divine seed in the other. The other is never evaluated in terms of their moral state or worthiness; love and pardon are extended unconditionally. Even the prospect of a failed attempt at peace is unimportant; indeed it is a distraction, because the work of bringing gospel love and forgiveness is life-giving to the bearer and efficacious to the world, even when it is scorned.

Comments welcomed.  Peace and all good.

Penance and Perspective

Whenever we speak or act (or judge matters) we bring a certain perspective into play. Our personal perspective is shaped by a myriad of factors. Life experiences, age, family members, income level, health status, and much more; all influence how we see the world and how we interact with it. If our vantage point ceases to change so does our potential for spiritual growth.

Interesting novels employ fictional characters to draw us into new situations, from which emerges triumph or tragedy. Think of the Dickens' character Ebenezer Scrooge, and how his near death glimpse into a world he was indifferent to, brought about his conversion. Changing perspectives doesn't alter what we look at, but it does change our relation to it.

When we collaborate with others in humility and good will, we share new perspectives which often form a mosaic of new understanding and action. When this participation in dialogue and action occurs in a religious fraternity or community, it becomes one of the striking 'tools' that God uses to bring about true 'formation'; not only for the individual, but for the entire community. If this setting invokes trust, we're free to become vulnerable and risk new perspectives and question old assumptions.

So how does the practice of penance play a role in this formation?

Penance and the penitential life are about practices which foster conversion. They should include in their goal, new or renewed perspectives that bring forth gospel action. The penance of fasting, for example, would be misguided if it didn't bring us into some sense of dependency on God, hunger for justice, stripping of selfish behavior, etc. It would be lacking if it didn't stir some action towards almsgiving or sharing. But if the penance is successful it changes our perspective and motivates us to act rightly. This is what St. Francis means when he says we must bring forth 'worthy fruits of penance'.

Penance as mortification is voluntary suffering, and suffering has much to teach us. Dealing with a dreaded illness most certainly changes our perspective. One moment life is carefree; and suddenly we must confront pain and limitations. We now experience human suffering that hardly caught our attention in the past. We feel neglect and comfort; a taste of alienation and the tenderness of love. So now we see, now we know. We receive healing or we don't, each with its unique perspective; but either way, we are given the seeds of change.

Will we bring forth 'worthy fruits of penance'? The first step is to choose and cultivate a penance that invites a new perspective. We need to create an awareness of the fleeing refugee, running from terror. We ought to evoke compassion for the neglected elderly, too tired to care for themselves. We should wonder what it's like to journey as an immigrant, desperate for work. We can be patient with abused or neglected youth who are confused and bored. We have to get ourselves into communion with these souls, to see what's hidden in our blind spot.

Our perspectives are limited, our judgment less than perfect, and our penance incomplete.


The Value of Contradictions

The General Constitutions of the SFO has as its purpose, the application of the Rule of Life. Recently I had the pleasure of making a direct connection between the gospel reading of the day and a particular article I was pondering. What a joy.

… [Secular Franciscans] discover in [Christ, poor and crucified] the value of contradictions for the sake of justice and the meaning of the difficulties and the crosses of daily life. With Him they can accept the will of the Father even under the most difficult circumstances and live the Franciscan spirit of peace, rejecting every doctrine contrary to human dignity. (SFO General Constitution, Article 10)

Notice how this article is embodied in the following Gospel passage (Mk 3:1-6).

Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, "Come up here before us." Then he said to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" But they remained silent. Looking round at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.

Jesus is prophesized to be 'a sign that is contradicted' by the world [Luke 2:34]. A contradiction can be viewed as an opposing statement. When we speak of someone becoming 'a sign that is contradicted' we mean an individual who contests the accepted thinking and pays a price for his or her stand. Wherever the Church insists on justice and human dignity over degrading circumstances it too becomes 'a sign of contradiction', and it is 'spoken against' (i.e. resisted), even violently, by those who seek to marginalize its voice and minimize its demand.

The wisdom of the world tries to seduce us into dropping our mantle of contradiction and so we too often fail our responsibility to fight injustice. Most often we just can't put our (withered) finger on exactly what is the problem because we've grown accustomed to following twisted rules created for promoting self interests. But as the gospel passage shows, even well intentioned rules (including religious rules) can interfere with God's plan to reach out to his beloved children and offer healing and salvation.

This is not a small problem. It's the curse of legalism where the letter of the law opposes the spirit of the law. So many of our attempts to solve social problems end up in these horrifying paradoxes; where we reap unintended consequences. These consequences are frustrating and often difficult and painful and are suffered unevenly. The Church, even if it doesn't own perfect solutions, nevertheless acts as a 'sign of contradiction'; opposing dark outcomes and continually casting light into shadowy areas.

We don't relish our duty to confront injustice because of the pain involved. Yet we're called to this role for the sake of the gospel and we must carry these crosses and count them as holy because they counter the attacks on 'God's will for his children'. This is the basis for human dignity. It's not difficult to see that this is what Jesus was doing when he carried out the will of his Heavenly Father by healing on the Sabbath, and in doing so opposed the heartless thinking of the Pharisees at a terrible cost. 'They went out immediately and took counsel to put him to death.'

This same 'opposition' is an integral step in our own mission; 'to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively' (SFO Rule, Art. 14)Unfortunately, being 'spoken against' is difficult and painful. We can expect to be ridiculed and persecuted for promoting causes that are 'signs of contradiction'. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (Jn. 15:20) But this is at the very core of our call to be Gospel witnesses.

Listening for God’s Sake

Then Jesus cried aloud: "Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me…for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father told me." (John 12: 44,49-50)

I think I've found my new task for ongoing conversion. Every so often sleepy gospel passages spring to life and beckon me to open myself to their power. Such words are 'spirit and life'. The time has come to reconsider my vocation's meaning and to surrender it into the Father's hands for his purposes.

One purpose of formation is to equip us for this sacred act of listening and responding to the 'Will of God'. This is true discipleship and it is a costly endeavor. It requires self-sacrifice and emptying of self; all for the preparing of a free heart to serve God. I'm not interested in a diploma in holiness, but a relationship with God, and a heartfelt desire to bring about his presence to others.

It's a risky act to give one's will over to someone else, even God. This requires trust in God's goodness and faith in his divine love. Moreover, we hope that this love is over-abounding to our weak love. The light (evidence) we have is the incarnation of Jesus, who embodies the Father's love. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this testimony is carried on through time, by a host of imperfect disciples to us.

So we in turn, must step into that ecclesial mission of 'giving birth to Jesus', in order that the world receives its spiritual light here and now, in our authentic living of the gospel. Most likely, our particular divine mission will never be trumpeted as such. It may be so humdrum and routine that it's indistinguishable from the ordinary circumstances of our lives. Therefore, it will probably involve more prayerful listening and an earnest desire to hear the 'Will of the Father' amidst a culture of hypnotic distractions and noise.

So what are the techniques for better listening? Perhaps it's nothing new, but rather attentiveness to what we've already heard. We might simply listen with a truly open heart to the gospel and accept its message more docilely. Or take the Rule more seriously and embrace it with greater determination as the center of our 'plan of life'. We might pray more with the Saints and look for clues in how they responded to God.

Those of us who have chosen the Franciscan journey have the additional help of walking the path joyfully in fraternity, quickened by the common goal of our vocations. Listening (and responding) for God's sake.

Korban Corner: a new blog

'Perfect Joy', the blog is a collection of personal reflections, yet I've wanted to post other media of interest to Secular Franciscans.  My local fraternity has decided to create a blog.  I've been adding material there that's of interest to any SFO member.  If you're not a member but curious about Secular Franciscan living then you might check out our blog called Korban Corner.  My fraternity's name is 'Korban Fraternity'Korban means 'dedicated or consecrated to God'.  The url is  I also added a link on the sidebarAll are invited.  Peace and all good.