Saturday, November 5, 2011


I don't think often about saints, but when I was asked to give a talk for All Saints Day, I said 'yes' with some hesitation and uncertainty; I finally decided to focus on the most obvious saint, everyone's favorite: Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), a tormented man of peace.

The 2009 book by Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan, gives me some fresh insight, both psychological and political, into the life of St. Francis, the young rich man's son who gave up everything for God. How explain his erratic behavior after he spent a year in prison (taken prisoner and contracting malaria)?

Many saints are tormented and afflicted, so much so that their stories are often enough to repel the reader. But Moses makes clear that Francis, in addition to suffering severe anxiety attacks, must have had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his earliest biographer talks about his depression and self-loathing, even while he impulsively began to give generously to the poor.

His revulsion from combat--he had just sold his horse and armor--was one way to coping with his depression and trauma; along with this: a renunciation of wealth and power. Before he gathered a group of friars around him, the beginning of the Franciscans, he was reborn as a peacemaker.

One remarkable aspect of his peacemaking took him in 1219 to meet the Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. He traveled to Damietta not with a desire to Christianize the Muslims but to intervene with the Cardinal who had refused the Sultan's offer to negotiate a peace. The weapons Francis used were simple: Gospel values. He preached that war was not God's will, a point lost on the Cardinal.

The mission was a failure in political terms, but the real miracle, greater than those recounted by later hagiographers, was that the nephew of Saladin and Francis of Assisi met on equal ground, in peace, for several days during the bloody battle. Throughout his life, Moses shows, the Sultan, without giving up his devout Sunni faith, respected Christians, guided in part by that part of the Koran which requires Muslims to recognize their affinity with Christian monks.

There must be a lesson here: that mortal enemies can respect each other as individuals and tolerate their differences, even working toward a resolution of their conflict. I don't know if the Islamaphobia of many Americans has lessened during these past ten years, as I would hope it has. But the more we learn about people like Malik al-Kamil, and the damage done by the Crusades, we more we can understand the roots of this hatred. We fear less what we understand.

At the very least, we can see in the heroic mission of Francis to the Sultan a much-needed human gesture of good will, a concrete demonstration of the seemingly trite conclusion from the peace prayer attributed to St. Francis: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

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