May 20, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 11
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Wendy Murray
When I make note to various interested (or uninterested) parties that this year, 2009, marks the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order of the Friars Minor, birthed by Francis of Assisi, I am met with blank stares. It is obvious to me that some want to say (but don’t)—who? Others: —and so . . ? I get it. Most people who know anything about Francis know that he is a Catholic saint (thus irrelevant to non-Catholics) or a vaguely familiar “guy who liked animals.”
There is nothing to say to that except, yes, he liked animals (But he would not have joined PETA.). There is a larger cosmic vision under which he understood his place, others’ place and the place of all creation. We moderns—Protestant, Catholic or otherwise—would do well to appreciate that larger vision he championed especially as it relates to pressing issues of our time.
Francis strongly advocated “creation care.” Near the end of his life, when Francis was sick, blind and in constant pain, he wrote the Canticle of the Creatures, the earliest literary document written in vernacular Italian. It began with the word Altissimu, the Italian way to hurl the word “alto” (high) to its superlative expression. Italians frequently attach the “issimo” suffix to words to elevate their force. And Francis was a true Italian.
Altissimu for Francis referred to God, for whom, in the Canticle, all creatures are summoned to participate in a cosmic performance. It is to be sung in every landscape by each participant in creation for the singular purpose of rendering back to God the beauty and originality of his own personality. It is not pantheism. Rather, it is an exercise in the particulars—sun, moon, wind, fire—all are points of intersection between this world and the next. In the Canticle, earth gives back to the Almighty the gifts he himself ascribed it. The song reflects Francis’ vision that brings into harmony all that exists on earth as fellow participants in a stunning assertion of gratitude for God’s care (It also explains why he liked animals.).
Second, during the horrific period known as the Crusades, which of part occurred during Francis’ lifetime, he stands out as a singular emissary of peace by means of dignified inter-religious dialogue. In 1219 when Pope Honorius IV dispatched the Fifth Crusade, Francis would not be denied his intention to go in order to visit the Muslim leader, the sultan Malik al-Kamil, even if it meant death, as all deemed it would.
When he arrived at the Crusader camp in Egypt, Christian forces were poised to attack the port city of Damietta. History notes that the siege (August 29, 1219) ended in a massacre for the Christians. At this point Francis left the Christian camp to walk straight into the camp of the enemy.
He was immediately arrested and threatened with decapitation. But Francis requested first to see the sultan, who received him graciously. He asked promptly if Francis wished to convert to Islam. He said he did not, but had come instead to present the sultan’s soul to “God on behalf of Christ.” The sultan’s sages advised him to uphold “the sword of the law” and cut off Francis’ head. The sultan conceded that he was indeed bound by law to execute Francis. However, he chose to act against his own law, he said, because it would be an “evil reward to bestow on one who intentionally risked death in order to save his soul for God.”
Rather than denounce the sultan’s beliefs, Francis put his life on the line. Love ruled his action. Risk, disgrace and probable death were irrelevant. As was true of all noble knights whom Francis emulated, he acknowledged al-Kamil as an equal in dignity, offering his life in exchange for another’s soul. The sultan understood this. Francis won, if not his conversion, his respect and reciprocity of valor.
Finally, we can learn much from Francis during the current recession we face. Francis defined his life with a purpose higher than comfort and material acquisition, and thus lived simply. His religious vows and those he imposed on his brothers embraced poverty. Church officials felt it would be “very difficult to possess nothing in the world,” to which Francis replied: “If we had any possessions we should also be forced to have arms to protect them, since possessions are a cause of disputes and strife, and in many ways hinder [us] from loving God and our neighbor.”
We can’t all embrace poverty as he did. But we can capture the intention behind his vow and not bind our lives to the things we acquire. Francis exhorted his brothers to live in a way that others “may be drawn to peace and good will through your gentleness. We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
Wendy Murray is an adjunct professor of communication arts at Gordon College. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts, and is leading a study tour to Assisi in September, http://assisiworkshops.blogspot.com.