Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve God with great humility. Amen.
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” When I think of St. Francis, I think of someone who had such faith. I think of his preaching to whomever would listen, his connection to creation, and care of animals. I think of his prayer, the Canticle of the Sun, from which my opening prayer was taken from. His faith could move mountains. I think of what Pope Francis said in his encyclical last year:
In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs…” Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.
St. Francis can be a help to us as we consider our connection to God’s creation that joyful mystery and how we are called to be good stewards of the land and the animals. But St. Francis can also be a help to us in these anxious times, as we consider our relationship with others, especially those of other cultures & religions than our own.
Let me tell you a story…
Over 800 years ago, in the year 1213, Pope Innocent III called for the Fifth Crusade. Armies from all across Europe slowly gathered and headed for Jerusalem & Egypt to conquer them once again. The Muslim and Christian armies confronted each other in Egypt in 1218. As the war raged on over the next three years, thousands were killed on both sides.As one commentator put it, “Today, the most dangerous cultural divide is between Islam and the western world. Too easily and too frequently we hear of Muslims being demonized with absolutes and generalizations.”
Sultan Malik al-Kamil, ruler of Egypt and a nephew of the great Kurd warrior Saladin, tried to negotiate peace but the offer was rejected.
In Italy, St. Francis had always dreamed of preaching the Christian faith peacefully to the Muslims and yearned for an audience with a Muslim leader. Now his moment had arrived and he was going to forbid war and be a peacemaker. In June 2019, Francis took a few brothers with him and sailed on a perilous journey across the Mediterranean to the war zone.
Upon reaching the banks of the Nile, Francis was deeply grieved to see the horrific sight of casualties of war on both sides. He retreated into deep prayer and contemplation and wondered what he could do. He began to preach vigorously against the war and the threatening disaster but was faced with foulmouthed jeers and taunts; to the Christian soldiers the barefoot little holy man was a heretic. Despite this, Francis continued his opposition to the crusade but all of his efforts were to no avail.
Finally, Francis decided that he would act and he and brother Illuminato would venture out to meet the Muslims in their own camp. Francis understood the risks; death or imprisonment were the likely outcomes of his plan to cross the enemy lines during wartime. But Francis had a bold idea to prevent bloodbath. If the Crusade leaders would not seek peace, he would. As Francis and Illuminato crossed the enemy lines, the Muslim sentries saw them and thought they were messengers or had come to convert to Islam.
Francis, unable to speak the soldiers’ language, cried, “Sultan! Sultan!” The soldiers seized them and led them to the sultan’s tent. The future saint and the sultan were roughly the same age, al-Kamil was 39, Francis 38. Francis stood before al-Kamil. The sultan looked over the odd duo, barefoot monks dressed in coarse, patched down tunics. The sultan thought that the Franks had sent them to his tent with a response to his latest peace proposal. The sultan, made weary by war, desperately wanted a deal that would end the Christians’ siege of the port city of Damietta where his people were dying of disease and starvation.
“May the Lord give you peace.” Francis surprised the sultan with his standard greeting. It perplexed the sultan. He noticed the similarity between Francis’ greeting and the familiar Muslim greeting of peace, “Assalam o alaikum” or “peace be upon you.”
Uncertain about his visitors’ intentions, the sultan asked if they had come as representatives of the pope’s army. “We are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ”, Francis responded, asserting that he was God’s ambassador, not the pope’s.
This daring little man and his companion intrigued Sultan al-Kamil – they even resembled the similarly dressed Sufi men the sultan revered for their mystical insight into Islam. “If you wish to believe us, we will hand over your soul to God,” Francis continued.
Whatever Francis said, the sultan became very attentive to and listened closely. It was an amazing scene of a monk preaching the Christian faith to a Muslim monarch in the middle of a war. The sultan’s religious advisers rushed into his tent. Once they found out that al-Kamil was going to let Francis preach, they warned him that this would violate Islamic law. Al-Kamil had a prominent Sufi as his religious adviser and he saw Francis in the light of Sufism and the Muslim tradition calling for respect for Christian monks.
Francis was a dynamic preacher. He preached from the heart and the sultan and his court listened to Francis attentively. Their discussions went on for several days and had multiple participants. It was a peaceful exchange of ideas about the two competing religions. Francis and Illuminato were treated as honored guests in the Muslim camp.
Francis was deeply impressed by the Muslim religious practices, especially the call to prayer. The sultan offered Francis many gifts but Francis turned them down, as was his practice. Francis did, however, agreed to accept a token of their meeting; an ivory horn used to make the Muslim call for prayer, which to this day is displayed in a room of relics at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Francis used it to call his monks to prayer on his return to Italy.
Although Francis was disappointed not to have converted the sultan, he had shown Sultan al-Kamil what it meant to be a true Christian. He and al-Kamil had found a way of talking peacefully during a gruesome war. Sultan then sent Francis and Illuminato back to the Christian camp under his protection.
The Fifth Crusade ended in 1221 in a decisive victory for al-Kamil which resulted in a great number of losses on both sides and eventually in the surrender of the pope’s army. Al-Kamil agreed to an eight-year peace agreement with Europe. Francis returned to Italy soon after his encounter with the sultan but held the sultan deep within his heart. He grew ill but his yearning for peace intensified. He constantly preached to abolish war and renew peace among all people. [adapted from an article by Navid Zaidi]
As we remember St. Francis today and the faith he had, and bless our animals, may we remember also remember how St. Francis moved beyond the religious and cultural prejudices of his day when he engaged the sultan of Egypt and his Sufi advisors in peaceful religious dialogue. Despite the many differences between them, the two men discovered goodness in one another.
May we, like Francis once did, reach out in peace and witness to our fearful world today. Amen.
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