Recently the Dish noted Joan Acocella’s review of recent biographies of St. Francis of Assisi. Michael Signorelli goes over similar ground, mixing personal reflections with a review of the saint’s life, and points to this arresting story of his interactions with Muslims:
To make his message plain, Francis sought to eliminate the distance between his words and his actions, proposing himself as a model to his order, applying “a hierarchy of example through his own personal witness.” Most famously, in the summer of 1219, the Poor Man of Assisi arrived in Damietta, a crucial port on the Nile Delta, held by the sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. Troops of the Fifth Crusade had been besieging the city for almost a year to no decisive result. After an offensive by the Crusaders ended in bloody defeat, a truce was called. Francis made his move, leaving the Christian camp, approaching enemy lines, calling out the sultan’s name. The sultan granted him an audience and the Poor Man of Assisi remained in the enemy camp for several days. Contemporary sources attest to the historicity of the event. But even they must speculate as to what occurred between the sultan and the monk. Did Francis denounce Islam? Did he try to convert the sultan? Was his holiness tested? Was he tortured? What’s certain is that he wasn’t killed—an astounding feat considering the martial context. One clue to his survival can be found in the Franciscan rule of 1221:
The brothers who go thus [among the Muslims] can envisage their spiritual role … by not making accusations or disputes, but being subject to every human creature for the sake of God and simply confessing they are Christians.
Unlike Mother Church, who viewed Islam as its greatest enemy, Brother Francis approached the other faith in the love of God. But the prescription of respect proved too innovative for the Church and disappeared only two years later in the rule of 1223.
It returned in 1963. In Francis, you find the actual Christian: deeply faithful but also deeply humble and above all, peace-seeking. There was no one more orthodox in theology than Francis. But no one more heterodox in how he lived as a Christian. My take on the saint can be read here.
(Painting by Cigoli)