“The exact date of Francis’s arrival in Egypt is not known, but he probably stepped off a Crusader vessel soon after the July 31 battle. Francis would have landed in time to catch the scent of death in the summer heat. Corpses would have piled up along the ramparts crossed to enter the camp. Even thought he had witnessed intense violence on the battlefield at Collestrada, he had never seen anything approaching this horrific sight.”
-Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan, (Doubleday Religion, 2009) p. 107
Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Francis. The Saint Francis we often see pictured is filled with joy and talking to the birds, preaching peace. I love these images, but I always feel like this great man is minimized. He is potentially turned into a cartoon-like character who talks to the animals, we see someone who might make us feel good, but who does not possess the depth that he clearly had. And without that depth, the sweet part remains sweet, and we are unchallenged. If Saint Francis does not challenge and invite us, something important is missed.
As we celebrate the feast day of Saint Francis, maybe we can honor him by remembering all of him, not only the kindly image that we have been given. If you really want to learn something and be transformed, do yourself a favor and go read Paul Moses’ exceptional book, The Saint and The Sultan, quoted above. You might be surprised at how you come to look at Saint Francis, war, reconciliation and more, in some very new ways.
The Francis that goes on a Crusade and meets face to face with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, in the midst of violent conflict, is the same man who loved the birds and the poor. But this Francis goes much deeper, which we are all called to do. There are many reasons that he was referred to as an “alter Christus,” or another Christ, which this fine book illustrates for us. (FYI – Francis of Assisi was never ordained as a priest.)
The port of Damietta as it stood when Francis arrived, was probably like entering hell itself. The heat along with the stench of war and death must have been overwhelming. And on this journey, our saint literally walks through death, on his way to meet the Sultan. Sound familiar?
Saint Francis’ message of transformation and life in Christ is much more than a sweet man who talks to birds. Reading this book may be one of the best ways to celebrate the feast of this most remarkable man.