Forget the St. Francis of folklore
– or Giotto,
for that matter -- and make way for a chapter of history that longtime Newsday
religion writer Paul Moses says, "in the language of the newsroom . . . was covered up.'' His new book, "The Saint and the Sultan
,'' reveals a Francis so opposed to the Fifth Crusade that he crossed enemy lines on a peace mission in 1219 – and walked unarmed into the camp of the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil.
Assisi is one of my favorite places in the world, and Francis one of the most familiar of all Catholic saints. Yet the wisp of smoke that was all I knew about the monk's meeting with any sultan came straight from the fire in one of Giotto's frescoes in the upper church of the Basilica of St. Francis. "Ordeal by Fire,'' based on St. Bonaventure's highly creative "Major Legend of St. Francis,'' shows a fierce, long-faced Francis, angling for martyrdom and prepared to stun the sultan & co. by walking through a blaze. Which is kind of how it happened – well, except that there was no fire, no goading from al-Kamil, and according to Moses, no particular longing on the part of Francis for a martyr's welcome to paradise.
Because the same Vatican that launched the Crusades also commissioned the early biographies of Francis -- at a time when the Franciscans were working overtime to prove they weren't heretics -- the true nature of Francis' errand in Egypt was suppressed.
And Moses seems to have had the time of his life following his steps and separating myth from history: "The method used in this book to seek the true story of Francis and the sultan is a journalist's version of the detective work Scripture scholars have done to find the historical Jesus in the gospels,'' the author writes. "In both cases, the accounts in question need to be viewed in the context of their own times; the audiences they were written for, the political pressures at hand, the writers' theological goals in telling the story. By doing that, it's possible to decode the early documents and uncover the story of Francis, the sultan, and what their encounter can mean today.''
Everyone knows how Francis was born into wealth and renounced it to sleep on the ground, with rocks for his pillow. But Moses tells how the saint's youthful involvement in a military battle between his hometown of Assisi and nearby Perugia, where he spent time as a POW, drained the romance right out of his idealized notions of war and knight-life. One of the most interesting points Moses makes is the link between the monk's dedication to living in poverty and his opposition to war, since in his experience greed and military engagement were invariably linked.
It was an attack on Moses' own hometown on September 11, 2001 that first led him to the story of Francis and al-Kamil, who was the nephew of the same Saladin that Osama bin Laden often invokes. Having only recently written a newspaper story on the religious beliefs of al-Qaeda terrorists, he spent the day America was hit writing Newsday's main story of the attacks on the Twin Towers.
Later, "as I made my way home that night across the vacant streets of a spooked city, recalling the courtroom debate over the nature of Islam, the thought that religious belief was in some way responsible for the World Trade Center horror stayed with me. Sometimes afterward, in search of some spiritual reading, I picked up 'The Little Flowers of Saint Francis,'
' and read a version of the story of Francis and the sultan and was struck at the added layer of meaning it took on in the wake of the so-called 'clash of civilizations.' ''
For spiritual as well as journalistic reasons, he was drawn to the challenge of fleshing out this improbable meeting in Egypt nearly 800 years ago, and of reflecting on what today's Christians and Muslims could learn from it. "If Francis and Sultan al-Kamil were able to share a common word during the vicious battles of 1219,'' he writes, "We should be able to do the same.''
After eight years of war, bring that on, I say. But the most obvious problem with the saint and sultan's apparently respectful and absolutely fascinating meeting as a model for us is that though Francis went to al-Kamil unarmed, the way he hoped to stop the war was by converting the sultan to Christianity. In his time it was certainly remarkable that the two could meet and talk as they did, but in our day such a mission would be considered the height of insensitivity, and more provocative than peace-making.
I messaged Moses to that effect, and he wrote back, "I think Francis failed to convert the sultan because the sultan was committed to his own religion, which also explains why he accorded Francis much respect, because of the Islamic tradition of reverence for holy Christian monks. It is true, as you say, that the Crusaders were not open to the sultan's reasonable peace offers [which would even have included the surrender of Jerusalem], largely due to [the commander of the Crusaders] Cardinal Pelagius. I don't see Francis as a representative of the Crusade leaders when he approached the sultan; Cardinal Pelagius didn't want him to go and seemed kind of suspicious of this strange friar. Francis was working on a different plane.
"Regarding what you said about it being seen as insensitive to attempt to convert Muslims, when writing the book, I asked a similar question. Seyyed Hossein Nasr [a leading scholar of Islam and professor at George Washington University] said that wasn't the case because Francis had approached the sultan unarmed, in contrast to the Crusaders, and that within the context of his time, what he did was praiseworthy. As for today, the modern-day followers of Francis are emulating what he urged . . . living peaceably among Muslims without getting into disputes over religion. Today, attempts to achieve peace by trying to convert Muslims to Christianity would be seen as provocative and no doubt worsen the situation. But, looking at what Francis did in the context of our own time, it could be said that approaching enemies in a spirit of nonviolence is worth a try.''
Though that might also require a couple of miracles, so too did this unlikely meeting in the middle of a horrific war. And the care and – there is no other word for it – love with which Moses has drawn the scene for us is really a prayer for that peace.