Forth Article In The Series

St. Francis of Assisi, Part IV

by Ashley McFadden

Kindness is the mark of faith; whoever has no kindness can have no faith.  Hadith 254 

	The band of Franciscan Friars grew rapidly and by the year 1215, they had gone 
beyond Italy into France, Spain and later into England and Germany.  The days of mud 
slinging were for the most part over, and they were met with respect and awe for their 
simple humility and genuine obedience.  Unlike the reformers of this time, preaching 
rebellion, Francis brought hope into people's hearts and nourished them with a 
promise.  All people loved Francis, from clerics to robbers.  Church bells rang when 
Francis approached a town and the people would call, "The Saint is here." 

	Brother Masseo asked Francis at this time, "Why you? You are not learned or 
even handsome."  Francis, pleased with his honesty, thought about the question for a 
moment and then fell to his knees in gratitude. He then explained to his dear Brother, 
"Do you want me to tell you Brother Masseo? Know that all this comes from the All-
seeing God who, looking down and finding nothing viler on earth, quite naturally fixed 
His gaze on me.  For to make His work shine forth in men's eyes, the Lord takes what is 
ignorant, weak, and despicable, in preference to what is learned, strong, and noble; so 
that the creature may have no cause to glory, but the glory may go to the sole Author of 
all good." (Englebert, 130)

	Francis' genuine humility was a unique gift that enabled him to enter people's 
hearts, to penetrate the secret of created things as well as feel the divine presence of 
the Author of all.  In respect to Brother Fire, he would not allow candles to be snuffed or 
hearth fires extinguished.  Francis loved all forms of life and would even pick worms up 
in the road and set them aside so they would not be crushed.  Birds, as we know, 
flocked to him, and on another occasion, a great flock danced about Francis, singing 
with delight and then flew away in the formation of a cross. His favorite bird was Sister 
Lark who Francis said was humble enough to find her food in the dust and dung, yet 
soaring high, singing praises to God, reminds us to make heaven even here our 
dwelling place. 

	Francis had no less love for his Friars whom he considered his children.  And 
the stories of the first Friars would alone fill a book so I leave that to your future study.  
However, as the Order grew that close contact would be impossible to maintain, and in 
1221 at one of the regularly held assemblies, five thousand Friars were there.  This 
began a difficult time for Francis as his Order had grown to an extent it required a great 
deal of organization and with that mixed opinions, as new Friars hoped for less poverty 
and more comfort and security. Francis feared his dream was gone, about to be 
overcome by success, and he had to compromise with his rule, tailoring it to fit more 
easily with the world of the day.

	Francis wanted to save the world with the Gospel, but his excessive commitment 
to every verse and his austerity was a bit too impractical for most.  However, in the 
atmosphere of corruption where it was still difficult to discern the rich from the clergy, 
Francis remarkably managed to at least save the elements of hope, bringing back the 
innocence of the primitive church and renewing a sense of faith, much needed by a 
church on the brink of ruin.

	The Church was still reeling from the Crusades, the world still at war, and it was 
a matter of embarrassment that Christ's tomb was still in the land of the infidels. It may 
be difficult to understand from our 20th century point of view, but in the 1200's 
martyrdom was an ideal, and it certainly was to Francis; and, in fact, a burning desire.  
Martyrdom was not just a matter of dying for a cause or trading in one's body for a 
guaranteed ticket to heaven. It was a process of happiness beyond all happiness, a 
total identification with love, compassion and suffering that frees the soul from the 
prison of earthly self-concern and releases it into direct participation.

	This point of direct participation is key to understanding Francis. It was his total 
and absolute identification with Christ, his burning commitment to imitate Christ and 
experience all his suffering.  If need be, perhaps you can translate this identification 
into an abstract such as an ideal or something within your personal philosophy, or 
religion if any. Or perhaps you can relate it to how St. Martin described Jacob Boehme 
due to his commitment as "being the greatest human light which had been manifested 
on earth since One who was the light itself."  In either case, the point is the total 
identification with the object of one's love: the Holy Grail, the Bride and Bridegroom, the 
Mystic Rose--the ultimate Law of Assumption.  This identification was so strong that 
Francis assumed the qualities of the object of his love.  In understanding Francis, his 
affect on others, his stigmata which we will discuss later, his miracles and his death, 
this key must be brought into the total picture, for only it truly explains his life.

  	At any rate, Francis, with a companion named Illuminatus, set off for the east to
convert the Sultan, a dangerous thing to do. About this time, five of Francis' sons had shed
their blood.  They had gone off to Seville, still in the hands of the Moors, went to a mosque 
and preached against the Koran.  A mosque is a great place to meet Moslems, but not 
a good place to criticize Mohammed.  Needless to say, the zealous five lost their 
heads. (Englebert, 178) 

	Francis arrived at Damietta, prepared for martyrdom and met Saladin's nephew, 
Malik-al-Kamil of Egypt.  He was the same age as Francis, highly intelligent and loved 
to converse with learned men, Sufis and to discuss at length the immortality of the soul. 
 Now he had the opportunity to have a philosophical conversation with the leader of 
Christendom, not at all what Francis expected.  What ensued was a battle of wits and 
good manners, and Francis' dream of martyrdom rapidly disappeared.

	The Sultan did force Francis to walk across a carpet designed with crosses as a 
test, which Francis gladly did, saying they were mere crosses of a bad thief. The Sultan 
was delighted with the response and eagerly listened to what Francis had to say about 
Christianity. Francis even offered to enter a furnace of fire with the Sultan's priests; 
and, by the survivors, they would know the most holy faith.  The Sultan did not accept 
the challenge, preferring to keep the debate on a conversational level which was 
enough for him to develop a deep admiration for Francis.  Malik al-Kamil was moved by 
the love pouring from Francis and admitted it was a beautiful religion, but alas, he could 
not convert; it would be very impractical as that would mean they would both be killed.  
The Sultan added that he wished deeply in his heart that there more gentle men such a 
Francis to balance the hatred in the world.

	Before sending Francis back home with safe passage, the nephew invited 
Brother Francis, as he now called him, to visit a mosque.  Francis agreed, pointing out 
that he would pray to his God, but added that afterall, "God is everywhere." (Green 

	The two men were impressed with one another. The Sultan asked Francis to 
pray for him, as he would for Francis, the brave little man of dreams.  And, Francis 
discovered a great humanity in his new friend, and with that his preconceptions of Islam 
had to be modified.  Francis realized the essence of faith, belief in God, could be found 
outside Christianity, and that his friend's belief deserved respect.  The way to win souls 
was through gentle and kind example; and this broad view, superseding the religious 
problems evidenced by the Crusades, was to have an enormous impact later on.  
(Green, 205)

	This occurrence was quite remarkable considering the religious wars taking 
place at the time, and it remains a good lesson applicable today, in a world that 
appears no more sane.  Imagine two people of great influence rising above the 
prejudices of the day and seeing in one another what truly counts: their soul.
(to be continued)
	At the time of this writing, I read a article in First Things, Number 65, a Journal 
published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, New York. 1-800-783-4903 for 
subscriptions.  With their kind permission, we are able to bring you this article in its 
entirety.  It reflects the story above and after 800 years, the turmoil remains, yet still 
possible for there to be forgiveness.
Last Testament, Christian de Cherge.
	On May 24, 1996, a group of Islamic terrorists announced that they has "slit the 
throats" of seven French Trappist monks whom they had kidnapped from the 
monastery of Tibherine in Algeria and held as hostages for two months. Prior to the 
kidnapping, the superior of the monastery, Father Christian de Cherge, had left with his 
family this testament "to be opened in the event of my death."
	If it should happen one day--and it could be today--that I become a victim of the 
terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I 
would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to 
God and to this country.  I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a 
stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found 
worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the 
other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

	My life has no more value than any other.  Nor any less value.  In any case, it 
has not the innocence of childhood.  I have lived long enough to know that I share in 
the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me 
blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me 
to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow beings, and at the same time to forgive 
with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

	I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this.  I do not 
see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately 
of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called "the grace 
of martyrdom," to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is 
acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians 
as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of 
Islamism encourages.  It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying 
this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists.  For me, Algeria 
and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul.  I have proclaimed this 
often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the 
respect of believing Muslims--finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I 
learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church.

	My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive and 
idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!" But these people must realize that 
my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied.  This is what I shall be able to do, if God 
wills--immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of 
Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passions, 
filled with the Gift of Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and 
refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.

	For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to 
have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.  
In this "thank you," which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly 
include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with 
my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families--the hundredfold 
granted as promised!

	And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what 
you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this "thank you"--and this adieu--to commend 
you to the God whose face I see in yours.

	And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases 
God, the Father of us both.  Amen.
Translated by the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, Leicester, England.
References, see prior.


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