October Thoughts – Francis and the Sultan
October 4th being the feast of St Francis of Assisi this is a good time to meditate on an aspect of his life that gets little mention – his walk to Egypt in 1219. As part of his commitment to poverty he refused to ride anywhere, eschewing the easy life he had when he was a young man. So, when he decided to follow the Crusader trail to the Holy Land it was on foot and by boat. He arrived in the port of Damietta where a siege was under way, the Crusaders were trying to take the city and Francis was horrified at this Church sponsored violence. He was always accompanied on these trips by one of his brothers and this time it was Illuminatus. The Moors as the Muslims were known were ruled over by Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, a formidable leader.
Francis wished to speak with him so sought permission of Cardinal Pelagio who was overseeing the Crusade to cross non man’s land and gain an audience with the Sultan as an emissary of the peace of Christ rather than the sword of empire. He secretly harboured the desire to convert the Muslim sovereign to Christ. The Cardinal initially refused but as Donald Spoto recounts in his fantastic biography of Francis – ‘The cardinal relented and allowed Francis and Illuminatus to proceed on what (he) considered a suicide mission to the camp of Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil; Pelagio expected to receive their heads on poles or plates before nightfall.’
This walk into the unknown is astonishing, it was as Spoto points out, likely to end in death, as these were brutal times. The Vatican had declared the crossbow to be a weapon of mass destruction never to be used in wars between Christian nations but allowed in the Crusades as the enemy were infidels and unmeriting of the respect due to Christians. All of this has a very familiar ring in our own times.
So, imagine someone who many considered a living saint risking everything to go and speak to the man considered public enemy number one! In fact, they were almost killed but the Moorish soldiers, at the last minute, assumed that their ragged habits, bare feet and begging bowls meant they must be holy men. They were taken before the Sultan and a conversation began. Who knows what was said between these two, but it is certain that Francis made a deep impression on the Muslim Ruler? He allowed Francis and Illuminatus to visit all the Holy Sites of Palestine and the Franciscans are still custodians of many of them right up to the present day.
Francis returned from this trip with several burdens. The first was an illness that affected his sight probably from the insanitary conditions in the military camps. He was also deeply depressed by what he had witnessed, the bloodshed and violence, and that he had (in his own estimation) failed to bring peace and convert the Sultan and his armies. Finally, he had returned with a deep sense of the piety of the Moors, ordinary people praying five times a day left a huge imprint on his own prayer life. His own community had decided to reject many of his dearly held practices, and he was being edged out of the leadership of the order that he founded.
I think this all led to a mental health crisis for which he sought remedy in a retreat for forty days at a place called La Verna and from which he returned with what was reputed to be the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus present in his own body. Whatever happened to him, I think one of the things that was knocked out of him was any propensity to grandiosity and inflation and what he found in his mountain retreat was a deep vulnerability and humility. Finding these virtues in our own crises may well be one of his greatest gifts to our generation both in our personal lives and in the climate crisis.
He was a green saint because he loved all creatures and lived in harmony with them, he learned to do this by descending from his position as a rich young man and becoming what he called a friar minor. The Minores in his time were the lower class and he chose to see the world from their point of view and that allowed him to see the natural world far more clearly and realise that all creatures were his sisters and brothers. This poem is a meditation on all this.
The Poverty of Greatness
There was always the sun in their eyes
and dust devils kicked up by discalced feet
The whole walk had been towards east,
and this last morning, sun scalded and empty
Illuminatus was his name, but today
he felt their cast shadows, long and early,
were an ominous harbinger of a darkness
that his charge was almost yearning for.
There are always frontlines in wars like this,
he knew that, and between them no man’s land
and to cross it was almost an act of self-martyrdom
with only his Arabic between them and the axe.
Now they were in the court of the moors;
Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil had them now.
He took them for either emissaries of war
or Suffiya Islamic for holy beggar men.
His man’s eyes were even worse—
puffy and crusty, seeing little of their plight,
having seen too much of the depravity
stalking the crusader camps like a jinn.
He translated his master’s pace et bonum,
and Francis embraced with tears
the as-salamu alaykum of the great enemy
whose welcome was hospitality itself.
When they returned to uncaring Assisi
like guests at a wedding no one wants,
Illuminatus absorbed the loss his master accepted,
outcast from the brotherhood he grew by heart.
The Muslims had stayed in Allah’s camp
His master had failed—no martyrdom,
no dramatic conversions, just a long walk,
a Camino in reverse towards ignominy.
What did he, Illuminatus, the unenlightened,
when compared with the great man, know?
But secretly he thought the greatness had
gone out of Fra Francesco, and that was not bad.
From A Night Sea Journey – Poems by Adrian G R Scott
For more on this see
Donald Spoto – The Reluctant Saint – Penguin – 2013
Paul Moses – Saint and the Sultan – Image – 2009
& The Film – The Sultan and the Saint – PBS – 2017