by Jim Forest
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” — Matthew 5:9
No saint has been more identified with the beatitude of peacemaking than Saint Francis of Assisi. The most famous prayer for peace, echoing the seventh beatitude, is attributed to him: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Whether or not these exact words were said by Francis, the prayer sums up his life and at the same time illustrates how disturbing Christ’s peace can be to those who are basically pleased with the way things are.
As a young man Francis seemed well on his way to realizing all of his father’s expectations: he was attractive, ambitious, popular among his peers, useful in his father’s cloth shop on Assisi’s main square, so well dressed that he was a walking advertisement for his father’s wares. However, his life began to change course after a year-long period of imprisonment following a battle with the neighboring town of Perugia in the year 1202. Francis, then twenty years old, was lucky not to have been among the many maimed or killed in the fighting. He had imagined the glory of battle and of being a man-of-arms for years, but now he had seen the reality of war: hatred turning beautiful faces into hideous masks, twisting sane minds to madness. Freed at last by payment of a ransom, he returned home disillusioned and gravely ill. He spent months recovering.
The first glimpse we have of the transformation taking place in Francis’s soul happened when he was riding outside the town and came upon a young man whose family had lost its property and fortune because of the war. All they had left was a ruined tower. The youth wore rags. Francis got off his horse and gave away his own splendid clothing.
Then there was the day he stopped to pray in the chapel of San Damiano. The building was in the final stages of decay, but it still possessed a large, cross-shaped image of the crucifixion painted in the ancient iconographic tradition, thus an image stressing less the suffering of Christ than his free gift of himself. Having given up dreams of glory in war, and finding moneymaking and spending a circular path going nowhere, he was desperate to have some sign of what God wanted him to do. Then, in the darkness, he heard Christ whisper to him, as if the icon itself were speaking: “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”
Taking the words literally, Francis set about the hard labor of rebuilding a chapel that no one else regarded as needed, financing the project by selling off some valuable items from his father’s warehouse. This unauthorized action caused an explosion of paternal wrath that culminated in a trial before the bishop in Assisi’s marketplace. Francis not only admitted his fault and restored his father’s money but removed all his garments, presenting them to his father with the words, “Hitherto I have called you father on earth; but now I say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’.” The astonished bishop hastily covered Francis with his own mantle. Thus Francis cut the last threads binding him to the ambitions that had dominated his earlier life.
By now Francis had only one ambition: to live according to the gospel. He understood this to mean a life without money, wearing the same rags beggars wore, and owning nothing that might stir up the envy of others and thus give rise to violence. He wanted to be one of the least, a little brother living in poverty, rather than a great man.
What was most surprising was the spirit of joy that surrounded Francis. His customary greeting to those he met was “pace e bene” — “peace and goodness.” Before long a dozen friends joined him, forming the nucleus of a new order, the Minores (the Lesser Brothers, in contrast to the Majores, the great ones who ruled the cities and organized wars). They were not simply poor but had, he explained, married the most beautiful bride, Lady Poverty. Assisi’s bishop didn’t approve. “You and your brothers are a disgrace,” he told Francis. “At least you can provide what will make you a bit more respectable.” “O Domini mi,” replied Francis, “if we had possessions we should need weapons to protect them.”
In 1210 the brothers walked to Rome and won approval for their simple rule of life from Pope Innocent III — this despite advice the pope had received that such absolute poverty as Francis’s rule decreed was impractical. Legend explains that Pope Innocent had a dream of Francis in his rags preventing Rome’s principal church from collapsing.
Francis, then twenty-eight, was to live only another sixteen years, but in his short life he left us with a treasure chest of stories about what can happen when someone tries with every fiber of his being to live the peace of Christ in the face of the world’s violence.
Among the most well-attested stories in Francis’s life is his meeting in 1219 with one of Christianity’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, shortly after a crusader victory at the port city of Damietta (modern Dumyat) on the Nile Delta. Francis, who opposed all killing no matter what the cause, sought the blessing of the cardinal who was chaplain to the crusader forces to go and preach the gospel to the sultan. The cardinal told him that the Muslims understood only weapons and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was to kill them. At last the cardinal stood aside, certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother traveling with him, were being led to die as martyrs. The two left the crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd…”
Soldiers of the sultan’s army captured the pair, beat them, and then brought them before Malik-al-Kamil, who asked if they wished to become Muslims. Saying yes would save their lives. Francis replied that they came to seek his conversion; if they failed in their effort, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s gospel; whether or not he made such a proposal, going unarmed into the enemy’s stronghold was analogous to leaping into a fire.
For a month Francis and the sultan met daily. Though neither converted the other, the sultan had such warmth for his guests that not only did he spare their lives but gave them a passport allowing them to visit Christian holy places under Muslim control and presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn, which is now among the relics of the saint kept in the Basilica of Assisi. It is recorded that “the two [Francis and Malik-al-Kamil] parted as brothers.”
What a different history we would look back upon if Muslims had encountered Christians who did not slaughter their enemies. When the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, no inhabitant of the city was spared — men, women, and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the crusaders’ horses waded in blood. While Christians in the first three centuries would have taken a nonviolent example for granted, by the thirteenth century Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness. Christianity in the West was preaching the holiness of war.
Another of Francis’s efforts as a peacemaker comes toward the end of his life and concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.
Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life, Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp . . . and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.
Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:
The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow town and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”
The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.
“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you anymore, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”
The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”
Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”
Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”
After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”
Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.
While the encounters with the sultan and the wolf were later embellished, nonetheless certain aspects of both stories shine through the embroidery. In each instance Francis gave an example of love that refuses weapons. His courage is impressive; he was not only praying for enemies but meeting them, even at the risk of his own life. After all, to die in war for the kings of this earth has been the fate of millions of people; why should those who serve the gospel hesitate to risk their lives for the king of heaven?
Francis became, in a sense, the soldier he had dreamed of becoming as a boy; he was just as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defense of others. There was only this crucial difference. His purpose was not the conquest but the conversion of his adversary; this required refusing the use of weapons of war, because no one has ever been converted by violence. Francis always regarded conversion as a realistic goal. After all, if God could convert Francis, anyone might be converted. But such actions — equivalent to leaping into a furnace — are only possible when nothing in life is more important than Christ and his kingdom, a discipleship that begins with poverty of spirit and ascends to being an ambassador of Christ’s peace.
One of Francis’s many other remarkable acts of peacemaking was his founding a third order — a society for lay people — whose rule obliged members to be unarmed: “They are to be reconciled with their neighbors and [are] to restore what belongs to others…. They are not to take up deadly weapons, or bear them about, against anybody…. They are to refrain from formal oaths [which might bind them to military service]…. They are to perform the works of mercy: visiting and caring for the sick, burying the dead, and caring for the poor…. They should seek the reconciliation of enemies, both among their members and among non-members.” (To dig deeper, see Francis of Assisi by Arnaldo Fortini (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p 522; also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Order_of_Saint_Francis for an outline of the rule and its history.)
“They are truly peacemakers,” Saint Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”
— extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)
* * *