Fearless Friar

Book cover
The Saint and the Sultanby By Paul MosesDoubleday. 320p $26

Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War (Harvard Univ. Press, 2006), a massive history of the crusades, devotes less than two pages to the encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and the sultan Malik-al-Kamil at the battle of Damietta in 1219. By contrast, that historic encounter between the two forms the centerpiece of this new book by Paul Moses. Moses believes that the meeting of Francis with the sultan, a nephew of the legendary warrior Saladin, is crucial for understanding how Francis understood his missionary strategy. According to Moses, the intentions of Francis had a radical edge: to encourage his friars to live in peace among the Muslims as witnesses of the love of Christ and as a testimony to his own total commitment to peace. But Francis’ intentions, Moses avers, were undermined by both realpolitik and the increasing domestication of the Franciscan charism.

It is clear to any close reader of the early biographies of the saint (called legenda because they were meant to be read aloud) that Francis was a missionary for peace. There are a good number of stories about his attempts to pacify the often warring factions of Italian towns; in fact, a writer who was not a Franciscan saw Francis preach in Bologna on how to reconcile aristocratic families whose vendettas were tearing the city apart. Moses insists that the visit of Francis to the sultan was inspired not only by his horror of war (he had seen battle firsthand in a short war between his own city and Perugia) but because he instinctively thought that love was better than violence, even if the violence came with the warrant of papal preaching and under the banner of the cross.

Franciscan sources all agree that Francis did cross the battle lines to speak to the sultan, and it is further true that he was well received by the sultan, who regarded him as a holy man. We can still see in Assisi the ivory horn the sultan gave to Francis as a gift. It is equally true, however, that the same Franciscan sources also embellished the story with touches that were by turns fanciful, polemical or apologetic. Moses tries to disentangle these sources as best he can, but his real achievement is in painting a wonderful portrait of Malik-al-Kamil himself and, further, offering a sympathetic account of the Muslim viewpoint during the Fifth Crusade. It is unfortunate for historical purposes that the sultan did make more than one peace proposal that included a promise to restore Jerusalem to the Christians. The bellicose Cardinal Pelagius Galvani, the papal legate, would have none of it, arguing that if the Christians could capture Damietta they would have a launching pad for taking all of Egypt.

Moses—a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University Graduate School of Journalism—does particularly well in his account of the dramatis personae of the Fifth Crusade but is less convincing in his analysis of Francis and his intentions. I say this because the long shadow of Paul Sabatier still looms large over Moses. Sabatier, the 19th-century biographer of the saint, portrayed Francis as a humble evangelical preacher whose vision was thwarted by the institutional church. To paraphrase a cynical quip about Christ and Catholicism: Francis preached the love of Christ, but we ended up with the Franciscan Order.

Moses indulges in this approach to a small extent. In his account Bonaventure becomes a villain; the popes reined in Francis’ radical vision by legislative fiat; and so on. There is just enough truth in any one of those assertions to make it plausible, but they need to be balanced by other considerations.

A reading of Francis’ own writings makes clear that he was profoundly influenced by the reforms called for by the Fourth Lateran Council. He was a totally committed Catholic with a strong, orthodox doctrine of the Eucharist, respect for the clergy, total willingness to obey papal authority and no desire to have his movement in any way identified with the Poor Men of Lyons, the Patarines, or the other “evangelical” (and possibly heretical) reform movements of the day.

It was characteristic of the genius of Francis that he lived out a radical vision of the evangelical life in harmony with his commitment to the visible church. His strong faith in creation, his passionate Christology and his love of the sacramental life of the church were direct and telling rebuffs to the dualistic Cathars of his time.

Toward the end of The Saint and the Sultan, Moses says that the vision of Francis to live peacefully in the Muslim world was realized by such modern figures as Charles de Foucauld and Henri Massignon and exemplified in the prayer congress organized by the late John Paul II at Assisi. The conviction shared by all these figures is that a deeply contemplative life lived without aggression and religious bombast is the surest way to religious peace. It is a sure way but a risky one, as the martyrdom of the Trappist monks at Our Lady of Atlas in Algeria demonstrated. They lived a life of pure presence; but the harsh realities of this sinful world turned against them, and almost every member of the community was murdered in 1996 by Muslim terrorists. Finally, the longstanding presence of the Franciscans in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land, is fair evidence of Francis’ central concern about the Islamic world.

Moses’ lively account of a little-known but significant chapter in the life of the popular saint of Assisi deserves a wide readership, resonating as it does with world events of our own time.

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