January 20, 2010

St. Francis, or How To Be Meek Without Being a Pacifist

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” What does this verse from the Beatitudes mean? As Steven rightly recalls in a recent post at his blog The Metaphysical Peregrine, most people think this beatitude means that Christians are, or should be, “weak and submissive.” On the contrary, he notes, “it takes a lot of strength and discipline to be meek.” Then he goes on to explain why such an interpretation is wrong and over-simplified. Now, not only do I agree with him, but I would take the point even further, because I think this is a major religious and cultural issue. Therefore… let’s talk about St. Francis of Assisi, the meek par excellence.

St Francis of Assisi is known for his humbleness and for his amazing love for nature and all creatures. But he is also known, above all in these days, for his love of peace, to the point that he has become an icon of peace, an obvious point of reference—if not a kind of legitimizing myth—for pacifists and non-violent (left-wing and radical) anti-war activists. Yet, though St Francis certainly was “a man of peace,” these images are incomplete and somewhat misleading, because they ignore other equally important aspects of his life: the severity of his character and his (mostly unknown) stubbornness… In other words he had a strong personality, bordering sometimes on harsh (he had occasion, for instance, to reproach himself in his last years for the harshness with which he had treated his own body), and was what might be called a man of character.

The cause of such misunderstanding is due, at least in part, to the fact that the Legenda Maior Sancti Francisci, the official biography of the Saint from Assisi written by St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio on commission of the Order of Friars Minor and approved by the General Chapter of Pisa in 1263, was intended to reshape Francis in the apostolic and Christic mould, multiplying the parallels between Francis and the characters of sacred history, citing copiously from the Bible. Thus, St Bonaventure smoothed over the rough edges in Francis’s life, deleting whatever did not correspond to the image he wished to give. He based his Legenda maior primarily on three texts of Thomas of Celano (a Franciscan Friar and disciple of St Francis, and his first biographer): the Vita prima, the Vita secunda, and the Tractatus de miraculis. Thomas himself, in turn, wrote his books at the request of Pope Gregory IX and presented a saint in accordance with hagiographical topoi. But the reader, as John Tolan notes in his Saint Francis and the Sultan. The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter,

has the impression that Francis’s strong personality, with his uncertainties, his fits of righteous anger, his enthusiasm, his charm, continually overflows the hagiographical frame.

Bonaventure instead

allows the saint no doubts, no spontaneity: he confronts all with serenity, sure that he is following the holy life clearly laid out in the Bible. Hence the disappointment of many of Bonaventure’s modern readers, from Paul Sabatier in the nineteenth century to Jacques Dalarun, for whom the excision of the primitive hagiography and the consecration of only Bonaventure’s text constitutes a ‘Misadventure (malaventure) of Francis of Assisi’.

As for St Francis “the pacifist” (in the age of Crusades), it is to be said that this is a “legend” built up over recent years with the complicity of some scholars such as James Powell, Chiara Frugoni, and Giulio Basetti-Sani. Here is an example of their “strange” method: in his Vita Secunda Thomas of Celano relates that Francis predicted the crusaders’ defeat in a particularly bloody battle (traditionally identified with that of 29 August 1219). Well, for Powell this means that Francis certainly did preach against crusading in general, but Thomas modified his warnings, so as not to offend the church authorities. Yet, the episode from Thomas’ book does not lend itself to this interpretation. In fact,

for Thomas, Francis spoke out not against crusading, nor against war in general, but against fighting on one specific day, a day (as God revealed to him) that was particularly unlucky.

Thomas also claims that during the defeat Francis cried hot tears for the crusaders who fell in battle, particularly for the Spaniards, who had fought ferociously, “but he does not seem to have shed a single tear for the Muslim dead.”

Yet, according to Chiara Frugoni, “Francis, in silent disagreement with the Church, which had taken the side of the armed crusaders, championed the peaceful conversion of the infidels…”

Here is how John Tolan demolishes their reasoning:

How can we suppose, along with Powell, Basetti-Sani, and others, that Francis actively preached against the crusades in the midst of the crusader camp, and did so until the capture of Damietta, yet that no chronicler mentions this? Powell and the others have a strange method: they form an idea of Francis, a pacifist like those of the twentieth century, then affirm that Thomas of Celano hid this reality so as not to offend papal sensibilities.

Franco Cardini, in turn, argued in several articles and books against the idea that Francis represents a passage from the age of crusading to the age of mission. This idea, according to the Italian medieval historian (and renowned Arabist), rests on a false dichotomy. The two coexisted in the thirteenth century and were in no way incompatible. According to Cardini, Francis perhaps criticized the actions of some crusaders, but he was in rupture neither with the fifth crusade nor with the idea of crusading. And Benjamin Kedar, in his Crusade and Mission: European Approaches to the Muslims (1984), showed how in the thirteenth century there was no incompatibility between crusading and missionary preaching, the two being seen as complementary rather than contradictory. He rejected the idea that Francis was opposed to the crusades, and this for the simple reason that there is no source to prove it.

The truth is that, though “Francis the pacifist” is increasingly evoked in a troubled world in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, Francis participated in the fifth crusade “as a chaplain to the troops” and “not as a man of peace.”

He sought by all means to obtain martyrdom in order to reconquer the Holy Land and fell into a depression when the crusaders lost. He did not go see the sultan to dialogue but to convert him and he defied him to walk on burning coals to see who was the more powerful, Christ or Muhammad.

But, if Francis was not, by any means, a pacifist like those of the twentieth century, he was certainly a man of “great firmness” and “strength of soul.” This is how Thomas tells the story of the encounter between St Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil:

Now in the thirteenth year of his conversion, he journeyed to the region of Syria, while bitter and long battles were being waged daily between Christians and pagans. Taking a companion with him, he was not afraid to present himself to the sight of the sultan of the Saracens. Who is equal to the task of telling this story? What great firmness he showed standing in front of him! With great strength of soul he spoke to him, with eloquence and confidence he answered those who insulted the Christian law. Before he reached the sultan, he was captured by soldiers, insulted and beaten, but was not afraid. He did not flinch at threats of torture nor was he shaken by death threats.

Please note that at that time a cruel edict had been issued by the Sultan that whoever would bring him the head of a Christian should receive as a reward a gold piece. But the intrepid knight of Christ, confidently chanted that prophetic verse: “Even if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I shall not fear evil because you are with me” [Ps. 23: 4].


First written for The Metaphysical Peregrine



  1. G.K. Chesterton called St. Francis “the most original genius of the thirteenth century.” He was a Roman Catholic friar, but that does not mean you have to be of that faith to love him (I am not Catholic, nor am I religious), and I actually love this man. This post really opened my eyes to the real St. Francis.
    Perusing the web I came across this excerpt from Thomas of Celano about Francis’ lovable personality and also his actual physical appearance:

    “How fair, radiant and glorious was the sinlessness of his life, the simplicity of his words, the purity of his heart, his love of God and his neighbor, his unquestioning obedience and his fidelity to his Master! To this must be added his angelic appearance, the charm of his manner, his natural gentleness, the kindliness of his conversation, the delicacy of his admonitions, the loyalty with which he treated anything told him in confidence, the wisdom of his counsel, the energy of his actions and his general lovableness... He was a man of great eloquence; the expression of his face was gay and kindly, equally free of torpor as of arrogance. He was of middling stature, rather small, his head of moderate size and round, his face rather long and narrow, the forehead smooth and low, the black eyes of middling size, friendly and candid, the hair dark, the nose regular, straight and small, the ears close to the head and small, the temples smooth; his speech was winsome but fiery and spiritual, his voice powerful, pleasant, clear and harmonious; his teeth were ... an even white row behind narrow, gently rounded lips, his beard dark and somewhat thin; the neck slender, resting on straight shoulders, ... the hands delicate with long fingers and nails; his spare, fragile body with its slender legs and small feet was covered by a rough gown. His sleep was brief, his hand ever open to give. He was the humblest among the humble, mild in his manner towards all men and able to adapt himself to the behavior of everyone. ... Who would be able to describe the measure of the love which he bore to all that is God's?”

  2. Thanks for sharing such a valuable information about St. Francis. I knew he was the man who told the Mohammedan leader of his time: "We have come to preach faith in Jesus Christ to you, that you will renounce Mohammed, that wicked slave of the devil, and obtain everlasting life." But I didn’t know he had such a strong personality, quite different from the way he has been depicted.

    As for the Crusades, the truth is that little or no attention is paid today to the fact that for mediaeval man, the Crusade was an act of piety and love of God and neighbor. But it was also a means of defending their world, their culture, their religion, and their way of life.

    Little or no attention is paid to the historical situations that brought about the Crusades or to the reasons why so many Catholic knights gave up riches and comforts at home for danger and death in the desert. The fact that the Holy Land had been invaded and that Christian pilgrims, who had been going there peacefully for generations, were then being robbed and slaughtered receives scant attention. Focus is only on the mistakes and failings and the "mission creep" that befell many of the
    crusading elements.

  3. Great stuff, excellent information!

  4. Hugely informative, a good quick summary. Important personal and historical insights and information.

  5. 'Perhaps history, also regarding Saints and Prophets, is periodically revised in keeping with trends and modern day geopolitico-religious requirements. This has to be reasonably subtle to remain credible. If it was required that St Francis of Assisi be the epitome of pacifism, it may no longer be the case...'
    This first part of my former, purged comment may be valid. To advance, civilisation seems to need to revise and uncensor historic facts according to current- political tendencies, social requirements and ways of thinking.
    The latter part of my comment was churlish and unworthy of such an interesting and informative post!