How many of you know about St. Francis of Assisi? He lived over 800 years ago. Today, you may recognize his image in the form of garden statuary. This symbolizes Francis’ love of God’s good creation.
However, I suspect that far fewer of us know the story of Francis’ meeting with the leader of “heathen beasts” amid a bloody conflict.
During the Holy Crusades, Francis and a companion were given permission to enter enemy territory. His personal goal was to preach the love of Jesus Christ to the Muslim Sultan Al-Kamil himself.
The sultan chose to receive this company and listened to the monk who was dressed not unlike an Islamic cleric called a Sufi. (One of Al-Kamil’s chief advisors was a Sufi.) Also, believe it or not, there is a Muslim tradition, based upon the Quran, of respecting Christian monks “because they were not arrogant.”
In addition, Sultan al-Kamil had a reputation for looking out for the interests of the Christian minority who lived within his domain.
What reportedly followed was weeks’ worth of mutual listening in an incredible exchange of faiths. The sultan even allowed Francis to preach his message to his court.
I am convinced that both men were profoundly changed by this peaceful encounter. They were not converted to the other’s faith, but certainly saw with new eyes, and walked away brothers. In the Muslim camp, Francis had been exposed to people praying five times a day. He was very impressed by this. Later, in Francis’ “Letter to All the Faithful,” he urges all Christians to pray. He suggests a town herald could go through town to announce the time.
Francis also penned a prayer with many of the exact same elements listed as the Muslim’s “99 Most Beautiful Names of God.”
What about the sultan? The approaching Christian army had refused to accept his multiple peace offerings. Their goal was to crush their enemy and were confident of victory.
As fate would have it, however, they literally became bogged down in the mud of the flooding Nile Delta. The sultan’s generals then saw their chance to annihilate the vulnerable Christians. However, the sultan would have none of it. He ordered his people to instead deliver daily bread to the starving Christian soldiers and barley to their animals. The conflict ended. How can you harm the hand that feeds you?
Turns out, the “heathen beasts” were capable of compassion and mercy. Who knew? Well, St. Francis, for one.
Why was Francis canonized as a saint? It was, in part, because he would not compromise his convictions. Francis doggedly preached the love of Christ, and yet still valued and accepted others even if they did not convert.
Walter is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church and has served as parish pastor for more than 30 years.