Mission Improbable – St. Francis and the Sultan

In the tradition of unlikely stories, I want to talk about St. Francis’ mission to meet the Sultan.  In July 2008, I put up a post on the St. Edward’s blog about St. Francis meeting the Sultan. If October 4 were not a Sunday, we would be celebrating St. Francis’ feast day, so Francis is very much on my mind.

As it happens, a new book has come out, The Saint and the Sultan, by Paul Moses. I just read an excerpt of it entitled, Mission Improbable, in the current issue of Commonweal. Here is a link to the piece, which I urge you to read. It is really good and I wish I had the time to read the whole book right now.

It is so remarkably radical that St. Francis and his friar companion, Illuminato (loving that name) would walk through the battlefield, stepping over the corpses and inhaling the stench, in the name of God. Instead of plotting and planning some kind of revenge, he simply walks into the heart of the enemy and starts to talk.

And then he walks alive and out a few days later. So much for godless infidels cutting heads off and all that.

If there is a phrase I can’t stand, it is the ever-popular “WWJD.” Come on people, be real. What would Jesus do? That should be obvious and we too should be doing that without having to wear it on a bracelet. Jesus gave us numerous examples of how he talked to pretty much everyone.

Then he ate with them, the most radical thing of all. Go read the Moses piece in Commonweal, it discusses table fellowship too. That Francis, he was total whack and that was his genius and his holiness.

Today, on my way to the animal blessing I drove by a church sign that said something to the effect of “Having a relationship with God is what matters.” I thought – yes, to a point. To simply have a relationship with God alone and to not have it through and with one another seems to be a colossal waste of the “scandal of incarnation.” If our faith is not about the Trinitarian dynamics of relationship then I don’t know why we are here.

God did not become human just so that we might spend all our time on our knees, tending him and hating others. Rather, I think that if we work to love others, we might indeed be tending to God and God’s business, on our knees and otherwise.

What the hell do I know? I tend to stink at this, but I keep trying or at least wanting to try.

It is great that we associate the animals with St. Francis, but I think that we miss a true opportunity to associate loving our so-called enemies with him as well.

Imagine if today the Pope or some other religious figure were to walk through a battlefield, pocked by death and destruction, hold their hand out to the enemy and then sit down to eat.

Just think on that one for awhile.

I present you with these words from Martin Buber in closing.

All Real Living is Meeting
by Martin Buber

Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, God,
I do not suppose You are very tied to titles,
You seem to revel more
in creating and loving
Than arguing like we do.

You are beyond any name,
Beyond this group or that,
Beyond ideas or any ability to
Control You by definitions.

You are the Utterly Free One.
You are the Eternal I
That always allows me to be a Thou
Whenever we meet.

You are the Speaker, I am the spoken,
So Love must be Your name!
Which is always beyond words.



13 thoughts on “Mission Improbable – St. Francis and the Sultan

  1. Fran, I have that that trio of icons hanging in my bedroom – I love the story behind each one and will have to look into getting this book. Thanks.


  2. Thank you so much, Fran. I knew the story of Francis and the Sultan (and still remember the wonderful homily I heard three years ago by our now retired priest, who is still a dear friend) but didn't know there was a new book out about the whole episode. And am grateful for your whole posts, taking us beyond the animals but in a way that includes them too. 🙂


  3. Once on a retreat, I read the biography of Francis in Butler's Lives of the Saints. I came to the conclusion that if Francis lived today, he would be locked up in a mental institution or a homeless person,viewed as mentally ill. A good many of the saints of the past would likely be classified as mentally ill.Buber's words are lovely and true.


  4. Fran, thanks for a beautiful meditation. I have linked to it (and recommended it) in a posting on my Bilgrimage blog today.I found the prayer by Buber very moving, and I love the way in which you rescue Francis from the sentimental cult of the animals (as important as that is), and remind us of the spiritual fiber of a man who walked into "enemy" territory and embraced the enemy.


  5. I can't stomach the WWJD thing, either, Fran, mostly because there was/is never any telling what Jesus would do. As I read the Gospels, every time He was expected to jog left, He went right. When He should have moved on, He backed up.The question is really, What Did Jesus Say to Do? (WDJSTD–too big for a bumper sticker, eh.) That's what St. Francis does in your story–just what Jesus said Christians should do.Thanks for this.


  6. I am touched and honored by all these comments, thank you.And that Paul Moses, author of the book that is mentioned is one of them is a real gift.Thank you!


  7. Thank you for writing about St. Francis. Just to let you know I will using this post as a related article as part of Sunday Snippet. Thank you again.


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