Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace.
Peace…such an easy word to write…yet such a daunting challenge to live! Regardless of time or place, it lies at the heart of the most profound human longings. Without it, restlessness rules…its absence is the source of so much human anguish.
Peace is the hallmark of the spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi. It is the crown of his most remarkable prayer and the flame he invites us to ignite within our hearts. As Christians, our peace rests in Christ. It is durable peace …a peace that is not as the world gives it. It is a peace rooted in His infinite and eternal love. This is His pledge to those He calls friends.
Our hope, therefore, resides in a promise. That promise is the source of our faith, which is the origin of the love we return to God and give to those He brings across our path.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift sword against nation, no longer will they learn how to make war.”
– Isaiah 2:4
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
– Matthew 5:9
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Saint Francis, whose feast we celebrate on October 4, knew that peace is a matter of choice. It is the fruit of a life-transforming decision…a conscious conversion of the heart, the effect of which shines like a beacon in the darkness. He not only promoted peace with words (Prayer of Peace) but also with concrete action.
One of the rules of his new secular order prohibited brothers and sisters from bearing arms. Because their numbers grew so significantly, under the protection of the Church, there was as a consequence of this interdict a shortage of men who could be called to active military duty. This had a direct bearing on the willingness of rival towns to engage each other in combat. Peace, therefore, was the fruit of the Seraphic Father’s new secular order. Saint Francis knew from his own life the need to break from the warring and rivaling lords and armies of his day. He knew that to serve the Great King and to proclaim a Kingdom of Peace, his followers had to break from the warring kingdoms of their own day and from their means of conflict.
“They are not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about against anybody.”
– Article 16, First Rule of the Third Order
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Contrary to what we may sometimes think, opting for peace is not a simplistic matter of avoiding conflict. Sometimes it calls us to courageously stand up to bigotry, to renounce fear, to denounce injustice or to defy the ravenous jaws of hatred. There is perhaps no more telling evidence that Saint Francis knew this than the account of his daring and innocent encounter with a sultan at the height of the Crusades.
Saint Francis responded to the Crusades by passing through the warring lines and preaching the gospel to the sultan at his headquarters in Egypt. By this gesture Franciscan spirituality may be seen as representing an alternative life, one of living in the Kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of nations.
Rather than quote or paraphrase mediaeval accounts of this remarkable event, I turn to Leonard Desroches’ provocative book on the spirituality and practice of non-violence, Allow the Water:
“In July 1219, Saint Francis was in Acre on his way to Damietta, Egypt, where the crusaders had begun a siege a year earlier. Before Saint Francis’ arrival in March, the Egyptian sultan, a Saracen Muslim named Melek-al-Kamil had offered peace talks with generous conditions: transfer of Jerusalem to the Christians in exchange for their evacuation from Egypt. The first in command, papal legate Cardinal Pelagious Galvani, bishop of Albano, rejected the offer and in May 1218 the crusaders began their siege of Damietta. Francis went vulnerable and unarmed to meet the enemy.
“In his Lettre VI, Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre and thus directly interested in the military events on neighboring Damietta, wrote of Saint Francis’ arrival: ‘He came to our army fired with the zeal of faith. He was not afraid to pass over to the enemy’s army. He preached the word of God to the Saracens for several days.’(…) The sultan’s judges recommended that he not engage in any sort of debate with (him). They said: ‘Our law, O Sultan, forbids us to listen to those who preach another law than ours. Rather such men should have their heads cut off instantly.’ But the Sultan let Saint Francis have his say and gave orders to lodge the peculiar guest as befitted a man of God.
“When came the time of Saint Francis’s departure, the sultan said nobly, ‘Pray for me, that God may reveal to me the faith that is most pleasing to him.’ It is clear that both Saint Francis and Melek-al-Kamil had been profoundly changed. God’s living Spirit had shaken their assumptions of each other. They were able to discover new dimensions of the truth. They parted as friends.”
“We live in an apocalyptic hour when the solutions of the flesh are exhausted and grossly inadequate. No treaty, league, or balance of power is equal to the task of preserving world peace. More than ever the Kingdom of God is the now and lasting answer. The Franciscan penitents proclaim loudly, ‘reform your lives, the Kingdom of God is at hand,’ and the witness of their lives makes that proclamation credible.”
– Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR
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The secret of peace is in faithfully embracing a life of prayer, penitence and charity, in a humble and hope-filled way. We may appear unreasonable or impractical to those around us, but we are strengthened by the wisdom explained by Saint Paul: “The message of the Cross is complete absurdity to those headed for ruin but, to us who are experiencing salvation, it is the power of God.” (1Cor. 1:18-20)
Nowhere is this more evident than in the words of the Prayer of Saint Francis. Though familiar to us, we perhaps do not pay sufficient attention to the relationship between the verses and the ultimate centrality of the cross in the quest for peace.
In fact, we may read it this way, adding petitions from the Italian, French and Spanish versions but commonly missing from the English translation: “Lord, make me an instrument of your Peace…that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in forgetting self that we find ourselves; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Scholars tells us that this prayer was not actually written by Saint Francis but that it does reflect the essence of his spirituality and teaching. In fact, it is regarded by some as an adaptation of one of the Admonitions written by “the Man of Peace.”
“Where there is Love and Wisdom, there is neither Fear nor Ignorance. Where there is Patience and Humility, there is neither Anger nor Annoyance. Where there is Poverty and Joy, there is neither Cupidity nor Avarice. Where there is Peace and Contemplation, there is neither Care nor Restlessness. Where there is Fear of God to guard the dwelling, there no enemy can enter. Where there is Mercy and Prudence, there is neither Excess nor Harshness.”
– Saint Francis, Admonition 27
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One of the most tender and loving gestures of Saint Francis is this blessing to brother Leo. It is a tiny note that also bears his trademark “tau” symbol and, to the best of my knowledge, the only signature we have from his own hand. It is an ancient blessing, taken from the Book of Numbers. I offer it to you in closing with love.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May He let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
May He look upon you kindly and give you peace.”