May 2007

Peace Built on Love ©

One can scarcely spend more than a few moments thinking about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi without landing on the word “peace”.

The prayer that we so often associate with him is an ode to peace but it is also a roadmap to peace. In the wisdom of this prayer, peace is the culmination of considerable effort to sow love, forgiveness, faith, hope, light and joy. Conversely, hatred, injury, despair and darkness are conditions that sooner or later lead to conflict and even war.

In his day, Saint Francis made peace the hallmark of his spirituality. It drove him at great personal risk to encounter a sultan in Egypt at the height of the Crusades. Though his initial objective was likely to convert Malik-al-Kamil to Christianity or to become a martyr while trying, the saint was insightful enough to find the presence of the Holy Spirit in the man opposite and to seek a way to peace and understanding through dialogue. What he learned from that pilgrimage changed his life, sending him on the path to peace.

The search for peace also caused the poverello to urge his secular followers to avoid taking arms. Indeed, the first Secular Franciscans refused to take up arms in warfare and made wills to avoid family fights over an inheritance. It is said that so many people heeded his call that wars were averted.

Near the end of his earthly life, Jesus instructed his disciples to love one another as he had loved them: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should live one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35) That is his legacy to us for all eternity. To fulfill that call, we must—as he did—forgive one another, give hope to one another, shed true light upon the darkness of one another’s lives and replace one another’s sadness or indifference with joy.

Saint Francis modeled his most memorable actions on those of Jesus and the object of the Good News that both preached. Saint Paul recalled this well as he wrote to the Ephesians, “He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (2: 17-18) “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22)

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Saint Francis knew the horror of war, having seen this first-hand. Despite his initial fascination with chivalry and the illusory glamour of battle, he witnessed great human suffering on the battlefield. In a war between Assisi and Perugia, he was wounded and taken prisoner. Spending the next year in a dungeon, he contracted malaria. Later, news of military victories in the Holy Land revived Saint Francis’ desire for knighthood. On his way, Saint Francis stopped in Spoleto where he had a disturbing vision. The result was a humiliating return to Assisi where he struggled to find meaning and purpose for his life.

During this period, Saint Francis pondered the factors that lead to war—fear, greed and intolerance. After a time, he discovered that we cannot eradicate these entirely but we can significantly diminish their power by displacing them with hope, generosity and love. This occurred during a slow process of conversion, the fruits of which were the good news that he would preach for the rest of his life—peace, goodness and joy.

Saint Francis understood that only peaceful people can build peace. His goal, therefore, was to become a peaceful person himself and then preach the virtues of peacefulness—simplicity, humility, poverty and purity of heart. I’m sure that if he were in our world today, he would teach us how misguided peace-building or even peace-keeping is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Righteous indignation rarely bears healthy fruit. Its mission is warped by bias and its vision is clouded by anger, prejudice and vengeful sentiment. So-called justice and even socio-economic development that produces winners and losers are at best impotent and more likely the seeds of delayed violence.

In our own time, the tradition of peace-building among Franciscans continues. As an example, we can look with admiration at the work of Franciscans International, a non-governmental organisation with general consultative status at the United Nations. It works to influence decision makers on behalf of the most vulnerable. Its vision statement reads, “As St. Francis once addressed the social leaders of his time with the challenge of peace, so today we are called to engage policy makers and world leaders at the United Nations for the work of justice, peace, the care of creation, and the promotion of human rights.” The work of the Geneva and New York-based NGO covers a range of themes as varied as development, disarmament, the environment, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, migration, poverty, trade and women.

Each person tied to Saint Francis by affiliation, affinity or affection is explicitly called to be a peace-keeper and implicitly a peace-builder. Indeed, each Christian has a moral responsibility to seek peace in our hearts, in our relationships and in our world. The journey must begin inside by the light of Truth and then radiate outside, first near and then far off, by the power of Love. The journey requires awareness of our relationship to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and our own particular call. Each of us has a different role to play; all of us have a part.

To be genuine, our own conversion to peace-keeping and peace-building must begin inside through attentiveness to what has until now has prevented us from being effective instruments of peace. For Francis, this process—which he called penance (conversion)—happened through his transformed relationship with lepers. After Christ spoke to him from the cross in the dilapidated church of San Damiano, saying “Go and repair my church”, Saint Francis went to live among lepers, ministering to them and learning from them. Here, he realized, are living stones. Here is God among the rejected, the despised, the poor. That is how we build the universal Church that is the body of Christ—by reaching out. The question for us toady is, who are the lepers in our lives?

In his Testament, written in the year of his death in 1226, Saint Francis writes, “This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.”

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It is a distressing fact that the first casualty of war is indeed truth. The consequences of distortions and misinformation are misguided choices between war and non-war that we naively call peace.

Though in our hearts we know that most of the armed conflicts in the world are cruel and senseless, we are often powerless to influence the policies and actions of those engaged in them. Partly this is because they are remote. Mostly it is because we cannot get a grip on the facts with which we could work to exert pressure on our own governments so that collectively our voices could be heard as reasonable and compelling. We fail in this because of the deliberate and sometimes unwitting distortions of reality. Who knows what’s really happening and why? Perhaps no one.

Among the mirages that masquerade as truth is the fallacy that peace consists of non-violence. Logically, non-violence is a sound tactical response available to those who object to violence. But alone, it is not an adequate strategy. Saint Francis reminds us at a critical moment in human history that the only antidote to hatred is not non-violence but love; that reprisal is weaker than forgiveness; that the only effective weapon against fear is not inaction but deliberate action that gives hope; that lies are not effective in combating ignorance but only faith in loving truth is; and that faith without joy is lacking in life. That’s not an easy task and no short-term mission.

Fundamentally, the only strategy that leads to true peace involves faith, hope and love, and an equal measure of justice, compassion and respect for the dignity of each individual. These require considerable and sustained commitment and effort. But human effort alone will not suffice. In the end, we discover that true peace is God’s gift to humanity, and that it requires our full collaboration.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
– John 14: 27