Almost 800 years after his death, Francis of Assisi is known worldwide, his Gospel way of life a legacy to his followers. Many of us carry an image of Francis as a gentle man feeding the animals. Another aspect of Francis was brought home to me recently by Pina Cousins, for many years a member of the Secular Franciscan Order.
The Lake Macquarie Fraternity, to which Pina belongs, is a small group of ordinary people following the spiritual path of St Francis. They offer friendship, kindness, peace and inclusiveness to all. Pina said that their decision to invite Diana Rah, Vice-President of the Newcastle Muslim Association, to speak at the upcoming Franciscan Family Day, was inspired by the encounter in 1219 between St Francis and the Sultan of Egypt, and Diana's story, “The Wisdom of a Traveller”, in the March Aurora. In that story, she wrote of people of all faiths and cultures co-existing peacefully, each respecting the other. She also wrote of trying times the Muslim community has had to face recently The Franciscans hope the Family Day will help dispel some common myths and misconceptions.
“Francis,” said Pina, “was a very brave man! He travelled to Damietta in Egypt, ending up right in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, helping the sick and injured Christian soldiers, who were losing the battle. He first exhorted the Christian Crusaders to cease fighting, then crossed to the Muslim side in an endeavour to meet one of the greatest leaders in Islamic history, Sultan Malek al-Kamil, in a spirit of peace.
The Church saw the Sultan as the enemy of the “Cross of Christ” and the Crusaders’ goal was his slaying and that of the Muslim people. Francis was received with gracious hospitality, and the two great men met daily for a month, each gifting the other with talk of their God. On departure, the Sultan gave Francis a silver and ivory horn, used to call the faithful to prayer. It now takes pride of place in Assisi."
I wasn’t aware of this, nor that the Crusaders wore the red Tau cross to indicate they had “taken up the cross” to fight for re-possession of the Holy Lands in retaliation for the Muslim occupation. Francis, however, saw Christ’s instructions for people to “take up their (his) cross and follow me” as a symbol of spiritual reform, of healing and peace-making because “God so loved the world...” (John 3:16)
There is no doubt that St Francis wanted to introduce the Sultan to a loving relationship with Jesus Christ. This didn’t happen, nor was the Sultan able to convert Francis to Islam. However, each man prayed to the same God, and practised a set of principles to lead him to the same place, whether called heaven or paradise. Diana and her son Farooq, along with the Secular Franciscans, have been deeply touched by the meeting of the two religious leaders, which has implications for the relationship between Muslims and Christians today. The two faiths have much in common. They are following in the steps of Francis who prayed, “Lord, let me be an instrument of your peace.”
Everyone is welcome to the Franciscan Family Day on Sunday 11 October at St Joseph's Parish Conference Centre, Toronto. P 4973 6448 to learn more.