October 4 is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. In remembrance of his love for all the creatures of the earth, churches across the globe celebrate the feast with a special service of the “Blessing of the Animals.”
Besides being the patron saint of animals, St. Francis is also known for his strong voice of nonviolent struggle for racial harmony and reconciliation. Francis lived through the political turmoil of the 13th Century when the Holy Roman Empire was engaged in a series of crusades against Muslim, Jews, and others labeled as “heretics.” The story is told of Francis embarking on a dangerous journey to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil (Sultan al-Kamil) and deliver him a message of peace. After several failed attempts crossing the sea, he finally arrived in Egypt in the summer of 1219 in the middle of the crusade where thousands were being killed on the banks of the Nile. Francis ignored warnings by leaders of the Christian army not to cross the battlefield and attempt to meet the Sultan al-Kamil. In spite of the danger, Francis and his traveling companion, Friar Illuminato, crossed the dangerous battlefield. Muslim soldiers seized the two monks and brought them to the Sultan. When Francis made it clear he was not there for the Pope’s army, but as an ambassador to his God, the Sultan was intrigued and, after the Sultan saw Francis’ courage and sincerity, he listened to Francis with interest and invited him to stay. They spent several days together growing in respect and understanding.
Francis’ desire to share his spirituality and message of peace with Sultan al-Kamil, without insulting Islam or refuting the Prophet Mohammed (pbh) was unique and disarming. In that brief moment in history, the dialogue between Francis and Sultan al-Kamil turned into an embrace of each other as human beings, driven by their religious beliefs for a common and higher good. May we too, as ambassadors of God, strive to cross the many lines that divide us and be messengers of peace. St. Francis’ Blessing: May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.
Featured Image: By José Benlliure y Gil, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18428427.