Just to add to whatever else is out there regarding St. Francis of Assisi on today, his feastday.
1) Beware of caricatures. There is a mystery at the core of St. Francis - although there are many writings about him produced very close to his lifetime, drawing on the memories of those who knew him, not all is known or understood. Ever since, lements of his personality have been highlighted by some, to the exclusion of other, more challenging aspects. Yes, St. Francis is about love, but it is a Christ-like love, which means it is defined, not by sweetness and light, but by the Cross and sacrifice.
2) St. Francis and the Muslims: Of great current interest, and an incident that is, not surprisingly, misused and mischaracterized, most often to suggest that St. Francis' encounter with the Sultan al-Kamil in 1219 was essentially an act of ecumenical outreach. Not quite.
(Example: The prayer service is in keeping with the lessons of St. Francis, the university’s patron saint, according to Travnikar. St. Francis traveled to Egypt in 1219 to meet with the sultan leader of Muslim forces, and the two men prayed together for peace.)
Not quite. There are two incidents that the biographers describe as happening in 1219. First was a warning of a battle - Francis saw the Crusaders arrayed and ready to do battle, but said that the Lord had told him if the battle took place on that day, it would not go well. They ignored Francis, and they were slaughtered. The lesson Thomas of Celano, in his Second Life, takes from this is:
Rashness generall ends in disaster, for since it relies on its own powers, it does not deserve help from heavens. But if victory is to be hoped for from on high, battles must be entrusted to the Spirit of God. (Book 2, 4:30)
The second incident is with the Sultan:
In the thirteenth year of his conversion, Francis proceeded to Syria, for great and deadly bat ties between Christians and pagans were going on there every day. Francis, who was traveling with a companion, was not afraid to present himself before the sultan of the Saracens. But who can say with what constancy of mind he stood before him, with what strength of spirit he spoke, with what eloquence and assurance he answered those who insulted the Christian law? Before he was brought before the sultan he was captured by soldiers, insulted, and beaten with a lash; yet he was not afraid, was not terrified by the threats of torture, and did not grow pale when threatened with death. And though he was reproached by many who were opposed in mind and hostile in spirit, he was very honorably received by the sultan. Trying to bend Francis' spirit toward the wealth of this w arid, he honored him as much as he could and gave him many presents; yet when he saw that Francis despised such thing s as if they were dung, he was filled with the greatest admiration and regarded Francis as different from all others. He was moved by Francis' words and listened to him willingly. In all these things the Lord did not fulfill Francis' desire for martyrdom, since he was reserving for him the prerogative of a singular grace.
There are other legends and later interpretations:
Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, who was with the crusading army when Francis arrived, wrote in 1220 that Francis “came into our army and, burning with zeal, did not fear to cross over to the enemy army and preach to the sultan for several days; then, having accomplished little, he returned.” Said Tolan, “For Jacques, as for other 13th-century crusade chroniclers, Francis’s attempt to convert the enemy, however admirable, was doomed to failure. This underlines, for many of them, the necessity of crusade.”
In contrast, some other medieval authors depict Francis skillfully debating with the Sultan’s men, offering rational proof of the superiority of Christianity. “For these authors, Christian missionaries, through exemplary piety and proper training, can foil objections to Christianity and hope to bring Muslims and other infidels into the fold.”
Certain Franciscan hagiographers of the 13th century used the incident as a testimony to their founder’s sanctity. They described the Sultan as proposing a debate between Francis and the Saracen “priests,” which Francis refused by arguing that faith is beyond reason. Francis then asked the Sultan to order the lighting of a fire, saying he would enter it with the priests to see which religion was superior. At this, such accounts relate, the Saracen priests fled in fear. Francis proposed to enter the fire alone but the Sultan declined, fearing it might provoke a scandal.
Even though this version described the Sultan as rejecting Francis’s offer, said Tolan, some artists in later centuries show St. Francis preparing to step into the fire. They were following the lead of Giotto, who in the early 14th century painted two church frescoes depicting the scene this way. “Giotto transformed the confrontation into a Christian victory over Islam, and Giotto’s image of the trial by fire was reproduced by many fifteenth-century artists.”
In the 16th and 17th centuries, as the Ottomans pressed into Europe, few dared to hope for the peaceful conversion of Muslims, and few artists depicted Francis’s mission to the Sultan. “The Turkish threat to Europe faded after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683, and the authors of the Enlightenment could look differently on Francis’s mission.”
When Voltaire presented Francis as a wild-eyed fanatic and the bemused Sultan as a just and cultured monarch, Catholic authors defended their hero, including Joseph Roman-Joly, whose 1786 epic poem describes Francis converting the Sultan in secret despite epic battles in which he and the Franciscans are beset by demons and defended by angels.
It is hard to say precisely what happened or exactly what the mind of the Sultan was - although he obviously respected Francis enough to spare his life - it is still anachronistic to use this incident as evidence that Francis was engaged in inter-religious dialogue and simple pacificsm - he wanted to convert the Sultan and bring about peace that way.
3) "Prayer of St. Francis" - as in "Make me a Channel of Your Peace" - not written by St. Francis.
I wrote about this in The Words We Pray - the prayer has an interesting history, but is not directly from St. Francis. We see it first mentioned - in Catholic publications and on prayer cards produced by Third Order Franciscans - around the time of the First World War. It became the official prayer of the Christian Movement for Peace, which grew in Swizterland in the 1920's. After World War II, it became, not surprisingly, even more popular, and appeared in many German and English prayer books.
Those early prayer cards never said more than "attributed to St. Francis," but the impression grew that Francis indeed wrote it. The closest to St. Francis that we can get with this prayer is one of his followers: Blessed Giles of Assisi.
In the 19th century, a collection of stories about St. Francis generally titled The Little Flowers of St. Francis was very popular. Often attached to the St. Francis material were other stories about Blessed Giles, and some of his sayings. Among them:
Blessed is he who truly loves and does not wish to be loved; blessed is he who fears and does not wish to be feared; blessed is he who serves and does not wish to be served; blessed is he who conducts himself well towards others and does not wish others to conduct themselves well toward him.
Ah-ha, we say. Now, the origins become a little clearer.
There are, of course prayers that are attributed to St. Francis by his biographers, most notably, the Canticle of the Sun - with sections composed during three different periods of his life, including close to his death.
More has been written about St. Francis than any other saint, and we all have our favorites. This is not exactly a favorite, but it's different - On the Road with St. Francis of Assisi by Linda Bird Francke - I read this last summer and, despite some mild issues with a couple of aspects of Francke's approach, I found it enjoyable - it is exactly what the title indicates, and Francke's journey to most, if not all, of the major spots in Italy associated with Francis really fleshes out the biography.
In terms of children - St. Francis and the Wolf, illustrated by one of my favorites, Richard Eglieski, is good, not only because the story itself has inherent interest for children, but because Eglieski doesn't diminish the Christian content of the tale, and it's also got a violent edge - that is, the wolf is really a threat, not just a bother.
Which is rather the point. Modern views of St. Francis present him as a nice, if eccentric fellow, presenting us with an alternative lifestyle through which we can clear our lives of bother and make them happier. It is all much harder than that in reality, and in understanding the story of St. Francis, the most important thing is to now how the story ends (on earth at least) - St. Francis, having suffered grievous physical pain for years, ready to meet Sister Death and be joined to the Lord, but his movement in disarray, alienated from his original vision, an aura of, in earthly terms, failure, surrounding him.
Name it and Claim It, indeed.