For the first three centuries after the death of Christ, martyrdom came to be seen as the perfection of the Christian life. Asceticism came to be seen as the preparation for it, so that a believer would be ready and prepared for what came to be called ‘the final sacrament of love’. Martyrdom was for the early Christians the sign of the perfect disciple, the sign of perfect imitation and the sign of perfect identity with the Risen One. As his love for Brother Jesus grew and grew, St Francis wanted to express that love by embracing this unique ‘sacrament’.
Shortly after arriving in Rome in 1212 therefore, Francis sought permission to go on the Crusade to the Holy Land with John of Brienne, brother of Walter, who Francis had wanted to serve as a knight eight years before. The desire to become a knight was not dead in him, but now he wished to become a spiritual knight who would fight with the sword of the spirit to convert the Moslems to the faith. Then he wanted to visit the holy places to see for himself where Brother Jesus had been born, where he lived and died, and then to die for him and receive the ‘sacrament of martyrdom’. Although storms in the Adriatic forced him to return to Italy, he set out the following year for Morocco with Bernard of Quintavalle, this time with martyrdom foremost in his mind, but ill health forced him to return home.
In the years that followed his second attempt to go to the Holy Land, Francis spent much of his time organising the sudden growth of his fledgling Order. He gave his time relentlessly to dealing with the many disputes that were now beginning to surface concerning the interpretation of how his rule was to be observed. However, throughout all this, the desire to go to the Holy Land and to seek martyrdom was never extinguished. This desire burst into an unquenchable flame when he received news that six of his brothers had been martyred preaching to the Moslems in Morocco. Taking Peter Cattani, Brother Illuminato and several others he set out without delay leaving someone else in charge of his Order. He arrived at Acre early in 1220. His stay was short but eventful. With Brother Illuminato as his companion he managed to speak before Melek-el-Kamel, the Sultan of Egypt after the siege of Damietta, but St Francis so impressed him that the crown of martyrdom had to be postponed, but not for long. The last five or more years of his life was one long continual martyrdom.
There are many different accounts of what went on between Francis and the Sultan, but as St Bonaventure derived his information from Brother Illuminato who only died in 1273, his account is probably the most reliable. When the Sultan asked where they had come from, Francis told him they had been sent to him by God so that he could preach the Gospel to his people. Not surprisingly the Sultan was impressed with Francis and invited him to stay with him for a time. It was during his stay that Francis offered to walk into fire with the Sultan’s own priests to prove whose faith was the more authentic; but his priests were not too keen on the idea, nor was the Sultan when Francis offered to go it alone. What if he succeeded? The Sultan could not possibly become a Christian, no matter what miracles Francis performed, for he knew very well that to embrace the religion of his enemies was to sign his own death warrant. But let us read about this meeting in St Bonaventure’s own words:
“If you are not prepared to abandon the law of Mahomet for Christ’s sake,” said St Francis, “then light a big fire and I will go into it with your own priests. That will show you what faith is surer and more holy.” To that the Sultan replied. “I do not think that any of my priests would expose themselves to the flames just to defend their faith or suffer any kind of torture; (he had just caught a glimpse of one of his priests, a very old and highly esteemed man, who had slipped away the moment he heard about the proposal). Then Francis continued. “If you are prepared to promise me that you will embrace the Christian religion if I come out of the fire unharmed, I will enter it alone.” The Sultan replied that he would not dare accept a choice like that, for fear of revolt amongst his people. Then he offered a number of gifts to St Francis which he refused. (Life of St Francis Chapter 9).
It is generally believed, however, that safe passage to visit the Holy Land was the one gift that Francis accepted from the Sultan, but his time was running out. A certain Brother Stephen of Narni arrived to say that there was trouble at home, and so with Peter Cattani and Elias of Cortona who had preceded them to the Holy Land, they made for Assisi. Innocent III had died a year after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1216 to be succeeded by Honorius III, so Francis went for help to Cardinal Hugolino, who had been appointed by him as the Cardinal Protector of the Order. The wrangles over the rule were long and lasted for almost three years. Inevitably a rule written by Francis at Rivo Torto for no more than twelve men would have to be rewritten, when, as unexpected, almost four thousand or more had poured into the Order by the time he returned from the Holy Land. However that was not the problem. The problem lay in the sort of rule many now wanted. A new generation of friars, many of whom were priests and highly educated, wanted to water down the rule that Francis believed had been given to him by God himself. However this is a matter that I will have to leave for next time.
David is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.