Teachers and St. Francis
We’ve just had the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi and World Teachers Day on Oct. 5 so I thought I’d do a column that connects both days.
St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day used to go unobserved except in schools run by Franciscan religious orders and in a few churches that would sponsor a blessing of pets. Then the malls, quick to spot an opportunity for marketing, began to sponsor the blessings, drawing large crowds of pets and their humans.
But the Franciscan ethos is not just about pets but about animals, as part of ecology and nature (as in the film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”). At the least, I hope the mall blessings help to make people kinder to pets and I don’t mean buying them little jackets and booties. Going beyond the pets, there are tougher issues of protecting animals, especially endangered species, and environmental conservation.
There’s more to Francis, such as a life of simplicity, which has become a hallmark of the Franciscans and which has inspired many people, including the current Pope, who is Jesuit but chose Francis as his regnal or papal name. His simplicity is reflected in many ways, from living in a small apartment,
to wearing unadorned white robes, and even using simple language in his speeches.
Simplicity, too, can be part of a greater commitment to environmental conservation (using less of what might destroy the environment) and of social justice (“Learn to live simply so others may simply live,” a quote attributed to Aristotle).
Then there’s the well known Prayer of St. Francis which was not written by Francis himself but reflects much of the way he lived, starting with the first lines: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” and this takes me to a little known story about Francis.
Sultan and the saint
St. Francis lived in the 13th century, amid the Crusades against Muslims, Jews and “heretics,” which meant anyone opposed to mainstream Catholic church teachings. When the fifth of the crusades began in July of 1219, Francis approached Cardinal Pelagius, begging him to stop the fighting. Pelagius refused.
Francis then took it upon himself, with a companion, Brother Illuminatus, to visit the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, to negotiate for a stop to the fighting. He went unarmed, which seemed almost foolish with this sultan having decreed financial rewards for anyone who brought him the head of a Christian.
Francis and Illuminatus were captured by the Muslims, beaten up before being dragged to the sultan, who was apparently moved, impressed by the courage of the two. Francis was said to have explained he had not been sent by men, but by God, to spread the good news. The sultan ended up listening to Francis’ “good news.” We like to imagine Francis miraculously talking to animals as legends go, but what an even greater feat it must have been for him to talk about Christianity to a sultan amid a bloody religious war.
The wars did not end and neither Francis nor the sultan converted to the other’s religion, but both were changed men after their encounter. Before Francis returned to Italy, the sultan
offered many gifts but Francis turned them down, in the spirit
of his teachings about simplicity, accepting only a horn used to call people to prayer. Francis was said to have been touched
by many Muslim religious practices, including the calls to prayer five times a day, of prostrating oneself during prayer, and of making daily life a prayer. The sultan, on the other hand, was said to have treated Christian prisoners of war with kindness,
after meeting Francis.
The term “prophetic resistance” best describes the bold visit of Francis, the term describing actions that run against the dominant thinking of the times.
Teachers, more than others, need to be prophets, too. There will be times when voices need to be raised as mass protest, but I find the rallies are limited to certain days like the anniversary of martial law, quickly fading from public memory. Teachers, on the other hand, are in the position to launch prophetic resistance in and through daily life.
Simple living probably comes easily given the low wages of teachers (smile) but in these times, there’s more that can be done in terms of living out prophetic resistance. It can be in peaceful mediation of conflicts among the students, among faculty. It can be pushing for restorative justice instead of punitive student discipline, or even questioning the types of “offenses” that are punishable.
Teachers too can tell stories of peace and peace-building, maybe not as dramatic but still similar to Francis and the sultan. I admire the Catholic religious groups in Mindanao who no longer do the traditional preaching and instead become witnesses to faith by offering education. An example is the Notre Dame University system, run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which has been in Mindanao, including conflict areas, since 1946 and its students—running from grade school to college—are now 65 percent Muslim.
I’m thinking too of one of the 2016 Metrobank awardees, Mark Anthony Torres, a biology professor at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, who has been a peace advocate, setting up Peace Education Centers in various schools to keep dialogues going, and to provide psychosocial support for those traumatized by war.
In our trying times, Francis may as well be more than a patron for pets and animals and become a powerful exemplar for peace advocates, and for teachers.
(Doing research for today’s column, I discovered several resources around Francis and the sultan. There’s a book by Paul Moses, “The Saint and the Sultan” published in 2009 and available through online book sellers (and, I hope, by local bookstores). There’s a documentary, “In the Footprints of Francis and the Sultan,” from Franciscan Media, but no ordering information. Then there’s Unity Productions Foundation’s “The Sultan and the Saint,” a one-hour film that includes interviews with scholars, historians and religious leaders. The trailer suggests a very impressive movie but it is still being premiered in the States, with copies for sale to start in 2018.)