The basic story is well-established in the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi — how at the height of the Crusades, he ventured into enemy territory to meet with the Sultan and to preach to him. Some suggest that Francis was seeking martyrdom, though the prevailing thought takes the saint at his word: he wanted to end the wars and felt that converting the Muslims to Christianity was better than trying to kill them all.
Beyond that basic summary, the details of the story can vary widely depending on who is telling it. More than any other event in Francis’s life, I think, this episode tends to reflect not so much the ideals and worldview of the subject as of the biographer. In The Saint and the Sultan, Paul Moses delves deep into the history behind the incident, to try and get at the truth behind the spin.
Throughout his lifetime Francis played the role of conscience to the Institutional Catholic Church. His strict adherence to the Gospel ideals and a life devoted to Christ’s teaching tended to put him in stark contrast to the Medieval Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. And nowhere was this more evident than in his reaction to the Crusades. While church authorities were beating the drums of war, Francis embraced the call to “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” More than any other event from his life, I think, this one put him in direct opposition to the religious authorities and called them to a depth of soul-searching that they were not willing to do.
And so, while the story could not be entirely stricken from the Saint’s biographies, it was watered down, reinterpreted, and revised, leading to the many variations we see today. Moses does a good and thorough job of tracing each version to its origin, picking apart the more dubious claims, and making some solidly educated speculations at the truth.
This book is more academic than most biographies I’ve read of Saint Francis, but I appreciated the author’s thoroughness. It really gave me a deeper and more profound appreciation for the Little Poor Man of Assisi, who has always been an inspiration to me. I feel this book helped me get to know the Saint a little bit better than I had before.