This is the penultimate post for my #10saints10days series, counting down from the Feast of All Saints to Veterans Day. Check back tomorrow for the final saint, their story, and a prayer to guide us into the way of peace.
Francis of Assisi – Stigmatized, Stressed Out Soldier Saint
Nearly everybody knows Francis of Assisi, even non Christians. He is a figure identifiable by hundreds of millions, or even billions of people. His order, the Order of Friars Minor, is one of the largest in the Roman Catholic church and even has adherents in other denominations. We have heard of Francis’ ministry to the animals, and every year on his feast day, they are brought into churches to receive a blessing. But not everyone knows that Francis was a survivor of a horrific war, one of only nine left on the battlefield after a crusade by Perugia, Assisi’s rival and all too eager agent of revenge for the Vatican when the merchants of Francis’ home town stopped paying their taxes to Rome. After the harrowing ordeal, he insisted yet again on the martial life, enlisted with a group headed toward the Fourth Crusade in 1205. But on the road to war, something happened that made him start turning his back on war forever, and increasingly toward a life following Christ.
After his experiences in battle and as a prisoner of war, friends noticed that Francis rarely slept on account of having nightmares, opting to roam the streets at night rather than endure the sights and sounds of his hellish dreams. He claimed to hear voices and spoke to people who did not appear to be there. His conversion was slow, and marked by odd, pseudo-suicidal behavior that today we would diagnose as combat stress. The final turning point for Francis came when one of the voices he heard told him to repair the Church. Setting about this task led him from the pinnacle of Papal power to the frontlines of another Crusade seeking either to convert the Muslim sultan or die trying. After repeated attempts like this at martyrdom, he received the stigmata of Christ; wounds upon his hands, feet, side, and head corresponding to those inflicted during the Lord’s passion. All Francis seemed to want was to die, but in a way that glorified Christ instead of himself.
The word stigmata, however, means a mark of disgrace, as in “stigma,” for which there are only negative connotations. Some veterans feel stigmatized upon their return, stereotyped as ‘damaged goods,’ as being physically volatile or emotionally unstable. This is true for only a few veterans, but for those who do return from war with hidden wounds, numerous nonprofits offer emotional support animals, companions meant to remind us all how to give and receive unconditional love. The question this begs of Francis is whether he was blessing the animals or if they were blessing him. Just as importantly, Francis teaches us to live in such as way as to deny death its sting, to live as Christ did without regard to those people or things that can take our bodies but cannot touch our souls. Though culture suggests we run from death, and gives us plenty of ways to willfully deny its immanency, Francis ran toward it. Careful not to embrace death, he knew that in embracing Christ he was invited to die, to himself, to the world, and to any claim that war had on his imagination. The Church feasts in his memory on the day he died, every October 4th.
Lord of the earth and everything that is in it, you gave us your servant Francis, who brought your glory to all the world and all who live on it. May we, by his example, come to a greater thankfulness for your creation, the beauty of the land, and our fellow creatures that walk, swim, and fly therein. Keep our hand from war as you did with brave Francis. Convict our hearts to love the flora and fauna as readily as we do our fellow human beings. Strengthen our efforts at peace, both before violence breaks out and after it subsides. Help us to care equally for those we send to and those we receive from war, that we may honor the created dignity of their lives as we honor the life of this, your most holy servant, with the help of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Follow me on Twitter to get updates each day as the series unfolds, or start by reading the series intro. Learn about Ignatius and more than 45 other #SoldierSaints in my book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. Prayer reprinted by permission.
Are you, or do you know, a #ChristianSoldier wrestling between faith and service? Get in touch through my connect page!