Francis to the Sultan

St. Francis’ message to the Sultan in Egypt

Just as St. Francis once left the Portiuncula and went to Egypt to meet the Sultan, so now Pope Francis, who was a pilgrim at the Portiuncula on August 4th last year, journeys on to Egypt to meet with people of the Muslim faith, as well as many others.

Even at the time, the encounter of Francis of Assisi with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt, caused a stir, and was described briefly in contemporary accounts. But after the death and canonisation of Francis, accounts of the event became much more numerous and were studied, interpreted, and refined. Among those who wrote of it was Henri d’Avranches, who (in 1232 or 1234) had received a commission from Gregory IX to compose a versified life of St. Francis. His version is influenced by the First Life of Thomas of Celano, and is included in a poetic work of 2585 hexameters, in the course of which Henri describes the encounter and imagines the discourse of Francis. As might be expected, the language he ascribes to Francis is that of a cultured poet rather than the kind of brief and simple exhortation we associate with someone of Francis’ limited literacy. Nonetheless, the account is interesting because it shows how, shortly after his death and canonisation, a non-Franciscan author imagined the words Francis would have spoken to the great Sultan surrounded by his advisers.

The following translation is from Francis of Assisi, The Saint (FA:ED, vol.1, 487).

When the fair name of the holy man who was indomitable
[…] spread through the Persian camp,
Such was a kingly king’s admiration for his great spirit
That he gave him a great reception and offered him precious gifts.
He, content with what he has, declines the king’s
Offer, and asks for that gift of gifts, to be given a hearing.
So as to hear him, the king himself bids the crowd be silent
And orders every noise to cease, while to his attendants
He said: “Fetch me my sages; let them be the judges
If this man’s teaching be genuine, or if he’s not minded
Rather to lead multitudes astray.” And so, as he speaks
To the wise ones gathered together, this wise man
Proves the source out of which he has drawn his philosophy.
All of his reasoning he hastens to carry unto celestial things;
He discourses on things unheard before, as though beyond
Mere human ken: here is one to whom nothing’s unknown.
He reasons matters which few mortals have ever perceived,
Or on the origins of the universe manifest only to God.
Whence he introduces reflections upon the first cause; […] proves
That God is one, and that a host of gods has no existence;
How it is that all things come from one source, how a moment
Of that first principle is simple substance, a simple
Moment in the present, a substance simpler than
A mathematical point; how its essence is wondrously present
Wholly, always and everywhere outside of place and time.
Where pride comes, and how Lucifer, once “morning star”
Is now laden with murky mud; at what price the world’s
Redemption was wrought, and what reasons brought
The incarnation; how it was the ancient serpent seduced
Eve, Eve the first man formed, the first-formed man
His posterity, how that posterity betrayed Christ, how Christ
Outwitted the serpent, death driven back whence it sprang.
How not only is Christ’s body glorified,
But while it glorifies other bodies,
His living flesh adorning the souls with gifts,
He is fully at one and the same time in divers churches,
And how Christ assembles all his holy people into his Church;
How Baptism is a spiritual cleansing power
That purifies souls of the stain of the first parent.
While he thus teaches the articles of faith with skilful
Tongue, he impresses sages and king, and nobody dares
To harm him. Indeed heralds are bidden to make this
Their cry: “Often may he come and go among us.” Yet on his own
He is unable to convert so many Persians….