Saint Francis Encountering Islam: Dialogue with an Open Heart

Columban team: Teresa Chuah, Nathalie Marytch, Mauricio Silva and Fr Ray Collier SSC at the exhibition.

Columban team: Teresa Chuah, Fr Ray Collier SSC (seated), Nathalie Marytsch, and Mauricio Silva at the exhibition. Photo: Mauricio Silva

In the first major UK art exhibition to explore Saint Francis of Assisi’s life and legacy, numerous artistic expressions of the preacher’s life from the past 800 years were on display. The popular Francis, one of the most revered historical figures of all time, was an inspiration for artists and poets for centuries.

The artistic portrayal of this saint has spoken to each generation in a particular way, but it is not difficult to find centuries-old themes that resonate with contemporary issues. Not least, interreligious dialogue.

As someone involved in promoting life-giving relationships between people of diverse faiths and backgrounds, I was strongly drawn to three evocative items of the exhibition. All three of them are associated with the rare meeting between Francis and the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade.

Coming face-to-face with representations of that encounter through paintings by Sassetta and Fra Angelico, specifically Saint Francis before the Sultan and The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan, I recalled the precious times when I experienced God’s presence through meeting Muslims and friends of other faiths. Both paintings depict the moment when a captured Francis recklessly attempted to convert the Sultan, offering to go through fire for his faith. What I see in the flames prominently depicted in both paintings – reminiscence of Moses and the burning bush in the book of Exodus – is the sacredness of a Muslim and a Christian meeting with an open heart.

After a respectful exchange between Francis and the Sultan, Francis was released and given a horn-shaped object by the Sultan to allow him a safe passage back to the crusader's camp. And here is the third item that caught my attention at this exhibition. It is a medieval relic entitled A Horn with Rods. The relic is accompanied by the following early inscription, "With this bell St Francis gathered the people together for preaching and with these batons he imposed silence on them." It was a startling material dimension to that remote encounter between Francis and the Sultan.

The significance of the Horn with Rods is that it speaks of what Francis gained from that encounter with the Sultan – a part of the Sultan's culture and faith, embraced and carried by Francis. More importantly, it possibly added a new dimension to Francis' faith practice. Medieval Franciscan manuscripts record that Francis acquired the custom of using a horn to gather his followers. Could this acquired custom of Francis be directly associated to the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer?

Like many others who have witnessed and experienced the humbling devotion with which Muslim brothers and sisters perform their prayers, Francis may have also admired the way Muslims pray. That Francis may have adopted a custom associated to Islamic devotion is a reminder that the Church, to paraphrase Nostra Aetate, rejects nothing that is true and holy in Islam. Islam's precepts and teachings – although different to the Church's – can reflect a ray of the Truth which enlightens us all.

Dialogue seems possible only if we approach it with open hearts and minds. This requires a sincere eagerness that dialogue will lead us to gain fresh and meaningful insights into our own lives and faith. Looking at the Horn with Rods, together with those two memorable paintings, made me imagine again the celebrated day when Francis of Assisi met the Sultan al Malik al-Kamil, a day in which both men glimpsed together a ray of God's truth through dialogue.

Mauricio Silva is the Columban Interreligious Dialogue Coordinator in Britain.

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