The Trial by Fire of St. Francis of Assisi, Fra Angelico, 1429

St. Francis of Assisi is a beloved and well-known saint throughout the world and is remembers as “the Monk” by Muslims in the Middle East. He was born in either 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, Italy. He founded the Franciscan Order of Friar Minors and Sisters lived the gospels in obedience to the Church, traveled in peace to the Middle East during the crusades, created the first Nativity scene, saw God in everyone and everything, received the Stigmata of Christ Crucifiedinspired countless people in his lifetime and continues to inspire us today.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and ecology. He is one of two patron saints of Italy (along with Catherine of Siena) and many other places throughout the world, including San Francisco, CA, in the United States. He is honored in the Roman Catholic, Anglican (including Episcopal), and Lutheran Churches. He died on October 3, 1226, and his feast day, October 4, is usually celebrated with a Blessing of the Animals.

Seven and a half years after the Palm Sunday night of 1212, when Francis performed the ceremony in which Clare of Assisi took holy vows and began attracting women to the Franciscan Sisterhood of the Poor Ladies, Francis traveled to the Middle East.

In 1219, the Franciscan Brotherhood of the Friar Minors was expanding as more and more men took holy vows in a desire to walk the Way of Jesus Christ and spread His word.

Years earlier, Francis had agreed to write a few rules that would give the Friar Minors (lesser brothers) guidance along the way. He also put local leaders called Vicars in place to take care of the brothers in his absence. Brothers spread out on mission trips throughout the known world in an effort to teach as many people as possible about Jesus Christ.

Francis felt called to go to the Middle East and had attempted two previous trips. One failed due to bad weather on the seas, and one failed due to illness. Countless men, religious and lay, rich or servant, joined the crusades because they believed that dying in a holy war made them martyrs and assured their immediate acceptance into heaven.

(In 1095, Pope Urban II had declared that the purpose of the crusades, which off and on lasted until 1291, was so that Christians could have access and ownership of the Holy Land or Jerusalem and the sacred sites of Jesus Christ.)

Further, they saw that some crusaders returned with vast wealth from sacking villages and cities. Also, some Middle Eastern leaders teamed up with the crusaders in order to gain more territory for themselves. There were nine major crusades and many other smaller ones usually prompted by personal desire for wealth and power. In 1219, Francis arrived during a stalemate of one of the smaller, but deadly, crusades.

Francis had left from Bari or Brindisi in Southern Italy aboard a ship that regularly traveled this eastern route. The ship followed the coast of Greece and passed Crete. Then it sailed south to the Nile Delta.

The Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Adil, (1145-1218) had risen in power to unite Egypt and Palestine. He fostered good relations and trade agreements with the crusader states, but he would not release control of Jerusalem. He was a powerful general who died in battle. His son and successor, Malk-al-Kamil, who is remembered for his for leniency and kindness, and the crusaders were in a stalemate when Francis arrived.

The war preparations at the crusaders’ encampment in Egypt deeply affected Francis. He walked around beseeching the soldiers to go home before they killed others or were killed themselves. He delivered his message in his usual passionate and animated way. The soldiers laughed at him and called him crazy.

Some historians believe that Francis had a vision or prophesy of the major battle at the city walls of Damietta in which many of the crusaders would later die. Others believe that the battle experiences of his youth made him a pacifist who preached peace.

Soon, Francis sought permission from the cardinal to cross enemy lines in order to speak with Sultan Malk-al-Kamil. The cardinal said no for many days. Francis continued to beg him as he felt called to go, but he would not go without permission from the Church.

The cardinal finally granted Francis permission as long as it wouldn’t appear to the sultan that the cardinal ordered him to negotiate. He also made it clear that he would not send troops to rescue Francis.

When Francis and one brother, possibly Illuminato, were spotted by the border guards, they let them cross assuming that they wanted to convert to Islam. As soon as it became clear that they would not, the guards beat them. Francis shouted the only Arabic word he knew, “Soldan, Soldan, Soldan,” until the guards took them to the Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

The sultan had several days’ worth of patience during which he let Francis speak. He was probably hopeful that Francis was there to negotiate a treaty. But also Francis spoke about Jesus, a respected prophet in Islam, whom the sultan honored. More importantly, Francis didn’t say anything negative about Muhammad or his Message.

Francis willingly accepted the challenge of talking about Jesus with the sultan’s religious advisors. It’s believed that he offered to walk through fire along with the advisors to see whom God would choose to protect and that the advisors backed down before the first step. However, it’s more likely that he simply offered to let them cut off his head if the sultan didn’t like what he said. He was totally serious and this also impressed the sultan.

Finally, it was time for Francis and Illuminato to go back as neither Francis nor the sultan would convert. Perhaps the sultan told them of his willingness to create a treaty of peace with the crusaders.

As is the way of Middle Eastern hospitality, the sultan gave Francis an opportunity to select a parting gift among many gold and silver ornaments. Francis graciously refused and explained that his religion forbade him from accepting anything of such value. But, he would be happy to accept food for the day.

The sultan shared a wonderful meal with Francis and Illuminato and then had them escorted to the border.

The cardinal refused to enter into peace negotiations with the sultan.

Francis and his brother returned to Assisi in the spring of 1220.

Although Francis didn’t end the war, he did make quite the impression on the clergy in place to support the crusaders. Many abandoned their posts and joined the Franciscan Friar Minors.

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Collect, HOLY WOMEN, HOLY MEN: CELEBRATING THE SAINTS

For more info:


Crusades: World History Center

Clare and Francis: A film produced by Ignatius Press

The crusades continue — it’s only the players and the treasures that differ.

(Check out this Wait But Why post for a comprehensive look — From Muhammad to ISIS: Iraq’s Full Story.)

St. Francis of Assisi met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in a space of kindness and respect. Francis never said that Muhammad or his Message was wrong or that the sultan was wrong for his beliefs, so the sultan was willing to listen to Francis speak of why he followed his Savior, Jesus Christ. That space of kindness, respect, and new friendship was maintained throughout their time together. St. Francis of Assisi is warmly remembered by Muslims as “The Monk” who came for a visit.

It should be noted here that the same sultan dealt differently with Franciscan friars who arrived later. They preached in front of the Mosque in Seville and were almost killed on the spot. But the sultan issued a strict warning and allowed them to pass on to Morocco.

(Islam teaches that Jesus was a powerful prophet in a strong line of prophets including Moses. Muhammad is the latest prophet whose teachings contain the most pertinent part of God’s message. To speak ill of Muhammad or attempt to convince Muslims to abandon their religion was a crime punishable by death.)

Although the friars were warned repeatedly to stop, they continued to preach of Jesus Christ in the streets. For this crime, they were tortured and beheaded. A crusader ransomed and escorted their bodies home. Their remains were paraded around in glory as martyrs for Christ. Fernando Martins de Bulhoes was greatly inspired by these martyrs. So much so that he joined the Franciscans and became St. Anthony of Padua and Lisbon.

So there’s that. But, actively seeking martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom is medieval and this is modern times. Don’t do it. Be good and do good. That’s the message in the life story of St. Francis of Assisi – be God in the world (the unique entity that’s a combination of you and God Within) and do God’s works in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Prayer helps in discerning what good God wants us to do. I’m particularly drawn to devotions during which the focus on a task creates an open space in which to listen. Cooking, as I learned from St. Dominic of Osma is an excellent devotion, particularly when creating a time-consuming dish easily obtainable out of a can.

Known as Dolmas in the Middle East, this is a dish that Sultan Malik al-Kamil may have actually offered to St. Francis of Assisi. Whether it was filled with spiced meat or grains and vegetables, St. Francis would have eaten them with gusto because that’s what good guests do, and because they are, in fact, pretty yummy.

Similar ingredients to the ones listed below would have been available in Egypt at that time even the cinnamon and cumin which were expensive yet obtainable by trade with India.


(More photos below.)

1 jar grape leaves
3 or so tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, minced
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin
3 cups water, divided
1 cup uncooked pearled barley

2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons raisins
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 fresh (or 1 dry) tablespoons chopped mint
3 fresh (or 1 dry) tablespoons chopped dill
3 fresh (or 1 dry) tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided

If you can, harvest fresh, early spring grape leaves, remove the stems and soak them in warm water for 10 minutes. If not, purchase a jar of grape leaves found in the pickle or international section of some grocery stores and markets. (I found mine at Lovey’s Market.) Rinse grape leaves with cold water, drain. Pat dry with clean kitchen or paper towels. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pan over medium heat. (I used a frying pan then switched to a sauce pan. But you could do the whole job in a sauce pan.)

Add onion, cook and stir until tender but not brown. Add scallions and pine nuts, cook and stir for 3 minutes. Place or keep in saucepan.

Add 2 cups water, pearled barley, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and cumin. Cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until water is absorbed. Remove from heat and cool.

Stir in feta, parsley, mint, and dill.

Lay several grape leaves on the bottom of a large saucepan, to protect the stuffed grape leaves from the direct heat. Lay one patted-dry grape leaf, stem side up, shiny side down on a clean work surface.

Depending on the size of the leaves you were able to obtain, spoon barley mixture onto center of the leave. Fold bottom part up. Fold left and right sides in. Roll up tightly. Place in pot. Repeat last five steps until the first layer in the pot is complete.

Take a break, go outside. Pick a fresh lemon off of your son’s Meyer Lemon tree which is your son’s in name only because he asked for it one year for his birthday, but it’s really yours because you take care of it — moving it inside every fall and outside every spring and all that watering, feeding, and pruning. Good thing for him, there’s also harvesting. OR, use a fresh lemon that you purchased or lemon juice from bottle.

Drizzle first layer with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Repeat layers until you use up your grape leaves or your barley mixture. (I had extra mixture and baked it into a tiny casserole. You could also add some fresh vegetables and serve as a salad.)

Place a small heat-proof plate upside down on top of the layers in the pot. Add 1 cup of water. Simmer for 1 hour.

Remove from heat, but keep covered. Cool for 1 hour. (Unfortunately, I removed the cover and the leaves shriveled a bit as they dried.)

Serve at room temperature as an appetizer or as the main course along with a salad.

My father’s vineyard in the Hudson Valley of New York State

Yes, I did take that photo with the same hand that was pouring.

Donny’s Meyer Lemon Tree

(Originally posted on 6/16/2012 and revised on 9/23/2014 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)

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