Reflection on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
The first reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians 1: 13-24, his account of his own conversion. Yesterday, we were talking about Paul reprimanding Peter in Galatians 2: 11-14.
I was asking myself where did Paul get the courage to reprimand Peter, the rock — the original disciple, if you may? We have to remember that Paul is not an “original” apostle. He was still soliciting for some recognition from the church of Jerusalem. Jung, my co-speaker, talks about the politics of place. Paul was reprimanding Peter in Antioch, not in Jerusalem which is location of Peter’s community. The second reason could also be personal temperament. Paul was a passionate guy, violent no longer, but passionate just the same. He could be frank with anyone regardless of whoever is hurt.
But I find a third reason in the first reading today, in the chapter before the reprimand: “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days… (Gal. 1: 18)”. Paul got the courage to speak because he stayed with Peter. Fifteen days is not enough to pick quarrel with a person. But to know someone personally, to establish some trust and friendship, is enough to speak your mind, or to pour your heart out.
I think to live together, to know someone in person, to meet and encounter is the secret of dialogue. To dialogue, one needs to eat together, to share stories… all these can slowly destroy the bias, kill the prejudice, and look at the other in a totally new way.
This is what happened in the Gospel this morning. Martha can blurt out seemingly harsh words to Jesus because Jesus has been eating there every weekend. Well, almost, maybe. Who knows? And if someone goes there without helping in the kitchen plus encouraging her sister to just sit down and listen to his stories, you have the right to complain, right? One spiritual writer in the Philippines, Thomas Green, calls it “Darkness in Martha’s Kitchen.”
When one is a friend one is given a courage to share one’s “darkness.” Martha and Jesus are friends, good friends. So there is a substratum of trust which can be a source of courage for an honest conversation. One can cross borders because the borders (of bias, ignorance and prejudice) has been conquered. Of course, Jesus had to say what he had to say about Mary choosing the better part. But I am not surprised if Jesus eventually helped Martha in the kitchen in the following weekend. If he has been affected by the Syro-Phoenician woman, he could have been affected by Martha as well.
We also see it in the life of St. Francis whose feast we celebrate today. The story of St. Francis’ meeting with the Sultan in Damietta in September 1219 is well-documented. Pope Francis used it in Fratelli Tutti as model of contemporary encounter. We know that St. Francis had earlier dreams of becoming a crusader. He was also passionate like Paul in terms of temperament. And like Paul, that passion was re-directed somewhere else — to the God’s kingdom. So, to see the Muslim enemy as a “friend” in the midst of crusading war — where every Christian from the crusader, his family to the pope wanted to destroy a Muslim — is a courageous act of border crossing.
Their secret: they spent time together. St. Francis risked crossing the border and the sultan accepted him. The sources say St. Francis stayed with the sultan for 20 days.
After the friendly meeting, the Sultan sent him with protection across enemy lines and gave him a gift which was an ivory horn Muslims used to call people to prayer, something which is still preserved in the church in Assisi today.
For his part, Francis was quite affected by the Islamic faith. These words frequented his writings: “You are strong,” “you are great,” “you are the most high,” “you are the almighty king,” “you are love,” “charity;” “you are wisdom,” “you are humility,” “you are patience,” “you are beauty,” “you are meekness,” and so on. This prayer of praise perhaps reflects Muslim usage of the ninety-nine “Beautiful Names of God” in their prayers. And he wanted his followers to praise God in different times of the day like the Muslim’s rhythm of prayer.
The secret of dialogue is to build friendship, to stay together, to live together, to eat together.
Several years ago, I have been giving formation talks to the BECs on the islands of Jolo and Tawi-Tawi. I had to go to small islands in the midst of big ocean via small boats. There was one very small island on stilts called Halusugbu with about 30-40 families. On the one side, we see a small Catholic chapel. One the other side, a small Muslim mosque. There is a small open area with bamboo floor in between them where their children play and hangout in the evenings. On Christmas, the Christians celebrate Christmas party and the Muslim families come to share food and celebrate with them. On Ramadan, the Christian children do not eat meals in public in deference to Muslim children who are fasting.
Peace. Dialogue. These can only happen when people fast or eat meals together, share stories together, stay together on the rough grounds of their lives.
Reflection delivered during the celebration of the Eucharist on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi in a gathering of 16 theologians from the Methodist and Catholic communities from different parts of the world. The eight-day conference in Rome is first of a series of dialogues toward hammering out an ecumenical agreement between these two churches on the international level under the auspices of the Vatican Dicastery of Promoting Christian Unity.
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.