Book review: “Daring to Cross the Threshold: Francis of Assisi Encounters Sultan Malek al-Kamil”

I have to admit up-front: I judged this book by its cover. The title alone obligated me to read it: Daring to Cross the Threshold: Francis of Assisi Encounter Sultan Malek al Kamil. This popped up some bibliography a while back, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy, because there is no eBook version, and my library doesn’t have a copy of its own. I was able to do an inter-library loan from The University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Judging by the name, they must stockpile everything ever written on Saint Francis.

I first heard of Francis of Assisi from the Latter-Day Saint hymnals found in every chapel. As a youth, I would scour the names of the composers at the bottom of each page, and All Creatures of Our God and King was attributed to the curious name of Francis of Assisi. It wasn’t until my mission though that this hymn captured my imagination. I remember singing it in a small gathering of missionaries before going into the temple, and I felt an overwhelming feeling of peace and joy:

All creatures of our God and King,
Life up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Oh, praise Him! Alleluia!

From what I gather, this is one version of Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures that Kathleen Warren mentions near the end of Daring to Cross the Threshold. I originally interpreted this hymn as an expression of awe and love and the creation of God, of nature in all her splendor. But Warren explains that this had a much deeper significance in the overall trajectory of Francis’s life. One of Francis’s formational moments was his ministering in a leper colony. Just as in New Testament times, lepers were outcasts to society, even being considered cursed in the eyes of God. But Francis in a revelatory moment realized that God loved these lepers to such an extent that it was beyond description. Francis discovered that God’s love truly is universal in scope, regardless of what lines we humans try to draw between us and our fellow man. But later in his career, he took that a step further: during the height of the animosity towards Muslims (known as the Saracens back then) during the Crusades, Francis made a trip to the frontlines of the battle in Egypt to talk to the Sultan. Unlike his fellows who couldn’t even imagine fellowship with these heathens, Francis approached in a spirit of brotherly love and understanding that transcended the hatred of their respective cultures. The Sultan sensed he was in the presence of a holy man. Although both Francis and the Sultan were both anxiously engaged in their own faith, they learned from each other and came to respect the faith of the other, even changing the ways they experienced their own faith. This level of vulnerability is what we need today. Warren wrote this book shortly after 9/11 when America was experiencing a new wave of animosity towards Muslims. Previously, I had no idea that we already had an example 800 years ago of what peaceful engagement of these two faiths can look like. Francis is our religious heritage, and we need to re-embrace his legacy.

But how do you reconcile such tolerance towards others outside the faith when Church doctrine has clear rules about salvation? The Catholic church teaches salvation is only through the Church. To Francis, this is yet another mystery: that God is both particular and universal, that he reveals himself to different cultures, and is pleased with them all:

Those to whom he went as brother-to-brother, were indeed, children of God. And somehow, in the “oncomprehensible, unfathomable” mystery of God’s goodeness, “creator and savior of all”, Francis penetrates even deeper into God’s majesty which transcends even Chrstianity and Christian theology. He is even able to let go of the question of the Saracen’s salvation, leaving that to God. Francis realized somehow, in the divine mystery, Islam too was part of God’s pleasure and it too added to God’s praise, glory and presence in the world.

If truth is clothed with power, with a feeling of superiority, it is no longer itself and becomes unrecognizable for the other. It is no longer the gift freely offered to unite people with each other. It degenerates into a possession and hence into a means of power which leads to the condemnation and exclusion of the other as a heretic… Thus, Christianity wages war in the name of God who truly is love, and Christians feel themselves superior to others in the name of God who is humility.

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