Monday, October 04, 2010

St. Francis: Loving across boundaries

“St. Francis and the Sultan” by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. © 2006
Courtesy of (800.699.4482)

St. Francis of Assisi was a universal person whose extravagant love crossed many boundaries. The 13th-century saint is well known for talking with animals and hugging lepers, but he also befriended an Islamic sultan.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Francis of Assisi: Queer side revealed for saint who loved creation, peace and the poor

St. Francis has inspired many GLBT people and our allies, although he is not considered to be a “gay saint” himself. Artists have explored his loving connections with men and even his sensual side. In honor of his feast day today (Oct. 4), we are highlighting a few of the many faces of St. Francis.

Francis was born to a wealthy Italian family in 1181 or 1182. As a young man he renounced his wealth, even stripping off his clothes, and devoted himself to a life of poverty in the service of Christ. He connected with nature, calling all animals “brother” and “sister” and celebrating them in his famous Canticle of the Sun.

He saw the face of Christ in lepers, the most reviled outcasts of his time, and nursed them with compassion. Father William Hart McNichols puts Francis’ ministry into a contemporary context by showing him embracing a gay Jesus with AIDS in “St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree,” pictured at left. Words on the cross proclaim that Christ is an “AIDS leper” as well as a “drug user” and “homosexual,” outcast groups at high risk for getting AIDS. The two men gaze intently at each other with unspeakable love as Francis hugs the wounded Christ.

McNichols has referred to St. Francis in this icon as the Alter Christus, Latin for the “other Christ.” Thus the icon reveals intimacy between two men, two Christ figures, or between Christ and a Christ-to-be. It was commissioned by a New Jersey doctor who worked with AIDS patients, and appears in the books “Art That Dares” by Kittredge Cherry and “The Bride: Images of the Church” by McNichols and Daniel Berrigan.

A famous peace prayer is attributed to St. Francis. It begins, “God, make me an instrument of your peace.” Late in his life Francis embodied this message through Christian-Muslim dialogue in the Mideast, a region where people are still at war.

In 1219 Francis went to Damietta, Egypt, with the European armies during the Fifth Crusade. He hoped to discuss religion peacefully with the Muslims. He tried to prevent Crusaders from attacking Muslims at the Battle of Damietta, but he failed. Francis was captured and taken to the sultan Malek al-Kamil. At first they tried to convert each other, but each man soon recognized that the other already knew and loved God. They remained together, discussing spirituality, for about three weeks between Sept. 1 and Sept. 26. Brother Robert Lentz celebrates their meeting as a model of interfaith dialogue in the above icon, “St. Francis and the Sultan.”

In 1224, when Francis was in his 40s, he received the stigmata -- marks like the crucifixion wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side. California artist Kevin Raye Larson emphasizes the sensuality of the ecstatic moment in “St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,” pictured above. The painting has appeared on the cover of the spirituality issue of “Frontiers,” the Los Angeles gay lifestyle magazine.

Francis’ special friend in life and ministry was a woman, St. Clare of Assisi. It is often said that they were in love with each other, but redirected their passion toward God. Francis founded the religious order of brothers known as the Franciscans, and Clare founded an order of nuns known as the Poor Clares. She is traditionally portrayed as a follower of Francis, but he saw her as an inspiration and a cofounder of his movement. Today she is gaining more recognition as a spiritual leader and guide in her own right. Click here for an icon of Clare with her cat.

Francis died on Oct. 3, 1226. He is the patron saint of animals and the environment, and perhaps the most beloved Catholic saint.
Animal blessing events are happening all over the world this weekend for the Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. Do you want an artist to draw a portrait of YOUR pet? The Jesus in Love Blog is offering personalized pet portraits this year in honor of St. Francis Day. Click here for details.
Check out our animal blessing prayer too.
Image credits:
“St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata”
by Kevin Raye Larson © 1991

“St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree”
By William Hart McNichols © 1991

Bookmark and Share

Innovative icons of St. Francis and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


Trudie said...

Again, thank you for a lovely post. I am especially grateful that you mentioned St. Clare, and included a link to her icon in which she is depicted with her cat. I first encountered this icon at a monastery where I was attending a Centering Prayer retreat shortly after I'd begun this practice. I had been unsure whether it was okay to center with my cats, but this depiction of a famous contemplative saint with a cat reassured me. Having just followed the link, and read the story about the cat retrieving the linen fabric for the bed-ridden St. Clare makes this an even more delightful reflection.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I felt it was important to include St. Clare, even though this post is focusing more on St. Francis’ man-to-man relationships. Those kind of posts always get a lot of clicks from the many gay friends of this blog. And I really wanted to highlight the 3 images that I used here, each one beautiful in its own way. St. Francis’ model for peace with Muslims is especially timely now.

The more I worked on this post, the more I felt the need to focus on St. Clare. She was as important to St. Francis as the gay and lesbian partners of saints that I usually focus on here.

Here is a link to a page with lots of fascinating info on St. Clare. One reason I didn’t include it in the post is I’m not sure how accurate it is. I couldn’t find any other places that gave her so much credit. According to this source, St. Clare was the original role model who inspired St. Francis, not the other way around. Knowing how the contributions of women often get lost in history, that does seem plausible. Check it out if you want to learn more about St. Clare: