Saint Francis: From Soldier to Saint

Written for the Feast of St. Francis

By Leonard, October 4, 2012


Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” So begins the much loved prayer of Saint Francis. Lord, make ME an instrument of YOUR peace.” It is a powerful invocation, and one with which I should like to begin every day. Saint Francis did, indeed, know much about peace, but it is easy for us to lose sight of how he must have come to that place of peace from his early life experience.

I have never seen an image of Saint Francis that did not show him in his tunic, standing in some idyllic glade, surrounded by creatures of the earth and sky. And yet, he did not start out this way. Not unlike many (if not most) others of his day (and of ours), he was raised in the tribal culture that separated groups from each other (and which today separates us also from the earth). The violence of Francis’ culture seeped into his heart, and at the age of 20 Francis went out with his fellow townsmen to fight the Perugians in one of the frequent skirmishes that broke out between rival Italian cities. The Assisians were defeated and Francis was captured, spending more than a year in a Perugian prison. 

An illness that began while in prison led Francis to thoughts of a more spiritual nature as he contemplated the emptiness of his life, but his return to health brought him back to thoughts of glory. And so he journeyed back and forth from thoughts of Glory to thoughts of God, and this journey slowly guided Francis towards the spiritual realm. At some point on this journey, Francis turned away from the violence of the world and turned thoroughly toward God. From there he began to metamorphose into the vision of the gentle Saint Francis with whom we are familiar.

In today’s world we have a tendency to compartmentalize things, to separate them from each other so as to make it easier to deal with them. We do this in many ways with environmental issues such as the way we attempt to prevent species extinction through the Endangered Species Act. But in a very real sense, just as we as children of God are all related, so all things – not just people – are interrelated. When we speak of God’s creation, we cannot separate out even one element or we negate everything. So when we practice violence against others – aside from the collateral damage to the environment resulting from violent conflict and war – that violence extends to, and allows us to perpetuate violence against, our environment, that beautiful part of God’s creation that sustains us.

We must come to understand that violence is more than the overt killing and torturing of people, or the bombing of cities. Violence is often so subtle that we are completely unaware of it, or that we are part of the cycle of that violence. Every day, well-meaning people like us perpetuate a cycle of violence that affects all of creation as we have our morning coffee, get on the road, and go about our daily work routine.

The coffee we drink either sustains the ecosystem in which it is grown or destroys it, and either allows farmers and their communities to be self-sustaining or dependent on the charity of large corporations. The way we travel (and use energy) either reduces our impact on people and the environment or destroys that which sustains us and destroys lives as we fight for control of resources. Even our very employment supports either peace or violence; are we developing missiles or windmills? Of course, there are also countless more subtle examples, but I am sure you get the point.

Saint Francis made that ultimate journey from violence to peace, and although he probably did not write the Prayer of St. Francis, he did become that instrument of God’s peace. He found peace not only with his fellow human beings, but also with nature; he came to a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.

Today we stand at a crossroads. I know we have heard that said many times in past decades by theologians and prophets, but it should be evident today, with visible evidence of global warming, the soaring increase of species extinctions and associated reduction in biodiversity, serious depletion and degradation of water supplies, and many other critical indicators, that we must act now with a strong sense of determination to turn things around. But we will never turn anything around if humanity cannot overcome the collective violence that dwells deep within our collective heart. We must strive to develop the nonviolent heart of Saint Francis, and to demonstrate that nonviolent love for all creation in both our private and public lives.

And that – our public lives – is where it gets messy, but also where it is most critical. It is one thing to speak of nonviolence and pray for peace and for the healing of the Earth. It is quite another to go out into a broken, violent world and preach and live the gospel of nonviolence towards all things.

We must all make that long journey from soldier to saint, from violence to nonviolence, from warmongers to peacemakers, and not just for the sake of each other, but for the sake of all creation and the future generations who will be sustained by it. In making that journey, we will come to that place where we can reach out with a deep, abiding love to those who we would otherwise view as enemies to change their hearts – because love changes everything.

May we all become instruments of God’s Peace.

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