Though the East Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I could not let the season of All Saints and All Souls go by without note. And I wanted to describe how our community of interfaith families celebrated the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had his feast day recently.
Neither our rabbi nor our minister (who was raised as a Baptist) grew up celebrating the lives of the saints, and yet they co-officiated at this recent Gathering. About half of the Christians in our interfaith families community were raised Catholic, and we embrace Saint Francis as an interfaith peacemaker .
On the morning of our celebration, a simple wooden statue of the saint, with a bird balanced in his palm, stood at the front of the room. So, before a word was even uttered, some of us were working through interfaith issues. Such “graven images” present a challenge for some Jews (and Muslims) who grew up with only abstract religious art, based on Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions against idolatry. But for me, contemplating an image of a saint, while learning about his or her life and spiritual practice, is not the same thing as praying “to” or worshipping a saint.
As patron saint of animals and the environment, and as a man born wealthy who gave up all his worldly goods, Saint Francis holds tremendous appeal across the religious divides. Both Catholics and Anglicans (and thus Episcopalians) celebrate his feast day with a blessing of the animals, when parishioners actually bring animals to church. I find this idea tremendously appealing, perhaps because it breaches the usual human/animal divide, inviting nature into the sanctuary.
The life of Saint Francis has inspired many popular works of music and art. Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon depicted Francis as a sort of flower child, with a soundtrack of sweet songs by Donovan. My favorite Saint Francis film is the less sentimental and rather surreal and even inscrutable Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini (or The Hawks and the Sparrows) a mystical political fable with a talking crow.
While many people associate Saint Francis with nature, not as many know the story of his voyage to the Muslim world as a peacemaker. At our gathering, an interfaith father raised Catholic told the story of the journey of Saint Francis in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, to seek out the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. Two books devoted to this story came out in the wake of 9/11: The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by journalist Peter Moses, and Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter by religious historian John Tolan.
Apparently, Francis and the Sultan developed deep respect for each other during days of intense dialogue in the midst of war. The Sultan treated Francis as a guest rather than an enemy. And Francis arrived home urging Christians to take inspiration from Muslims, and live peacefully beside them.
At our celebration, we sang the Catholic hymn “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” based on the Prayer of Saint Francis. The prayer (whether or not Francis had anything to do with writing it) has inspired many composers and has many tunes. I love this version by a rabbi and a Franciscan monk who harmonize. As our group sang (a different tune), I noticed that our house interfaith band that week included a Jewish keyboard player from England, a Jewish doumbek player from Morocco, and two Jewish singers. It’s not that we’re converting to Catholicism. All of us feel inspired by Francis, and enriched as members of interfaith families, and as individuals who yearn for peace, by spending a morning devoted to learning about his life.
Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.