Sergeant Francis?

Pope Sergeant Francis?

The recently elected Holy Father has taken up Francis name in memory of the poor that Francis deliberately chose to live amongst and emulate. Francis’ profound legacy touches so many facets of life that he is even cited by Wikipedia (and the Encyclopedia Britannica) as being the most venerated religious figure after Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. His feast is this month, and a common practice for Francismas is to bring our animals to Church to be blessed. As a fervid dog lover, it is a mass I care for deeply, and attend every year I can. But a careful reading of Francis’ life suggests it might not be us who are blessing the animals after all…

Most people know that Francis was converted after having served in war, in a small skirmish in Assisi against her nemesis Perugia. Some accounts of the battle suggest that less than 15 Assisians survived, including poor Francis. The saint-to-be was taken captive, making him a prisoner of war by modern standards, where he endured great hardship and trauma. Upon his release, after his father paid the ransom standard in those days, the young veteran displayed troubling and erratic behavior; nightmares, panic attacks, insomnia, hallucinations, and speaking to unseen people. Today his behavior would quickly earn him a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We may even look at him as a “wounded warrior” or, worse, “damaged goods.”

But Francis was determined not to let his failure be his final martial exploit. Like many veterans today, he sought a return to the field of glory. Despite his symptoms, and his increasing but sporadic expressions of faith, he took out for war once more in 1204 or 1205, about the time of the 4th Crusade. The man whose prayer adorns military chaplains’ offices around the world by starting with “Lord, let me be an instrument of your peace,” originally expected to be an instrument of war. But God got the best of poor Francis and after a startling and prophetic vision (which he initially misinterpreted), and he came instead to embrace his most precious bride – extreme poverty and a life of asceticism.

Francis speaks to us today in many profound and beautiful ways. One way is his attention and care for the natural world. On the Sunday nearest his feast, innumerable congregations across the United States’ many denominations bring their pets to church to bless them in memory of Francis’ life and witness. But reading his life through a particularly martial lens gives us another important way of understanding this practice.

Our own Department of Veterans Affairs has been experimenting lately with soldiers who, like Francis, suffer from the hidden wounds of war like combat trauma and emotional distress. One method that has shown promise is the use of dogs and other pets, like the ones brought to church for a Franciscan blessing, as “emotional support animals.” The connection the veterans feel for the non-judgmental and affection-prone canines and felines has been shown to have incredible power to repair the invisible affects of war. These animals rely on the veteran for food, water, and other basic necessities and provide in return the chance to relearn habits of love and endearment that battle tends to make us forget. If this is true, it begs the question, was Francis blessing the animals, or were they blessing him?

Francis displayed behavior characteristic of what we would today call PTSD. Like other veterans, he attempted to return to war, perhaps to regain a lost sense of meaning and belonging. As many of our own friends with histories in the military, he continued to seek out dangerous situations of profound consequence that might earn him a noble death like that which he might have received in battle. According to Bonaventure, the official biographer commissioned by the Franciscans not long after the saint’s death, Francis even sought out a sultan so that he might be killed in odium fidei (in hatred of the faith, a criteria for martyrdom established in the 18th century by Pope Benedict XIV) Denied the chance for a red martyrdom, his biographer describes how God instead offered the gift of a white martyrdom in the form of the Stigmata, making visible the wounds that seemed to make of him a man after God’s own heart.

Our veterans are increasingly turning to the grave as a reprieve from the wounds that they share with poor Francis, those of war and bloodshed and military exploits. But they can find their story in his, theirs is a story that gives the Saint even greater luminosity. A martial read of Francis’ life suggest there are better and more beautiful ways to respond to the brokenness on our soldiers’ hearts. Veterans find one another like magnets, and one soldier scholar recently pointed out during my studies that eight of the first ten Franciscans were veterans of the same war in which their abbot was taken captive.

In a world in which fewer and fewer are serving more and more in increasingly intense combat, the Church must think carefully about her soldier saints and what they have to say not only to us but to those saints beside us suffering silently. Every single day there will be approximately 22 veterans who will take their own life. The VA cannot overcome this epidemic itself; it needs the support and commitment from faith communities like ours. Part of supporting the troops, of giving them our blessing, is to see the ways in which they are blessing us.

Immediately following a combat deployment, and in a lesser degree upon discharge, veterans face a profound shift in meaning and belonging in our communities. Often the feel like they have no place, and cannot provide the same service they once did. Transitioning from warrior to sparrow-whisperer is not easy, as Francis’ life displays. But in order for it to happen, we must continue to be a blessing in the lives of soldiers and veterans by letting them be a blessing to us.  This includes our day to day lives as well as how we recognize the martial character of our soldier saints throughout time, like Ignatius, George, Martin, and others who have been ‘canonized’ as a kind of scripture for our lives, which is what it is to be a saint. They bless us by being a script for the holy life, a life of virtue that for our saints (old and new) often begins in a military setting. Let us not forget how soldierly our saints are, and how saintly our soldiers might be, for our sake as well as for theirs.