Francis: Veteran of war

Francis: Veteran of war

by Raymond List, discerner, 
FSPA Affiliation

I am a cradle Catholic and a lifelong admirer of St. Francis. During my childhood I viewed Francis as I did many saints; as if they were perfectly holy, specially blessed by God. Yet now, I’ve come to view many of them as very human—struggling just like the rest of us to make sense of the world, to do the right thing.

This is particularly true of Francis. Much of my previous readings on him focused on the relationship with his father, his rejection of possessions, his embracing of the lepers and his love of creation. I saw only brief mention of his involvement in the terrible battle between Assisi and Perugia and his wartime imprisonment.

It wasn’t until I spent four months in Afghanistan with our military personnel as a U.S. Air Force clinical psychologist that I better understood the impact Francis’ early combat experience had in developing his perspectives and teachings. I see in Francis a reflection of the many veterans who struggle with their own combat experiences and by examining his own coping efforts, I believe we can find a way of peace for veterans—for all of us.

From childhood, Francis aspired to be a knight. For him, it was a way to gain honor, glory, and status. This dream was shattered by the reality of the violence and chaos of the battlefield as well as the humiliation and despair of being a prisoner of war. Instead of a dream he experienced the nightmarish destruction of life and the humiliating defeat of his ideals.

The reaction for Francis and for many combat veterans to this day is despondency and despair as idealistic values and goals are shattered by the grim reality of war. As a result of this, Francis avoided self-glorification, learning from his battlefield experience that conflict and violence are the end results of arrogance and the desire to dominate others. This change in the direction of his life is demonstrated in his experience of embracing an individual with leprosy. In casting aside his status he encountered a fellow human, helping him find peace and opening a new way of life, one of gentleness and humility. 

Francis reconnects with Scripture to help find the way forward, but wonders how to put it into action. He then hears: “Rebuild my church.” Many say Francis misinterpreted this since it supposedly meant to rebuild an institution. Not so. Without realizing it he got it right. Doing simple acts of kindness and constructive work is the way to peace. It is in the doing that we find healing, first for ourselves and then for the world. Humans need a purpose, a direction, a mission in order to function. Francis found his by connecting with Scripture and then bringing it to life. Slowly, step-by-step, he found a sense of hope and purpose through putting his faith into action: a key element in the way of Francis which really echoes the way of the Gospel.  

What lessons do I gain in reflecting on Francis’ experience and my own? The first is a better understanding of Francis’ emphasis on humility. Being in the combat theater and working with individuals directly involved in combat made apparent to me just how much the pursuit of political status and financial gain is tied to the horrible violence of war.  

Secondly I’ve learned, particularly from combat personnel, the rationale behind Francis’ emphasis on taking responsibility for the effects of one’s own choices. This is the essence of the Franciscan spirit of penance, which in more modern times would be referred to as personal discipline. Nearly every day we make choices that can help or harm someone, yet as a result of artificial barriers we don’t often see the consequences of our own behavior. In combat those barriers are removed and the link between action and consequence becomes very clear.

The third lesson I’ve received from combat veterans and Francis is the importance of mission focus. The mission for Francis, indeed for anyone committed to this way of peace, is to live the Gospel: to study the Scriptures, pray the Scriptures and live the Scriptures. 

How do we know this will work? We have Francis’ life as example: healing through doing, seeking peace through the Gospel, changing the world by first changing oneself. For Francis it was a lifelong struggle to quiet the anger and self-hate with gentleness and love, and to find a way to connect with all so there would be conflict with none. Yet the most inspiring, most hopeful way of Francis isn’t that he made a single decision and it all flowed smoothly. Rather, it’s the fact that no matter how difficult the journey, he never gave up.

The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration pledge to support the Campaign to Change Direction, promoting mental health and wellness through our direct care ministries and creating environments that enhance holistic mental health and healing. We also pledge to provide education (to our sisters, affiliates, staff, partners in ministry and those we serve) and to normalize the topic of mental health by incorporating it into our conversations—ultimately reducing stigma and moving one another toward compassion, empathy, understanding and support.

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