Saint Francis before the Sultan (c. 1325)
Cappella Bardi, Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence
Being urged in the spirit to martyrdom by the intense ardour of his charity, [Francis] sought a third time to spread the faith in the Holy Trinity by the shedding of his blood, and endeavoured again to make his way to the land of the infidels.
In the thirteenth year after his conversion he went into Syria, and boldly exposed himself to many dangers to gain admittance to the Sultan of Babylon. At that time so implacable a warfare was raging between the Christians and the Saracens, the armies of both nations being encamped over against each other, that it was impossible to pass from one to the other without peril of death. For the Sultan had made a cruel decree, that whoever should bring him the head of a Christian should receive a gold bezant as his reward.
But Francis, the valiant soldier of Christ, hoping shortly to attain the end which he had set before him, determined to undertake the adventure, not terrified by the fear, but rather excited by the desire, of death. Having, then, prayed to the Lord, and being strengthened by Him, he sang with great confidence those words of the prophet, "Though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." He took with him, therefore, as his companion, a brother named Illuminatus — a man, indeed, of virtue and illumination — and on their way they met two sheep, which, when the holy man saw, he said to his companion, "My brother, trust in the Lord, for in us is fulfilled those words of the Gospel, 'Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.'" When they had gone a little farther, they met with a band of Saracens, who, quickly falling upon them, like wolves upon a flock of sheep, cruelly seized and bound the servants of God, dealing fiercely and contemptuously with them, and with many vile words and hard blows carried them along in cruel bonds. Lastly, having in many ways afflicted and oppressed them, they were by the Divine disposal, and according to the holy man's desire, brought into the presence of the Sultan.
And being questioned by that prince whence and for what purpose they had come, by whom they had been sent, and by what means they had come thither, Francis, the servant of God, made answer with a heart void of fear, that they had been sent, not by man, but by the Most High God, to show to him and his people the way of salvation, and make known to them the truth of the Gospel. And truly with such constancy of mind, such fortitude of soul, and such fervour of spirit did he preach to that Sultan One God in Three Persons, and Jesus Christ the Saviour of all men, that in him was gloriously fulfilled that promise of the Gospel: "I will give to you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries shall be able to resist or contradict."
The Sultan, therefore, admiring the courage and fervour of spirit which he beheld in the man of God, listened to him willingly, and earnestly besought him to remain with him. But the servant of Christ, being enlightened from on High, answered him thus : "If thou and thy people will be converted to Christ, for His love I will willingly abide with thee. But if thou art doubtful whether or not to forsake the law of Mahomed for the faith of Christ, command a great fire to be lighted, and I will go into it with thy priests, that it may be known which faith should be held to be the most certain and the most holy." To whom the Sultan made answer: "I do not believe that any of my priests would be willing to expose himself to the fire, or to endure any manner of torment in defence of his faith. For he had just seen one of the most aged among his priests, and of greatest credit and authority, depart from his presence at the words which Francis had spoken. Then said the holy man, "If thou wilt promise me for thyself and thy people that thou wilt embrace the worship of Christ if I come forth unharmed, I will enter the fire alone. And if I shall be burnt, let it be imputed to my sins. But if the Divine Power shall protect me, then let all of you acknowledge Christ to be the Power and Wisdom of God, the true God and the Lord and Saviour of all men." But the Sultan answered that he dared not accept this challenge, because he feared a sedition of the people. Nevertheless, he offered him many precious gifts, which the man of God, who coveted not worldly things, but sought only the salvation of souls, despised as so much dust. The Sultan, beholding in this holy man so perfect a contempt of all worldly things, was moved to admiration, and conceived a still greater veneration for him. And although he would not, or perhaps dared not, embrace the Christian faith, yet he devoutly besought the servant of Christ that he would receive the aforesaid gifts for his salvation, and either distribute them amongst the poor of Christ, or employ them in the building of churches. But he who ever avoided the burden of money, and saw no root of true piety in the Sultan's soul, would by no means consent to his desire.
Seeing, also, that he made no progress in the conversion of this people, nor could attain his desire of martyrdom, being admonished by Divine revelation, he returned into the region of the faithful; the clemency of God thus ordaining most mercifully and marvellously, to the greater advance of the holy man in virtue, that this friend of Christ should seek death with all his power, and yet be unable to find it; that he should not want the merit of the martyrdom of the will, and yet should be preserved hereafter to receive the singular privilege of the Stigmata. And so it was that the fire of Divine love was kindled more and more perfectly in his heart, till it was mightily manifested in his flesh. Oh, truly blessed man, who, if his flesh felt not the tyrant's steel, wanted not the likeness of the Lamb that was slain! Oh, truly and fully blessed, I say, who, if his life perished not under the sword of persecution, yet missed not the palm of martyrdom!
Legenda Maior Sancti Francisci [Life of Saint Francis]