Alan Henning, St Francis of Assisi and the Quest for Peace

El Greco: St Francis receiving the stigmata

Alan Henning’s murder has shocked and saddened everyone in Britain — everyone, that is, except those who believe the vicarious death of an innocent man is justifiable because of perceived cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the U.K. That fact alone makes it difficult to write about. We are conscious of Mr Henning’s grieving family and the pain they are suffering, yet at the same time we are aware that there are those, even here in Britain, who rejoice at what they see as a great ‘victory’. It is sadly ironic, if that’s the right word, that we are faced with these contradictions on the feast of St Francis of Assisi, one of the best known and best loved saints of the Christian West, whose prayer ‘Lord, make me a channel of your peace’ has become almost a cliché of the quest for peace.

Last year I wrote about the danger of sentimentalising St Francis, illustrating my post with the only known contemporary portrait of the saint. This year I have chosen one of El Greco’s paintings of St Francis receiving the stigmata (the marks of the wounds inflicted on Christ’s hands, feet and side during the crucifixion). The contrast between the beauty of the saint’s hands and the terrible wounds piercing them, the darkness the saint inhabits and the brilliance of the vision before him, above all, the harsh light El Greco throws on his subject’s face, parallel the role of prayer and suffering in Francis’s quest to be a man of peace — moments of peace and tranquillity glimpsed through prayer and long years of  sacrifice in which he was broken open, scooped out, transformed. To be a man of peace meant identifying completely with the Master he followed, snatching victory from apparent defeat.

Mr Henning left home and family to help others in distress. He was clearly a charitable man, prepared to take risks to be of service to others. Francis was also a man of great charity, who lived a life of simplicity and joy. For both of them there was an integrity and courage that bore them through the difficulties they faced. I think we can learn something from each of them. In the end, it is charity and peace that secure the world; but neither peace nor charity is attained without sacrifice.