For a knight — picture Ragnar Lothbrook — no greater humiliation befalls him than to fail, to be sent home on a horse. “You’re not needed here — thanks.” It upends everything knighthood stands for and, worse, violates every instinct an aspiring knight lives for. “Go home.” Or, to put it in modern vernacular, Get a job!
The quintessential feature that energizes and drives the aspirations of the knight is the cry “save us!” Have you heard the cliché A Knight in Shining Armor? If the armor of a knight is shining, it is because having returned from battle, he’s polished it.
Knights are called to arms in the indispensable work of saving the day. And not saving the day only, but doing so with honor, humility, devotion, courage, and valor. Do we know what those words mean anymore?
Saint Francis of Assisi, before he was a beloved friar identified with poverty, was first a failed knight. He failed altogether. He tried, repeatedly, to earn knighthood in battle. He never gave up. That is until one sad day, just south of Assisi, after he had left the city gates to fight in battle with one of Italy’s most beloved generals at the time. His malarial fever seized him and he could not rise from his bed. (He had contracted malaria while languishing in a prison after being captured during another great battle in which he had fought for Assisi.) In the delirium of fever, he had a dream. It said, “Go home.” That night, he gave up the dream and rode home on his horse in utter humiliation. He would never be a knight and would live that humiliation the rest of his days. But more, he would live under it; he wore it like a crown. He raised it like a standard. His shame, you see, was the ticket — it was the way into what he was destined to become.
The loss of everything he had ever hoped for, dreamed of and fought over, now defined his life. Not only did he lose it, but he suffered the rest of his life for what it exacted from him as a result. He never recovered from the malaria he contracted in prison. Added to that he contended with tuberculosis in his bones. Over time, he had to stop running up Assisi’s hillsides. Over time, he could barely set himself upon horse.
Yet on he went, calling people to peace, to poverty: “Since you speak of peace, all the more so must you have it in your hearts. Let none be provoked to anger or scandal by you, but rather may they be drawn to peace and good will, to benignity and concord through your gentleness. We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” On and on he went, throughout Umbria, to Egypt, maybe to Jerusalem, on to the mountains in Tuscany, to a place called La Verna, then back to Umbria until, at the end of his spent life, he could no longer walk. In the end, he had to be carried by the city knights, the same knights with whom he had fought in battle. They had witnessed his humiliations. The knights carried him because, by the end of his life, he could not carry himself. He could not run, nor walk, nor barely lift his head.
His final journey was with a procession of knights who brought him from the outskirts of town to his beloved Assisi to die.
Who was this man, Francis? Who lost his knightly dreams and turned it all around and became the very thing every noble knight bowed down to?
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