October 9, 2015
At the recent Gathering on Mental Health and the Church I received an education in church history for which I was unprepared. Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and professor at Duke University and the Duke Divinity School, and MAJ Jeff Matsler, a US Army Chaplain (Major) and bioethicist at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Washington made a case for St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
These matters are discussed and debated at a much higher pay grade than mine, but as a lay person their arguments make a lot of sense.
Francesco Bernardone was the son of the richest merchant in Assisi, one of the wealthiest cities in Italy at the time. Born in 1181, Francis grew up a child of privilege. When he was 16, dreaming of glory and honor, he became one of the leaders of Assisi’s army in their war against Perugia, a city only 12 miles away.
Assisi and Perugia had been at odds for over 1,200 years dating back to the time of the Etruscans (Perugia) and Umbrii (Assisi), two of the ancient peoples of the central Italian peninsula. The rivalry had been renewed with the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in the north and of the Ghibelline city states of Italy. The Ghibellines loosely support the Emperor and their own economic interests versus the Guelphs, or supporters of the temporal authority of the Popes. This was compounded by the ancient rivalry between the two cities.
Francesco, as the son of the wealthiest merchant in a city of merchants, could afford the accoutrements of mounted warfare. Horses, armor, a groom, and a page were all signs of status in a city that did not recognize hereditary nobility. Assisi was proud of its independence and freedom. Francesco was a defender of that freedom.
Warfare was conducted during the warm months after the crops had been sown. So Francesco would mount up with his friends and a cohort of millers, fullers, tradesmen, peasants and others to skirmish with the Perugians and residents of other hilltop towns of Umbria. Neither side gained an advantage, but the blood spilled was plenty and Francesco learned the art and hardships of war.
In November of 1202, all of this changed. The merchants of Assisi had risen up and evicted many of the Perugian nobility living there and Perugia, with the support of Pope Innocent III was ready to strike back with a force three times the size of that of Assisi. The Pope had excommunicated the residents of Assisi and thus the rules of war did not apply.
At the battle of Collestrada (Ponte San Giovanni) the Perugians slaughtered the soldiers of Assisi. No quarter was given the excommunicates.
In medieval warfare killing was done up close using axes, swords, pikes, and arrows. The carnage would have been horrendous. Francesco, one of the few wearing knight’s armor, was captured for ransom and taken back to one of the worst dungeons in Perugia. He was held there and tortured for a year and released once a ransom was paid by his father.
He came home a living reminder of the loss of the war and deaths of 3,000 or more of his fellow citizens. Today, some of what he experienced would be called moral injury. His sense of shame and survivor’s guilt would have been strong.
Having seem the horror of battle and then the pit of despair and abandonment, Francesco‘s symptoms seem to closely resemble those of today’s veterans coming home from war. He stopped eating and sleeping. He drank to excess and lived on the edge of town in ruins and basements. He was mocked in the streets and considered mad. He did the unthinkable, kissing lepers on their wounds.
He went off to war again to fight under the Count of Brienne but made it only a few leagues before he gave his armor to an indigent soldier and returned home.
He wandered the villages and fields of Umbria in turmoil until one evening he entered a small, abandoned church. There the crucifix came alive and he was called to a life of faith.
As his reputation for holiness grew, other former soldiers were drawn to him. The called themselves the Knights Penitent. They sought to expiate their sins through labor and good works. They swore a vow of poverty.
And so the faith of Francis and his companions grew stronger and their faith helped them to heal themselves and others for the greater glory of God.
This may be the greatest gift of all for those suffering from PTSD. Knowing that over 800 years ago a young man badly damaged by war found meaning and peace from his terrible struggles and redemption through faith and good works. This too shall pass.