The present Pope calls himself Francis but does he know he owes his Franciscan spiritual heritage to 5th century Syrian refugees?
Ten years ago, I became interested in the story of the thousands of Syrian refugees in the 5th and 6th centuries who made their way west to escape persecution. These hermits – for they were largely refugees from Christian desert monastic communities – recreated their religious life on the sacred mountain of Monteluco overlooking Spoleto. In this same valley – a little further east – Benedict of Nursia would begin his monastic Rule that would establish much of Europe’s Christian culture and arguably provide the foundation for the religious humanism of the continent.
Both Saint Benedict and Saint Francis – who lived much later – were profoundly influenced by the flourishing Christian communities of Syrian refugees which gave a hermit tradition to Umbria over several hundred years: possibly until the seventeenth century according to some records.
I gave a lecture on the subject of the Syrian refugee hermits in Monteluco Franciscan friary in Spoleto in 2006. Professor Mario Sensi – the expert on Umbrian eremitism – was in the audience, much to my surprise and great fear! He had been tipped off by the Bishop of Spoleto, whose chaplain I had met over lunch, that an unknown Englishman was delivering a lecture on Syrian eremitical influences.
After my lecture, he asked me some very challenging questions. With proper academic rigour, he unnervingly dismissed two of my sources as flawed. Finally he said the broad substance of my research was correct and he agreed with my analysis and the connections I had made. He publicly said he wanted to see this published, and he even gave me an electronic copy of his own unpublished work in progress – on the subject of Umbrian eremitism – so I could use his extensive bibliography to help my own future work.
Nothing became of that research: I was going to pursue it while in formation for the Catholic priesthood at the Pontifical Beda College, and hopefully finish it as a doctoral thesis in one of the Catholic university colleges of Rome. I did not go down that road, for reasons some are familiar with. So the basic ideas and discoveries have not been set out publicly until now. The current Syrian refugee crisis means that we must begin to understand Syrians as part of our broader history, rather than some alien invasion.
The case I want to outline is that the refugees from Syria in the 5th and 6th centuries – in those days fleeing internal problems within the Church – brought to Umbria a monastic and eremitical culture which brought the desert tradition of monastic life to Europe. The Syrians also established a religious artistic workshop in Spoleto, and out of that eventually came the iconic (a word that is increasingly misused, but is here exactly correct) San Damiano Crucifix: a painted cross which was placed in a little church in Assisi that would become central to the early narrative of the young Saint Francis, who fell under the influence of the Christ who spoke to him from the cross. It was made by Syrian artists, either in the Spoleto workshop – the home of their exiled desert tradition – or in a nearby workshop of those following the same painting tradition.
A full size high quality digital image of the San Damiano Crucifix will be included in this three part series. It is not available anywhere else on the internet. I had permission from the photographer to share the image (a Franciscan brother in Assisi who long since went to his maker, RIP) – providing it is not for commercial purposes. It will be made available here in the third part of this series.
In the next part I will refer to Saint Isaac of Spoleto, a Syrian hermit and bishop and a man who came to Umbria as a refugee from Syria. A man who would eventually be mentioned by Pope Gregory the Great as, “a man of great mirth” (Dialogues, Book 3). Eventually, these Syrian refugees would produce an eremitical culture that gave rise to the Umbrian movement of poverty and simplicity that inspired Francis. Any pope who takes the name of Francis owes a debt to the refugees of 5th and 6th century Syria, and therefore has a special connection with their compatriots in today’s refugee crisis.
As a Catholic, I believe the moral lead provided by the Jews in the present crisis of refugees from Syria is inspiring. The recent statements of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, regarding the comparison with “kindertransport” children fleeing from Nazi Germany, follows through – in practical action – his challenging ideas in Not in God’s Name, which I am still reading and digesting. It would be good to see a strong lead on the Syrian refugee crisis coming from a Pope who deliberately called himself Francis. I will develop these connections, and sow the way in which Syrian refugees of the 5th and 6th centuries in Italy gave rise to the Umbrian eremitical and monastic culture which ultimately produced the 13th century Franciscan movement with its great literary and artistic revolution that would widely influence European culture.
I hope that Pope Francis is aware of the spiritual debt he owes Syrian refugees of the past, and that he and the Church in Europe will look upon the plight of present refugees from that country with an appreciation of earlier migrations. In Part 2 I will tell the story of the Syrian refugee community of Monteluco in Umbria and the way that their hermit community provided many of the ingredients for Benedictine monasticism and prepared the way for the Franciscan movement just two day’s walk north in Assisi a few centuries later.