It probably took Saul about four days to walk from Jerusalem. That’s presuming he kept up a quick pace, which in the light of his motivation and his mood is probably the case.
For he carried in his backpack arrest warrants for those troublesome Christians which were multiplying like vermin in Damascus. He was accompanied by a garrison of temple police and was ready to show them who was boss, whose religion was the biggest and the best and the most powerful and make them submit to his mighty force.
But, as you know, he got knocked off his high horse, and blinded and helpless met Ananias, who conquered him with kindness and and turned his wrath to peace, baptizing him into the dying and rising of Christ Jesus, his Lord and his Light.
Only a few city blocks from the site of that Baptism, now marked by a Church constructed of the stones from an ancient city gate, is the Sarin-soaked soil where 426 children were gassed and more than a thousand adults were killed two weeks ago, a small portion of the more than 80,000 people who have died in that bloody civil war, which is probably a smaller part of the numbers who will die in the days and months and years to come.
Which is why our Holy Father Francis asks us to pray for peace.
But what does he mean to pray for peace?
For we who are promised a peace the world cannot give?
For we who follow a Lord who tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?
For we who are told to turn the other cheek and to forgive seventy times seven?
For we whose Lord walks through the locked doors of our defenses and says “Peace be with you.” What does it mean to pray for peace?
Perhaps an earlier Francis can give us a hint.
The Sultan of Egypt
Nine hundred and ninety-four years ago, the thirty-seven year old father of a well-established reform of religious life and of the Church as a whole, walked to Damietta, Egypt to see the Sultan of that land at the very moment that the great King was engaged in mortal combat with the Fifth Christian Crusade.
Now it probably took about a year to walk from Assisi to Damietta and Saint Francis and his companions would have had to pass through modern day Syria along the way, perhaps traversing the very soil over which men fight today.
Arriving in Egypt, he witnessed a ferocity of war no less evident than in our own time, as the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, the nephew of Saladin the Great had decreed that anyone who brought him the detached head of a Christian should be rewarded with a single golden coin.
St. Bonaventure, in his Major Life of St. Francis, tells us how the Saint and his companion just walked right into the enemy camp, where they were predictably placed in chains, beaten and dragged before the Sultan.
And then it began. Like Pilate before the Lord, the great Sultan had no idea who was before him.
Who sent you? the Sultan asked.
God. Francis replied.
And why did he send you?
To save you and to teach you the truth, he answered.
“When the Sultan saw his enthusiasm and courage,” Bonaventure tells us, “he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him.”
Here you have this medieval Goliath of a Sultan with an army so powerful he and his brother had conquered the whole Middle East, but he was conquered by the simplicity of the poverello, saying pace e bene...God sent me to save your soul.
It was an unfair imbalance for a diplomatic negotiation. The Sultan probably saw Francis as a delegate of Cardinal Pelagius and his troops who would seek to negotiate a cease fire or even the return of the Holy sites or the surrender of Egypt.
But Francis did not arrive as a diplomat seeking an audience with the Great Ayyubid Sultan Malik al-Kamel Naser al-Din Abu al-Ma'ali Muhammed seeking political advantage. No. Francis arrived as a man who so loved Malik that he sought to obtain his soul for God.
In other words, Francis saw Peace not as the prize at the conclusion of an effective political negotiation, but as the opportunity to love the one who had been cast as his enemy, to humanize him and recognize him as his brother.
Which is why his example is so good for me. I am no diplomat. My entire knowledge of international diplomacy comes from observing Jed Bartlett and Leo Magarry in the Situation room of the West Wing. I, frankly, have no idea how to solve the geopolitical intricacies of the war in Syria.
I am not a diplomat. I am a Priest. But as a Priest I know the road to true peace is to love and to pray.
But that’s so hard to do! It’s so much easier to play an arm chair version of RISK, imagining how I would use the strategic nuclear weapons of the world to force people to be nice to each other!
But that’s not the way it works. Peace, as the poverello teaches us, begins and ends with dying to all my self serving power grabs, and loving the one who is right in front of me, who has been cast as my enemy.
But its so much easier to hold dearly to a grudge. Do you know what he did to me? Did you hear how he betrayed me? Did you hear what he said? You just wait until I get my hands on him!
It is so much easier for me to speculate on my next act of revenge than to forgive my brother for whom I hold a grudge. My grandmother used to speak of Irish Alzheimer's: where you forget everything except the grudges.
So pray for peace, the Pope says. Pray for peace in Syria.
Pray that God might give President Al-Assad the grace to love his countrymen enough to end this bloody slaughter. Pray for peace!
Pray that God might give President Obama the grace to love the young Syrian soldier who sits in the bunker of the communications hub he is targeting. Pray for peace!
Pray that God might give the Al-Qaeda rebel the grace to recall the words of the Quran: “The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, “Peace!” (Quaran 25:63)
Pray that God might give the opposition leaders the grace to love those whom they oppose, whether they live in Syria or Washington D.C.
And pray for you and me, that God might give me the grace to seek peace with my brother, and then with the world.
Mother Teresa used to say: “Smile five times a day at someone you don't really want to smile at; do it for peace. Let us radiate the peace of God and so light His light and extinguish in the world and in the hearts of all men all hatred and love for power.”
Or, as Dorothy Day used to say, “My prayer from day to day is that God will so enlarge my heart that I will see you all, and love with you all, in God’s love.”
Now that’s a prayer for peace.