Homily on the Feast of Saint Louis IX of France by Br. Thomas at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, NYC, August 25, 2020
Phyllis McGinley in her book Saint Watching says, “As a saint-watcher, amateur standing, I am forever discovering my own ignorance. Saints have this or that quality, I assure myself complacently. Then out of some historical thicket bursts a new specimen, or I come across a whole flock of the brilliant creatures behaving quite otherwise than I had expected. For the glass through which I observe them may be imperfect but at least it is not stained glass. It does not filter out their humanity but lets it shine through unimpaired.”
Today the church commemorates Louis, King of France. I have to admit that I find St Louis a puzzling character. He isn’t what I initially picture when I think of saints. When I think of saints, I think of Teresa of Avila or Francis of Assisi. I think of habits and service, friars, monks, and nuns, feeding people, clothing people, teaching people, dying for their faith. People who engaged the holy and in a lot of ways seemed to be nearly perfect. I never saw those things when I looked at Louis, if I’m honest. But McGinley encourages us to take into account the humanity of the saint. To let them be people just as much as they are role models. And when I begin to look at Louis through those lenses, I begin to see something different.
Louis IX was born in 1214 and was crowned king of France in 1228, the same year Francis of Assisi was canonized in the Catholic Church. Louis was 12 years old. Louis’ mother Blanche of Castile ruled the kingdom until he came of age. By the time he was of age, he had grown into a man who was sincerely committed to his catholic faith; living simply, visiting hospitals, trying to act with integrity and honesty. He even wore the habit of the Secular Franciscans on special occasions at the palace.
The Secular Franciscans were an Order of the church that followed the way of St Francis but didn’t live in community. They promise to try to live out the gospel message and the way of St Francis within their own context, as shopkeepers and mothers, husbands and fisherman. And for quite some time they did have a habit that they wore, that way people knew that they had made these promises. Even today, we Episcopal Franciscans also have the what are called the Third Order Franciscans that are doing this very thing- living out the message of the gospel and way of St Francis within their own context. Although nowadays the habit has been set aside.
I imagine that when Louis wore this habit around the palace it may have caused some challenges. Or at the very least large questions. Here is the man who is supposed to be the supreme law of the land, and he had promised to live out the gospel message, to be faithful to the church and follow the way a poor Italian beggar named Francis. I can imagine the royal court whispering about the sanity of their king, if he were really capable of ruling, if he could protect them if they were attached or if he would lay down his sword and surrender in a show of peace.
I am sure that the same questions rolled around in Louis’ brain as well. Take today’s gospel for example: Jesus said, “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” To those who are poor, these words can sound like provision- don’t worry about these things, God will take care of you. But to a rich young ruler, these words can sound differently. There is more to life than luxury, finery, possessions or power. I can imagine him asking: how do I follow the way of the gospel and be the king that my people are expecting? How then do I live out my faith and fulfill my duties?
It didn’t always go well for Louis. It is a struggle to set aside power and glory for the challenge and simplicity of the gospel at times- especially when your job is to exude power and glory in the name of your kingdom. It is a struggle to publicly live out your convictions where the whole world is watching and ready to judge you. It is hard to not use your privilege to do what you believe is right even when those choices you make have a massive impact on others – good or bad.
Louis, in the name of faith and Christian unity, ordered the expulsion of all Jews who were in the practice of lending money with high interest rates. He burned more than 12,000 Jewish manuscripts in order to help the Inquisition in France. And in 1270 he led the Eighth Crusade to Tunis with money gained from selling all of the property from expelled Jews. As I said, it didn’t go well.
While leading the Eighth Crusade to Tunis, Louis contracted what many believe to be the plague, and died on August 25, 1270, not quite a martyr.
Like I said when I started, Louis doesn’t look like a saint to me. He was rich and powerful, some of his actions were anti-Semitic, and he led a Crusade, a holy war, killing in the name of God. None of his anti-Semitic actions are excused because he was canonized. That history still happened. But all that isn’t why he is a saint.
Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and author wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
Perhaps Louis is a saint because as an individual he actively engaged in finding out who he was. Perhaps he is a saint because he accepted the challenge of trying to be a follower of the gospel and of the way of Francis and at the same time tried to be a king . Perhaps he is a saint because he sought to find God in the place where simplicity and authority intersected. Perhaps he is a saint because it all went wrong sometimes. And in that we can see that when it goes wrong for us we can keep going. Thomas Merton says that to be a saint is to be yourself, and I would add that being yourself is messy business whether you are a king, a priest, a shopkeeper, or a friar.
King Louis IX was canonized only 27 years after he died which means that people saw the saintliness in Louis. They saw the way God moved in and through his life even amongst the crowns and power and war. Perhaps they saw the way he was trying to figure it all out, his own faith amidst his role as king. He wasn’t a St Francis or a St Teresa. But he was someone committed to figuring it out in his own context, just like they were. Just like you are. Just like I am.