Today, August 25, is “Saint Louis” day. The following article—originally sent to me as an email but subsequently expanded by a reader, Joachim Osther—helps underscore its significance.
“The life of the admirable King…was one of almost uninterrupted misfortune,” is how one chronicler described the life of the munificent warrior, Louis IX.
This King of France (1214-1270), who led two campaigns to liberate indigenous Christians in the Middle East as well as the Holy City of Jerusalem, is regarded by historians as a failed Crusader. One would be hard-pressed to argue otherwise since Louis did not achieve his own stated military objectives. However, in reading Raymond Ibrahim’s account of King Louis in his insightful Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam, one gets the sense that this man, this warrior monk archetype, should be closely examined by Christians in the present-day.
Incidentally, along with Louis, Ibrahim chronicles the lives of seven other Athleta Christi (Champions of Christ), describing the constancy of diverse misfortunes for most and astounding victories for all. What emerges is a collective portrait of a Christian archetype characterized by the amalgam of deep faith and fierce valor. At first, this archetype may seem foreign to our modern perceptions of “what a Christian should be.” After all, these men engaged in very violent warfare.
Yet as these accounts are read, a faint and familiar resonance materializes from that dormant precinct of our Christian ethos which recognizes that occasions of great evil may justly necessitate a martial response. Stated differently—Christian intrepidness should not be an oxymoron.
Indeed, there is much to learn and apply from Ibrahim’s Defenders even if we cannot lay claim to the composite attributes found in these men of God—their collective strength of character, physical attributes, military skills, together with their deep faith.
For starters, in reading about these men of faith, an inescapable transmission of Christian solidarity is unavoidable. A historical awakening of sorts to the reality of an Ottoman Empire that could have stretched deep into the heart of Europe were it not for martial men of faith. This realization produces a subtle yet pervasive sense of Christian unity, one that transcends Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic associationism.
While all eight men often embodied supernal virtues, there is a wrinkle to the King of France who cut a slightly discrepant phenotype. While the word ‘Crusader’ conjures up images in our minds of broad-shouldered knights with biceps like oak trees, King Louis strikes a different visage. He is described as a handsome man yet corporeally bound in an Ichabod Crane-like frame—tall, skinny, with a “frail constitution…prone to sickness.” Hardly the Chris Hemsworth caricature inevitably associated with the other Defenders in the book, for example, El Cid, Richard the Lionhearted, and Skanderbeg.
Deep-seated within this lanky and frequently infirm man was an indefatigable faith expressed both in unrelenting ferocity and valor on the battlefield and in the bewildering depth of his forbearance and humility—the very embodiment of the warrior monk. In his essay, The Necessity of Chivalry, CS Lewis recognized the rarity of seeing these mutually exclusive ideals coming together in one person. “The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate towards one another,” wrote Lewis, “the man who combines both characters…is a work not of nature but of art.”
Returning from his first failed Crusade, Louis set about to reign in a manner consistent with his Lord. On a daily basis this King of France would ensure that the poor were fed (regularly by his own hands) and he was known to spurn the royal table to eat whatever was left over from his benefaction. Louis spent much of his means on helping the impoverished, financing churches, cathedrals, and monasteries, and finding work for women who were so desperate for food that they had sold themselves into prostitution.
In the context of his failed first Crusade and subsequent imprisonment in Egypt, one would hardly blame the man for slipping into the comfortable shadows of royal life. Instead, this pious warrior did just the opposite, and the residue of his grace marked the interregnum of his two Crusades. It is worth considering that in devoting his life so ardently to his Savior, Louis’ life itself bore many Christ-like resemblances:
- Louis was the king who stepped out of his throne room and into the kingdom to enter the dregs, help liberate God’s children, and bring glory to His Name.
- As the prize prisoner in a repugnant Islamic prison, he was the frequent target of truculent paroxysms and threats made at the curved edge of the scimitar, yet Louis stood undaunted and resolute while affixed in the chains of his captor (an eyewitness observed that Louis was “the soul of constancy” in faith and optimism).
- King Louis washed the feet of the poor and provided for the “least of these.”
- He was the edifier and encourager of his followers, even at his death (his recorded dying words: “Grant us, we ask, for the sake of Your love, that we may despise worldly success and fear none of its misfortunes”).
Would Louis’ Christ-like attributes and journey have been the same if his Crusading campaigns were successful? Providence leaves us only with conjecture. As such, we must assume the facts as they appear, namely that the faith that blossomed in his upbringing together with his intrinsic virtuous character traits seemed to have been melded by the furnace of war, forged at the anvil of defeat, and shaped by the hammer of imprisonment. That is to say, it seems he became the “admirable King” by way of “almost uninterrupted misfortune.”
In the present day, American Christians are witnessing the growth of a Jacobin-like secularist leviathan, one that is increasingly superintendent over education, the corporate world, and many institutions of the Federal government. Predictably, the secularists are becoming progressively more comfortable with (and seemingly enjoying) the use of overt modalities of persecution as an a priori means of persuasion and conformity.
As we turn to face this anti-Christian sentiment, we would do well to remember the resolute King of France—especially the strength, sharpness, and purity of his faith which emerged through a training ground of travails. In Louis we find an archetype that is slightly more relatable, a warrior that admonishes our fickle Western Christian sensibilities, and a man whose character is adorned in the vestiture of grace and service—the fullest expression of the Athleta Christi.
If we do not look to the likes of Louis as exemplar, then the prescient CS Lewis might just be right about the future:
It may or may not be possible to produce by the thousand men who combine the two sides of Lancelot’s character. But if it is not possible, then all talk of any lasting happiness or dignity in human society is pure moonshine.
Joachim Osther is a multi-disciplinarian – a freelance writer focusing on the intersection of culture and Christianity. Osther holds a master’s degree in theological studies while working as a strategist, advisor, and published author in the life sciences.