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How the Church Has Changed the World: Ramon Llull, Missionary to the Muslims

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

Ramon sat upon the shore, looking southward upon the broad and sunlit sea.


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lullPalm trees with their dark green and glossy fronds rose high above him, their roots sent deep into the gray volcanic stone that is the island of Majorca.  A fire was burning within him.

'What are you doing here, Ramon?" asked a cool and knowing voice at his side.  "Are you thinking about one of your mistresses?  Composing a new song, my fine young troubadour?'

"No, I am not composing a song.  My heart is troubled."

Then I've come in good time to set you at ease," said the voice.  "Come back with me to Palma.  There is a young lady who cannot sleep, all because of you.  Are you worried about your wife?  She knows, too.  She is no fool.  Come with me and live life as the world lives it. Bring your lute and sing for love."

Ramon felt at once how easy it would be to lie back and love with the half-hearted love that the world knows, for things that fall away, one day like the next, until death ends the song.  But there came into his mind the vision that troubled him.  On five days, one after another, he had seen love in the person of the crucified Christ, suspended in space before him.  The blood from his pierced heart and hands trickled upon him, and his soul was stirred to new life.

"I have never loved," said Ramon.

"You are a fool," said the voice, grown suddenly cold. 

"I will be a fool for love," said Ramon.

"You have your freedom now," said the voice, as if with a smile or a sneer.  "You are the seneschal of the king.  You are handsome and intelligent, and there is hardly a lady's chamber door that you cannot penetrate with your music.  Sing, and it shall be opened unto you."

"I will be the slave of love," said Ramon.

"Tell us, Fool!  What is love?"  He answered: "Love is that which throws the free into bondage, and gives liberty to those who are in bonds."  And who can say whether love is nearer to liberty than to bondage?

Blessed Ramon Llull would write those words, in a remarkable book of poetic meditations, one for each day of the year.  But that was yet to come.

The Sword Of Love

Ramon Llull became a lay Franciscan, inspired by the story of that most amiable of God's fools, the high-living young poet and singer Francis who gave up everything to many his Lady Poverty, and who strode unarmed before the sultan to persuade him of the truth of the Christian faith.  Everywhere Ramon looked, there was the sea, and beyond the sea, the followers of Mohammed, learned, wealthy, and implacable.  His father had been a crusader.  I will not join the easy despisers of the crusader knights, who often impoverished themselves and left their homelands never to return, to win back the Holy Land for the Faith.  Yet after more than a hundred years, what had they gained for all their effort?  A narrow strip of land between the desert and the sea surrounded by enemies.

Ramon decided he would fight with a different sword, the sword of love.

He did not adopt the slack modern habit of the shrug, seeing no difference where there was all the difference in the world.  The religion of Mohammed was radically deficient.  It was, however, in possession of some of the truth about God.  So Ramon Llull decided he would conduct a powerful attack against Islam by employing the truths of Islam itself.  He would conduct this attack in love, and love would be also its intellectual center.

That meant that he would have to learn what the Muslims knew.  So he spent his next nine years, mostly in Majorca, learning Arabic and immersing himself in the works of such great Arabic philosophers and theologians as Averroes, Avicenna, and Al-Ghazali.  His friend Saint Raymond of Penyafort encouraged him in this, as he had also encouraged another young scholar, a man from Aquino, named Thomas; and Thomas obliged him by writing the great Summa Contra Gentiles.

Ramon traveled to France and to Rome, everywhere urging that missionaries be prepared by learning the geography, the languages, the customs, and the beliefs of the people to whom they would go.  He founded schools for those missionaries.  He wrote a religious novel, Blanquerna, and beautiful works of mystical devotion, in his native tongue of Catalan.  He wrote treatises on logic and on what would come to be called computational theory.  He had not the brilliance of Thomas Aquinas, but who has?  Yet no one of his time wrote works of such high quality in so wide a range of genres and on so wide a range of subjects.  This tireless work occupied him for nearly thirty years.

Then at last Ramon, now a gray-haired man approaching old age, had his chance.  The ship was in the sunny harbor of Genoa.  Ramon's friends and students had loaded his books on board.  Across the sea lay Tunis, a city of some two hundred thousand souls, and the seat of the most powerful Muslim ruler in the West.

But Ramon, sensitive soul that he was, was stricken with terror.  It should endear him to us all the more.  He could not board the ship.  He spent the next night in a sickness of fear and shame, the desire to preach the love of God burning within him, not allowing him a moment's rest.  When he heard that another ship was bound for Tunis, Ramon, against the pleadings of his friends, set himself upon it, and at once his heart was filled with peace and joy.

The sea glinted and the waves sloshed against the hull.  Only the helmsman Love could steer the way. 

Love and Reason 

So Ramon Llull arrived in the public square of Tunis.  "I challenge to prove by reason alone," he cried out, "that the Christian faith is the full truth, and if I am overcome by reason, I vow that I shall myself become a Muslim."

The Arabs took up the challenge.  "You are correct," said Ramon, "in your belief that God is almighty and is all-wise.  But you have neglected his love and goodness.  How can you say that God is preeminent in all things worthy of praise, but when it comes to love and goodness you have nothing to offer but contradictions?"

"How can you say that God is preeminent in all things worthy of praise, but when it comes to love and goodness you have nothing to offer but contradictions?"

"Old man," said the imam, not without a man's respect for the brave opponent, "you are walking into the trap that you yourself have set.  You grant to us that we are right to uphold the might of God, may his name ever be praised, and yet you believe in an absurdity, that this same Lord should become a man like us, a baby who could not walk, a boy who could not swing a sword, and then the man on the cross, who could not smite his enemies.  You pride yourself upon your logic," he continued, glancing at a fascinating device that Ramon had invented, made up of wheels within wheels of propositions leading to inevitable conclusions.  "But this is worse than an error in logic.  It is blasphemy.  Recant, and you shall enjoy the favor of the sultan."

"It is not error but truth," said Ramon.  "Consider.  Is it not a mark of the power of God, that he should do what seems unimaginable to us?  When the sultan descends from his litter to assist a beggar in the street, does he not rise in the favor of God, the compassionate, the merciful?  Then God showed his power at one with his goodness and his love, when he not only descended from his throne to share our life as one of us, but also submitted to be scorned by us, and scourged by us, and put to death by us.  And he rose from the dead, so that we see that his might is his love, and his love is life.  For he who loves not, lives not."

The imam left, troubled at heart.  This fellow might be dangerous.  But when an advisor to the sultan recommended that the old man be cast into a dungeon and then put to death, he intervened.  "My lord," he said, "consider the zeal of the man, and how much we would praise the Muslim who showed such courage."  So Ramon Llull was merely banished from the country.

Only Love Persuades

The sea would beckon again, and in the year 1315, Ramon Llull, a frail man of more than fourscore years, was stoned to death by an angry mob of Muslims in the North African city of Bugia.  His bones lie in the Church of Saint Francis, in Palma, where he sang of his merry and carnal loves when he was young, and then sang all his life long of the love of God.  It is hard to imagine any more promising way than his, to reach the heart of the Muslim.  But I will end this essay by letting Llull speak, in one of his most beautiful meditations:

The Lover cried aloud to all men and said, "Love bids you love always — in walking and sitting, waking and sleeping, in speech and in silence, in buying and selling, weeping and laughing, joy and sorrow, gain and loss.  In whatever you do, you must love, for this is Love's commandment"

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Ramon Llull, Missionary to the Muslims." Magnificat (August, 2016): 209-214.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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