January 18, 2021

All Our Crusades Turn to Ashes

By Chaplain Mike

Children's Crusade, Wojtkiewicz

One day in May 1212 there appeared at Saint-Denis, where King Philip of France was holding his court, a shepherd-boy of about twelve years old called Stephen, from the small town of Cloyes in the Orléannais. He brought with him a letter for the King, which, he said, had been given to him by Christ in person, who had appeared to him as he was tending his sheep and who had bidden him go and preach the Crusade. King Philip was not impressed by the child and told him to go home. But Stephen, whose enthusiasm had been fired by his mysterious visitor, saw himself now as an inspired leader who would succeed where his elders had failed. For the past fifteen years preachers had been going round the country-side urging a Crusade against the Moslems of the East or of Spain or against the heretics of Languedoc. It was easy for an hysterical boy to be infected with the idea that he too could be a preacher and could emulate Peter the Hermit, whose prowess had during the past century reached a legendary grandeur. Undismayed by the King’s indifference, he began to preach at the very entrance to the abbey of Saint-Denis and to announce that he would lead a band of children to the rescue of Christendom. The seas would dry up before them, and they would pass, like Moses through the Red Sea, safe to the Holy Land. He was gifted with an extraordinary eloquence. Older folk were impressed, and children came flocking to his call. After his first success he set out to journey round France summoning the children; and many of his converts went further afield to work on his behalf. They were all to meet together at Vendôme in about a month’s time and start out from there to the East.

Thus begins the legendary account of “The Children’s Crusades” from Steven Runciman’s classic three volume work, A History of the Crusades. As the story proceeds, the children from France arrive at the edge of sea in Marseille, only to be disappointed. The Mediterranean does not part.

Meanwhile, another group of children in Germany, inspired by tales of Stephen’s preaching and led by a boy named Nicholas, set off over the Alps intent on going to the Holy Land as well. And likewise, when they reached the sea in Italy, the hopeful pilgrims were stalled before an impervious sea.

Nicholas went to Rome and was granted an audience with the Pope, who praised his enthusiasm but expressed embarrassment over his foolish quest. The Holy Father ordered the expedition to return home. Many could not face another journey and so settled in Italy. When Nicholas himself returned, the angry parents who had lost their children to his quixotic dream had him arrested and hanged.

A second group of German pilgrims, who had separated from Nicholas’s group, were also disappointed upon arrival at the coast. The travelers had lost many to death and defection along the way. A few were able to board ships to Palestine, but the outcome of their journey is unknown. A few stragglers turned around and eventually made it back home.

The fate of the French crusaders was even more grim. Those who did not perish from the journey found themselves sold into slavery. They lived out their days in captivity.

This heartbreaking mythical Medieval tale captures the imagination and rebukes human folly. How high our dreams and visions of changing the world! How disappointed we are when the sea fails to part before us. We who invoke the name of Christ and carry the banner of his cross are no less subject to the vicissitudes, disappointments, and failures of life. We bear the ashes on this holy day to remind us of our oneness with all humanity and to confess our inability to change the fundamentals. Our strategies will fail and we will die.

In a day of heady optimism, idealism, and triumphalism—especially as expressed by our American brand of Christianity, in which we are promised our “best life now” and unlimited possibilities—Ash Wednesday speaks to us like the Pope addressed young Stephen. “You have spirit, young man, but you’re a fool.”

We Christians, especially, find it hard to grasp that the only way forward, the only hope for happiness, the only possibility for a positive outcome, the only access to true abundance will come if we start at the bottom line: We are limited. We are sinful. We will die.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

• John 12:24, NASB

We don’t have the answers. We can’t show you the way. It is not ours to promise that we can part the sea, conquer the infidel, and raise the banner of the cross. If you join our pilgrimage, you will find a group of people who are just like you. We have hopes. We long that the world will be put to rights. We suffer. We get discouraged, and angry, and aren’t always nice. We get sick, lose our jobs, divorce, have rebellious children, aren’t always honest, and don’t always keep our promises. We also long for love, try to be kind, have dreams for our children, and hope we can pay this month’s bills and put aside a little for the future.

We do believe that God is our Father, that Jesus died and rose again for us, and that the Holy Spirit has called us into a community of people called the church. We’ve been baptized to signify that our only hope is in death and resurrection with Jesus. We gather at his table to meet with him, hear his words, and receive food for our journey. We trust that God will put his world to rights one day and we long to be part of that.

But we have no illusions that our strategies and efforts—our “children’s crusades”— will have a lot to do with it. We may make it to the edge of the sea, but we can’t force the waters apart and pass through on dry land. So we’ll keep trekking and try to figure things out. Along the way we will have conversations and do our work and have ugly fights and bury our dead and take time to sing and make love and try to keep hope alive until each of us dies.

During the journey, some will find a suitable place to settle down, some will return home, and some of us will find ourselves trapped in captivities from which we won’t be free until we’re laid in the ground. We’ll do a little good; plant a few seeds, water and cultivate them, and hope our neighbors can join us at the table to share in a good harvest. And that’s enough.

How fitting that the ashes smeared on our foreheads today come from last year’s palms. Palm Sunday was a day of unbridled optimism and enthusiasm. The children sang and joined the parade. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! The spiritual ancestors of Stephen and Nicholas were there, ready to raise the flag of victory over the Holy Land.

Now it’s all ashes.

Such is the end of all human crusades. The walk Jesus calls us to involves carrying a cross. And we all know where that leads.


  1. I think I shall put down my little wooden sword and pray for a while … blessings!

  2. Wonderful piece for the start of Lent, CM. It leads me to self-examine what my own personal crusades are…financial security, the “American Dream”, the big house at the end of the cul-de-sac with the white picket fence, etc. More often than I would care to admit, my crusades have failed. It’s good to be reminded that “We do believe that God is our Father, that Jesus died and rose again for us, and that the Holy Spirit has called us into a community of people called the church. We’ve been baptized to signify that our only hope is in death and resurrection with Jesus. We gather at his table to meet with him, hear his words, and receive food for our journey. We trust that God will put his world to rights one day and we long to be part of that.”

  3. And as I recall, the original Palm Sunday turned to ashes by the following Friday …

    It’s tough to surrender those dreams of being a best-selling author, going on book tours, meeting the people one has always admired, living in a big house not too far from the ocean, and having one of the books turned into an Oscar-winning film adaptation. (Those are my fantasies; yours may vary.) Likely none of that will happen — but I can still carry that cross as well as I’m able, and enjoy what moments that can be enjoyed on the way. And, when God asks “do you trust Me?” (which He does a lot with me), to keep answering “yes,” and keep trudging.

    I know, doesn’t sound much like “the victorious Christian life” as it’s been portrayed. But victory doesn’t mean it’s all fun — ask those guys who landed on the beaches at Normandy if they were having fun. Victory just means that in the end, your enemy is defeated, and you win. I’ll take it.

  4. ‘ Our strategies will fail and we will die. ‘

    sobering words for the north american evangelical empire, caught up within and mimicking, as it were, the maddening and dizzying efforts of the mainstream culture at large, which is obsessed with profiting from promoting eternal youth and all of the irresponsibility, luxury and impropriety that seems to accompany such jejunity.

    the fountain of youth is a lie that this world ( christian and secular alike ) dangles before humanity as a carrot at the end of a stick.

    your best life now. what a joke.

    • As the gangstas in my part of town say, “Laugh Now, Cry Later.” I’d rather give up my reward in this world than in the next …

      • Me, too! But that doesn’t keep the Green-Eyed Monster from knocking on the door of my unrenovated house…..the one without granite, stainless steel, or a jetted soaking tub. It does, however, contain my beloved husband of three decades, and that has value above any home or self-improvement project.

  5. That Other Jean says

    What sg said.

  6. The Childrens’ Crusade was mythical. Joan of Arc, on the other hand, was historical. She came out of nowhere inspired by angel voices, won the confidence of the French commanders, led the French army to victories and accomplished her purpose of getting the dauphin crowned king. She accomplished all she set out to do.

    But she, too, ended in ashes.

  7. I read this late last nite. The mood of depression hanging heavy in the air. For this outgoing gal, that just ain’t cool. A lot of it hit home to me. I feel so out of sorts in the midst of this American Culture of Christianity.

    Yesterday as I was surfing through the t.v. channels I come across a t.v. preacher who was talking about the “prayer of petition”. He was telling the camera that having learned this “prayer of petition” he got results…..AND YOU CAN TOO he said. It felt a little like a Billy Mays infomercial for prayer.

    “We Christians, especially, find it hard to grasp that the only way forward, the only hope for happiness, the only possibility for a positive outcome, the only access to true abundance will come if we start at the bottom line”

    I will say this: the “bottom line” I’ve seemed to come across more often than I care to admit, true abundance seems ever so fleeting. It’s no wonder the mega churches are filling up fast to hear the message about the best life now!!

    BUT……I carry on. As Peter said, “Where else would I go?”

  8. This is a wonderful piece, just what I needed. Thanks CM.

  9. Very enjoyable and deep read as I begin this time of reflection and preparation. Thank you for this.

  10. “optimism, idealism, and triumphalism” – A dangerous triple threat

    This post reminded me of the movie ‘Kingdom of heaven’. About the Crusades & the fall of Jerusalem. The movie is full of optimism, idealism, and triumphalism. It has a powerful message that many can take to heart. The thing I remember most is the lines where someone suggests something (usually stupid) & all the people scream “God wills it!”. How often do we do that? Peace.

  11. Thanks, Chaplain Mike, for this piece. I’m going to print it & meditate on it before the service tonight . . .

  12. Thanks for a wonderful piece to reflect on, Chaplain Mike!

    “I did my best, it wasn’t much,
    I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch,
    I tell the truth, I didn’t, come to fool ya,
    But even though it all went wrong,
    I’ll stand before the Lord of song,
    With nothin’ on my lips but Hallelujah”
    ~Leonard Cohen

  13. Or, in the words of Rilke:

    God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
    then walks with us silently out of the night.

    These are the words we dimly hear:

    You, sent out beyond your recall,
    go to the limits of your longing.
    Embody me.

    Flare up like flame
    and make big shadows I can move in.

    Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
    Just keep going. No feeling is final.
    Don’t let yourself lose me.

    Nearby is the country they call life.
    You will know by its seriousness.

    Give me your hand.

    (From Book of Hours, I, 59)

  14. Beautiful, Chaplain Mike!

  15. Denise Spencer says

    Mike, I so love your writing. Thank you for this.

  16. Sometimes many of the ideas we have and think that they are revelation form on high are nothing more foolish ilusions of granduer.Not that they are in and of themselves bad or sinful but foolish nevertheless. I remember hearing sermons from the late D J Kennedy about Caleb taking the mountain and fighting the giants in the land and how we are to go out there and ” take that mountain”. And so many times we start off on foolish endevours and fail and the wonder why God wasnt’ ther for us whe God didn’t want us there in the first place . I can’t help but think of Coral Ridges Reclaiming America for Christ and all that other stuff that just fell to pieces once the powerfull personality of Kennedy was gone . Now it’s all just a memory and his church somewhat fell apart also. I dont think God wants us to be Rambo Christian but just to live a holy quiet and peacefull life.

    • Yes Geoff D, I agree totally. I am 62 and have just in the past 2 years decided to take “the road less travelled by” . As you said, “To live a holy ,quiet and peaceful life.” The triumphalism theology that I was committed to for over 30 years just didn’t happen. What amazes me is that we could look at the crucifixion and still blindly believe that we were going to be winners in this life. I guess it depends on one’s definition of ‘winner”. If we build our churches on the American Marketplace Model then the only acceptable outcome is SUCCESS. How and when did we (I) walk away from the cross?

  17. Our works are frail; apart from Christ, none of them are “good”.

    I remember when the evangelical fad was that everyone needed a vision. It led to mini-crusades. But a human crusade which leads to temporal success may have been better off going up in flames from the start. It’s theology of glory.

    The greatest, most glorious work of God was accomplished upon the cross – a symbol of utter failure, humiliation, and death from a human perspective. So, too, God’s greatest work may be in the ashes of what appears to be a failure, rather in the ivory towers of successful megachurch leaders.

    • I was staring at a large crucfix yesterday, and the reality of the humiliation of the cross hit me in a new way. I remember reading years ago an insult to Christians that asked, in derision, “If Christ had died in 1938, would you Christians have an Electric Chair up in your churches?”

      Yes, we would.

  18. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Now that the comment thread has died down…

    I can’t read the title of this post without thinking “ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US.”

  19. SayItIsntSo! says

    Myth or not, the same spirit apparent from the “credible” sources and even in the modern explanations seems to be loose in this present age. Watch who you follow.

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