While working on a writing project recently, I found myself looking at the various hagiographical sources for Francis’s encounter with the leper. Thomas of Celano’s The Life of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure’s The Major Life of St. Francis are the two most famous narratives of the Saint’s life, but it was in the less-mentioned and so-called “second life” of Thomas of Celano, the Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul that I find presents the closest to what I would call a conceivably “accurate” depiction of what might have taken place between Francis and this unnamed leper.
See, in Francis’s own words written on his deathbed in his Testament, the dying saint begins his end-of-life reflection with the story of encountering the other in the leper. It was clearly a liminal experience for Francis, something that marked a turning point in his living in the world. He says:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body
The notion that what was at one time bitter became something sweet to the Saint is, I believe, an important facet of the story. As Thomas of Celano tells in his “second life” of Francis, the little poor man from Assisi hated lepers.
Among all the awful miseries of this world Francis had a natural horror of lepers, and one day as he was riding his horse near Assisi he met a leper on the road. He felt terrified and revolted, but not wanting to transgress God’s command and break the sacrament of His word, he dismounted from his horse and ran to kiss him. As the leper stretched out his hand, expecting something, he received both money and a kiss. Francis immediately mounted his horse and although the field was wide open, without any obstructions, when he looked around he could not see the leper anywhere.
Of all things in the world, lepers were those that Francis despised most. He, by virtue of the cultural norms and societal laws of the day, had every right to ignore and refuse to interact with the leper. Instead, he is compelled — despite is visceral disgust for the leper, to move beyond his place of comfort to dare to embrace the other.
What I think is overlooked so often in the telling and interpretation of this event is that Francis was like everybody in his society in ignoring, marginalizing and dismissing the outcasts left to survive outside the city gates. His cultural expectations were to not interact with the lepers, yet Francis is moved by something — love, the Holy Spirit — to shirk the cultural expectations in order to enter into a new way of living in the world.
Francis, in embracing the leper, demonstrates yet another example of breaking ties with his social class and previous worldview. It demanded something of him, more than he might have realized early on in his conversion experience. What would ultimately culminate with the public rejection of his father began with the smaller breaks with a way of life, with a culture, with a worldview that separated people from one another and supported a system of willful ignorance in the face of the plight of others.
What Francis reminds us today is that, in order to follow more perfectly the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (as the Franciscan Rule begins), we might have to stand against our culture by standing with others, the lepers of today: the forgotten and the voiceless and the poor.