We celebrated the feast of St Francis this Sunday with our first in-person Sunday morning meeting! It felt joyous and tender to me, like Francis’s own embodied faith. He and his partner in mission, Clare, have inspired my own journey so much over the years that when I had a chance to go to Italy with my dad to find my grandparent’s hometown, I planned to stop in Assisi first. It was glorious, though I thought that Francis might be having a good laugh about this beautifully manicured lawn and fancy building in his name! (That was kind of the opposite of what he valued.)
Francis’s faith in Jesus was a real “beginning again” process in his life. It took a couple of years to develop, as most of our spiritual transformations do (they are not instant), but a personal relationship with God transformed him into the deeply communal saint we know, the guy who through deeper humility kicked off a giant revolution of love in his part of the world.
Francis was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed a very comfortable, carefree life. He enjoyed the best of food and clothing and education and art and privileged celebrations. He wasn’t a scoundrel, but he was an upwardly mobile hometown guy with a passion for life and beauty.
His charmed life started to change when Assisi went to war with Perugia, the neighboring town that is now famous for making those BACI chocolates with the hazelnuts inside — except that Francis was not eating chocolates in Perugia. Assisi lost the war, and Francis was a prisoner of war in a dungeon in Perugia where he knew suffering for perhaps the first time. His wealthy father rescued him, but he was sick and bedridden for awhile when he got home, and in this inability to resume his old fun life, God began to speak to his soul with deeper truth and comfort. He began to feel a kinship with others who knew suffering like Jesus: the marginalized, the poor and the outcast. He began to be hungry for deeper spiritual food because he needed it. He was suffering, and the talk of his former friends just seemed shallow.
But when he got better, he got sucked back into the illusions of comfort and status. He tried to join a crusade with a friend of nobility, but on his way there, God spoke to him in a dream and told him to go back to his hometown. He actually listened, even though the shame of giving up on a military mission would be great. But God’s voice was beginning to be bigger than other voices and expectations. So he followed that voice to Rome, where he felt like he should test out this unknown calling by praying at the place where the church started, where the apostle Peter was buried. There he found himself praying with beggars, whom he lived with for awhile, exchanging his silk clothes for their clothes.
When he went home, he was drawn to the dilapidated Sam Damiano church on the outskirts of town, and once in praying inside before a crucifix there, he heard God asking him to rebuild the church. He started to repair the church building at San Damiano, but later came to understand there was a deeper calling, to call the church back to it’s heart, to reveal its true nature of love by following Jesus simply and purely. He did that by renouncing all the trappings of wealth and status, and following Jesus to the hurting places. His freedom and joy were in total dependence on God.
Part of this “beginning again” came through an encounter with a person who had leprosy. Leprosy is a communicable disease that oozes and disfigures, and people who had leprosy had to wear bells around their necks in public places so that people would be warned of their coming and stay away. Francis was used to running away when he heard these bells — much like we often tend to run from our fears — because he didn’t want to be confronted with the pain and suffering.
Perhaps the biggest pain and suffering of having leprosy was how it took over your whole identity. People didn’t see you as a person anymore, they just saw the disease and it threatened them. Francis ran away when he saw the leper, like he always had. But then he turned around. He did something different, and I wonder if all spiritual wisdom could be summed up in the word turning.
Francis turned around and went toward the leper, and saw a real person inside. He embraced and kissed him and gave him money. And when he looked a minute later, the leper was gone! Francis knew that it had been Jesus himself, to show him that God was in all people — that each creature is unspeakably beloved — and that God was calling him to move toward the suffering even in himself, the suffering it requires to confront our own fears of holding pain and suffering.
Francis spent a big part of his the rest of his life caring for people with leprosy and living among them, fully embracing their humanity in love, and dying at 44 of complications of leprosy. (It’s not often mentioned that Francis died of leprosy, as if he was supposed to transcend it or be magically protected from it. But he was just as vulnerable as any human, like Jesus.) He wrote later:
When I was in sin (distracted by worldly troubles), it seemed too bitter to 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 in to sweetness of soul and body.
After Francis saw Jesus in the leper, he stopped running from Jesus and realized that he had been running from himself, too! He needed to embrace his own needy humanity to find the sweetness of Christ.
How many times do we run from our own neediness without even thinking, filling up on other things and relationships because we can? Perhaps we are missing the real yearnings of our hearts, and the cries of others for connection, to be seen and known. Because it turns out that suffering reveals our humanity.
God himself led Francis to this wisdom. Three of the gospel writers record Jesus encountering a person with leprosy. The person was crying out, “Lord if you are willing, make me clean!” I think he wondered if Jesus was willing because it was not only a kind of a death sentence to touch a leper, it was illegal in Jesus’s culture. But Mark records that Jesus is filled with compassion and he moves towards this man with leprosy, and he TOUCHES him. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be touched after not being touched for who knows how long? I think Jesus knew he needed to be touched to be healed. Jesus knew his wounds were deeper than the surface; they were wounds of isolation, lost humanity and identity, loss of knowing his belovedness. Jesus begins to restore all this with this healing touch.
And it was a moment of justice. Mark records that when Jesus saw and heard this man, Jesus was “indignant.” That’s the word that Mark uses for “filled with compassion.” Indignation is a little spicier, because it’s connected to anger about something being wrong or unfair. It is grief about the suffering of the world! It is feeling the suffering, not just seeing it or talking about it.
I felt that grief when I heard about the security guard, Nassir Day, who was shot and killed at Pathways to Housing on Friday, a young Black man with an unborn child on the way. Why another young Black man, Lord? I want Jesus to be near this pain. I want Jesus to stop this pain, and I sense that He is suffering badly too.
How can we move with our indignation this week?
We might have to be willing to start with ourselves.
I asked a friend in recovery to tell me about willingness, because it’s a big thing in recovery. My friends in recovery are smart because they acknowledge that on our own, we’re usually NOT willing to move toward the pain (ours or others’). We naturally run from it, like Francis first did. We need God’s help to move toward it. We need to pray for willingness to move toward pain and not hide from ourselves. We need to acknowledge that we too are spiritually poor and suffering and God wants to embrace us there, so we can learn to embrace others.
Where are you hurting today? If you’re like me, you have a lot of defenses against even knowing the answer to that question. Most of us learned early on to stuff feelings way down and keep it moving. Most of us have a lifetime of unconscious coping strategies and defense mechanisms in our daily toolbox. Of course we don’t want to feel rejection, or loneliness, or sadness, anger, embarrassment, inadequacy, shame, or fear. But only in turning toward our real experiences can we move in for God’s touch.
My sober friend told me that willingness is related to trust. Am I willing to believe that someone I can’t see or feel can really help us?
Jesus and Francis were willing to move toward the person with leprosy and touch them. Maybe we can borrow some of their willingness to open ourselves up to the One who knows and loves and suffers with us. This Love and acceptance is the lifeline to our humanity and healing.
(art by wORKINGaRTs)