There is an old story about St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the founder of the Catholic order known as the Franciscans. The story goes that Francis was revolted by people with leprosy. As you may be aware, leprosy is a horrible and disfiguring disease. While leprosy is curable today, people did suffer terribly and from it. These people were social outcasts, considered unclean by the religious people of the day, and adding insult to injury; many believed that the leprosy was a result of a person's sin. As such, Francis would go to great lengths to avoid people with such an affliction.
Shortly after Francis came to faith, he came face to face with a leper. Rather than turn and high-tail it out of there, Francis felt compelled to kiss the lepers hands and gave him money to eat and care for some of his needs.
The story goes on to tell how this encounter changed Francis’s life. Francis wrote of the encounter “what seemed bitter to me turned into sweetness of soul and body.”(1) Francis became aware that God is hidden in people and the every day, ordinary things of life. Even those who we may not understand, agree with or those who we find scary and repulsive. Francis would write about finding God in all things and pointed to the Eucharist itself. “God hides himself in a little bread. Look brothers at the humility of God!”(2)
This discovery is a powerful one, but it was deeper than a theological statement or doctrine. Francis had a personal experience with a leper. Francis engaged with a real life human being and discovered the image of God in that which repulsed him. He found beauty and the divine presence even in the person with leprosy.
So it is when we have the opportunity to engage real people instead of an abstract idea of who they are. It is a miracle of the heart where we move from talking about, taking a stand against an issue, and realizing they are real people that do not fit neatly in our fear inspired, preconceived ideas of who they are, and what they want.
Beware! You can tell when you are operating in pseudo love. Pseudo love can be tricky because sometimes it's adorned in fancy religious finery. It often masquerades as cliche's like "Love the sinner, hate the sin." It only engages at the level of abstract ideas, caricatures, straw men, without ever having to deeply engage with yourself or face to face with a real person who is different than you are.
Love invites us into deeper community with the other. It is no longer a matter of Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, conservative or liberal. It is about recognizing and honoring the divine DNA in the other, seeing past our fears, prejudices and their religious fortifications, to know the Christ in the other.
Loving our Lepers
Who are the people in your life that you fear, who repulse you? Ask for the grace to set aside any self-righteous religious rationalization of your fear and hatred. Ask for the grace to see those through the eyes of love, and listen for what God may be inviting you to do in response. It’s grace indeed that liberates us that we may too kiss the hand of the other and in doing so kiss the hand of God.
1)Francis of Assisi, Testament, 3, in Francis of Assisi; Early Documents, vol. 1, The Saints, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short (New York: New York City Press, 1999), 124.
2) Francis of Assisi, “Letters to the Entire Order,” 27-29, in Armstrong, Hellmann and short, Francis of Assisi, 118.