In a previous blog, we looked at the early life of the man that would eventually be known as St. Francis, highlighting his calling from a wealthy carefree existence of partying and pleasure to a firmly dedicated devotion to Jesus Christ.
In this post, we’ll pick up where we left off, with Francis having dedicated his life to Christ in a small country chapel outside of Assisi. On his horse ride home from this life altering event, something very significant happened. He came across a leper walking the opposite way on the road. Back in Francis’ time leprosy was a nasty and incurable disease that people thought to be highly contagious. Its symptoms, scaly skin and missing body parts, were obvious to the casual observer. If a person had leprosy, they were removed from society and completely ostracised by everyone they knew. A common reaction upon encountering a leper was to physically and emotionally shun this individual, quickly removing yourself in order to get away from a possible leprosy contamination zone. In this instance, as he had so many other times, Francis did just that. In his revulsion, he crossed to the other side of the road, spurred his horse, and hurried away as fast as possible.
You almost can’t blame him. In that society, at that time, Francis’ reaction would have been all but automatic and expected by everyone involved. This kind of reaction would probably have been witness by the leper hundreds of times before. To be shunned in such a manner, although deeply hurtful, had probably even become mundane for this man who wore his rotting skin as a declaration of an unworthiness to be touched or loved. This is a man who was used to rejection, especially from a well-dressed son of Assisi like Francis. Imagine his surprise when he heard the thundering footsteps of Francis’ horse heading back towards his direction carrying the same rider who had rushed away in disgust only moments ago!
This is exactly what happened. Francis came back. Moments after hurrying away in disgust, Francis was struck by a wave of godly compassion for the man who, by no choice of his own, was suffering from this horrible malady. Far from a begrudging deed necessary to keep up appearances, Francis’ selfless action of dismounting his horse, running to the man, emptying his own pockets of all the money he had, and kissing (yes, kissing!!) the man’s hands was probably one of the most significant indications of the internal change that had happened in Francis’ heart. In fact, this act held special meaning in that, at the time, the hands were thought to be the main avenue through which leprosy spread from one person to another. Touching a leper was, basically, thought to be suicidal!
This was the action of a changed man who, giving no thought to his own self-preservation, decided that providing temporary comfort to an individual who society had rejected was worth more than his own life. And, lest we think this was a moment of temporary insanity, this selfless action marked the beginning point of a life-long ministry to those unfortunate people affected by this horrible disease.
I can’t help but be struck by the sincerity of Francis’ actions, actions that indicate a devotion to Christ that went beyond himself, his own personal comforts, and even his own safety. Like Jesus, Francis was not afraid to throw social conventions and taboos aside as he ministered to people considered by many as revolting and unworthy. The transition from wealthy aristocrat to devoted follower of Christ had begun. As we shall see, this transition didn’t always entail an exemplary act worthy of imitation. In fact, almost immediately after the instance with the leper, Francis’ life became inordinately messy and was, for a time, typified by acts of immaturity and broken relationships. But, through all of this, God was working on Francis, preparing him to be used in ways he probably never considered possible.
Has there been a defining moment in your life where your faith was put to the test? What was your response? How does your walk with Christ define your perspective on things and people the world considers unworthy or disgusting?