Francisan Way: Part Two
Francis and the Lepers
Monday, October 7, 2019
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 . . . 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. And afterwards I delayed a little and then I left the world. —Francis of Assisi 
When Francis said, he “left the world,” he was not talking about creation, which he loved. He was talking about the “rotten, decadent system” as Dorothy Day called it.  He was giving up on the usual payoffs, constraints, and rewards of business-as-usual and was choosing to live in the largest Kingdom of all. To pray and actually mean “Thy Kingdom come,” we must also be able to say “my kingdoms go.” Francis and Clare’s first citizenship was always, and in every case, elsewhere (Philippians 3:20), which ironically allowed them to live in this world with joy and freedom.
Augustine Thompson, a Dominican friar, writes:
This encounter with lepers, not the act of stripping off his clothing before the bishop, would always be for Francis the core of his religious conversion. . . . Wherever the leprosarium was, Francis lodged there with the residents and earned his keep caring for them. . . . It was a dramatic personal reorientation that brought forth spiritual fruit. As Francis showed mercy to these outcasts, he came to experience God’s own gift of mercy to himself. As he cleaned the lepers’ bodies, dressed their wounds, and treated them as human beings, not as refuse to be fled from in horror, his perceptions changed. What before was ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but also viscerally and physically.
Francis’s aesthetic sense, so central to his personality, had been transformed, even inverted. The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins which had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing. Not long after this encounter, later accounts tell us, perhaps in allegory, that Francis was walking down a road and met one of these same lepers. He embraced the man in his arms and kissed him. Francis’s spiritual nightmare was over; he had found peace. 
Deep within each of us live a leper and a wolf. These stories did happen historically with Francis, but first they operate in the soul. We must first encounter and embrace the leper and wolf inside. If we haven’t been able to kiss many lepers, if we haven’t been able to tame many wolves, it’s probably because we haven’t made friends with our leper and wolf within. Name your poor leper within. Nurse and tend her wounds. Name your inner wolf; tame him by gentle forgiveness.
 Francis of Assisi, “The Testament,” lines 1-3. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1 (New City Press: 1999), 124.
 Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” The Catholic Worker (September 1956), https://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/articles/710.html.
 Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press: 2012), 16-17.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 36-37; and
Richard Rohr, Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, ed. John Feister (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 1995), 276. No longer available in print.