Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Franciscan Novena: Day One

On October 4 -- just nine days from now-- we will celebrate the feast of our Seraphic Father Francis of Assisi. In preparation for that celebration, we will be presenting a series of daily blog entries as a kind of "novena" for study and personal reflection. Today's entry is one of a series of three articles which first appeared in Catholic San Francisco under the title "St. Francis' Conversions." The remaining segments will be printed in sequence.

Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved Catholic saints, honored by people regardless of their faith. His gentleness, love God’s creation, and deep human compassion make him a most attractive figure.

But his unvarnished embrace of the Gospel makes Francis a challenging person as well. By the sheer force of personality, Francis of Assisi effected a revolution in 13th century-Europe- but that personality was shaped in the crucible of Christian conversion, indeed, of several conversions. In this series, we will look at three important turning points in the life of the Poor Man of Assisi. May his example shed light on our personal journeys of faith.

St. Francis himself tells us about his first conversion. As he lay dying at the little church of St. Mary of the Angels (the Porziuncola), he dictated a final testament. It began with these words: “This is how God inspired me, Brother Francis, to embark upon a life of penance. When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them…What had previously nauseated me became a source of spiritual and physical consultation for me.” Our reflection on what Francis has to teach us begins with this life- changing meeting w/ the leper.

First, Francis says that God himself led him into the company of lepers. While this encounter shocked Francis, it was not a bolt out of the blue. God had been preparing him for this momentous meeting. Early biographies of the saint describe him as the pampered son of a rich merchant, but some time in early adulthood Francis experienced a sea-change as regards his ambitions. From dreams of wealth he turned to dreams of military glory, but then abandoned these to embrace a life of prayer and charitable works. In this he faced strong opposition from his ambitious father, who disapproved of his son’s “throwing away” a successful career.
God gradually led Francis into these deeper spiritual paths, but when He brought him into contact with lepers, it was a watershed moment. Francis was being invited-or challenged- to step across an immense social chasm.

Because contagious diseases were such a mystery to the people of the Middle Ages, it is understandable that lepers were isolated from the larger community. Given the miraculous healings of lepers by Christ, they were viewed with ambivalence by Christians; their affliction was not necessarily a sign of divine disfavor, and it was recognized that they should receive both religious and social assistance. However, they were clearly marginalized, and for the sheltered son of Pietro da Bernadone to consort with them must have been the talk of Assisi.
Whatever its impact on his fellow citizens, it is clear from Francis’ own words that a new chapter opened in his life the day he embraced that leper.

This encounter teaches us some uncomfortable truths. First, it suggests that when we seek to do God’s will, He always calls us to make greater sacrifices. Some years ago a book appeared called “The Good Enough Catholic.” As an antidote to scrupulosity, or to efforts to somehow impress God by our good deeds, such a phrase might be therapeutic. But if by a “good enough Catholic” we mean “What do I have to do to just get by?” the life of St. Francis, and indeed any of the saints, disturbs us in our mediocrity.

Francis had already violated a number of taboos: abandoning a career in the entrepreneurial society of his family, working as a common laborer to rebuild abandoned churches, selling his father’s goods to help the poor. These were not the actions of a Catholic content to “get by.” And still, Francis learned, it was not enough: Christ had given Himself to the last drop of blood out of love for Francis. Francis for his part could not put limits on his love in return.

A second challenge of this conversation is the question it forces each of us to ask: “Who is the leper in my life?” It might be a category of persons, a co-worker or neighbor, or it could even be a member of our own family. I may feel I have good reasons to avoid this leper. It does not matter. The point is simply that, wherever we draw the line, Jesus stands on the other side of it.

This is what Francis realized on that fateful day. A holy man close to our own time, Charles de Foucauld, observed that Jesus has taken the lowest place, and no one can deprive him of it. The early biographies tell how the leper disappeared after Francis embraced him, and imply that it may have been Christ Himself. If so, this simply illustrates the plain words of Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

To recognize Jesus in the leper meant, for Francis, to recognize him in everyone. His “preferential option for the poor” included his wealthy and headstrong father, too. It meant seeing Christ in the spiritually diseased.

There is a story told of a group of heretics who publicly denounced the priest in their town who kept a mistress. Francis simply went up to the priest, knelt, and kissed his hand. Our choices “for” often imply choices against; once Francis reached across the chasm and embraced the leper, he learned that there is no “us” and “them.” We are all poor sinners.
The greatest shock Francis experienced was not simply that he saw Christ in the leper. He saw himself in the leper.

This article was prepared by the Worship Commission of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and is reprinted from Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese. Our thanks to Dan Morris-Young, editor.

No comments: