Embracing the Leper

(The Nationalist, February 2002)


When Saint Francis of Assisi was still a young man living at home, he went one day for a ride on his horse out on the plain of Umbria. He was in a day-dreamy mood and paid little attention to what was happening around him. Suddenly his horse stopped dead. Francis looked up – there stood a leper on the path in front of him.

Like many of his time, Francis was afraid of lepers, afraid of contracting their disease. And their appearance nauseated him; he could not bear to look at their disfigured faces. He didn’t know what to do. He had been thinking for some time about his life and felt that it was aimless and frivolous. He had begun to search for something better. On impulse – he was an impulsive man – he got down from his horse, ran forward, threw his arms around the leper, and kissed him. It was a turning point in his life.

Years later, shortly before his death, Francis wrote his testament. He began it by saying, ‘The Lord granted to me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance, for while I was in sin, it seemed to me too bitter a thing to see lepers, but the Lord Himself led me among them, and I showed compassion to them. And when I left them, what before had seemed bitter was changed into sweetness of soul and body…’ He went on to prescribe that anyone who wished to join his Order must be willing to work among lepers.

Francis overcame himself by embracing what had frightened and disgusted him, and he became a new man by doing so. The embrace was an act of freedom which freed him, freed him from fear and loathing of the one in his path. It was an act of self-denial which led to growth.

The story is full of paradox. Francis forgot himself and found a new side of himself. He did something ‘bitter’ and it brought him ‘sweetness of soul and body’. He, more than the leper, was the beneficiary of his action.

When we see something hateful or repugnant in another we are tempted to reject them. But if instead we embrace them, we create a new relationship in which evil (whether physical or moral), does not have the last word. And that makes it possible for us to do the same with ourselves. When we are disgusted by our own personal evil, we can recoil in self-loathing, or we can, in a sense, embrace ourselves. Somehow or other, that disempowers the evil, negates it, and frees us to become whole again.

We need to accept and forgive others if we are to accept and forgive ourselves. The converse is also true: we see others as we see ourselves; we need to accept and forgive ourselves if we are to accept and forgive others. Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’’ and ‘Those whose sins you retain, they are retained’…in ourselves. The two are inseparable.