I was walking downtown on my way to work one morning a few weeks ago and a homeless woman sitting down on the sidewalk beckoned to me for help. I gave her a granola bar that I had in my purse, but she showed me that she didn’t have any teeth, so I gave her a few dollars instead. Gracious for the gift, she opened her arms to embrace me. I politely resisted, but she persisted.
So I bent down and we hugged. She then kissed my cheek a few times and said “God bless you” and several other sweet things that I can’t remember because all that came to my mind was the story of St. Francis and the leper. This was my leper moment.
After the embrace, I felt a peculiar joy; that I had just encountered Christ in a poor woman. Even more strangely, another poor woman who was pregnant with twins had hugged me about week before. God seemed to be coaxing me into a closer encounter with the poor and collapsing the personal distance I often put up between myself and them.
That night, God called me to meditate on the following passage about St. Francis and his encounter with the leper during Adoration, coincidentally in the Franciscan Chapel of the church I grew up attending.
One day while Francis was praying fervently to God, he received an answer. “O Francis, if you want to know my will, you must hate and despise all that which hitherto your body has loved and desired to possess. Once you begin to do this, all that formerly seemed sweet and pleasant to you will become bitter and unbearable; and instead, the things that formerly made you shudder will bring you great sweetness and content.” Francis was divinely comforted and greatly encouraged by these words. Then one day, as he was riding near Assisi, he met a leper. He had always felt an overpowering horror of these sufferers; but making a great effort, he conquered his aversion, dismounted, and, in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand. The leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse and rode on his way. From that day onwards he mortified himself increasingly until, through God’s grace, he won a complete victory.
- Excerpt from “Legend of the Three Companions”
I’ve come to learn that nothing is a coincidence with God. It was in this same chapel where I meditated on this passage, that my vocation to the Third Order of Secular Franciscans began a few years ago without my knowing it. During a dark time of my life, I would go to this chapel and stare at the Blessed Sacrament and the stained glass windows of St. Francis. One Friday night in that chapel, feeling desolation and an inability to pray, I picked up a book on St. Francis of Assisi, and in that book, God slowly opened my heart to St. Francis. His conversion and struggles were markedly similar to my own. One thing led to another, and eventually on Passion Sunday this year, I entered a nearly two year formal discernment process with the Third Order and haven’t looked back.
This was another moment of grace when I felt the inspiration of St. Francis, and that God was leading me to imitate Jesus through the inspiration of St. Francis in my life. Embracing those I’m uncomfortable embracing. Bending down and encountering the poor in my midst. Finding sweetness and solidarity in what was once uncomfortable and unthinkable.
My Franciscan vocation continues to shape and mold me in new ways that I never expected.
Beyond vocation, I think there’s another, broader lesson in this. I’ve noticed that many people (including me), especially those in the nice suburbs, often like to serve others at a distance. We like to serve where we are comfortable. We’ll make and deliver food, sort goods, give alms, and stay quietly in our comfort zones.
Serving others in any way is good and honorable, but God is always challenging us to more. How often do we truly encounter and embrace “the leper” in our midst? The homeless woman or man? The person we are biased against? The person who we think is unclean or dirty, who we wouldn’t dare touch? The poor on the “rough side of town”? How often do we enter into their chaos - even if just for a passing moment?
Could we be missing the sweetness and goodness that comes from an encounter like that? Might these be moments when we can recall the example of St. Francis and respond similarly, allowing those moments to change and mold us into the disciples we are called to be?
I had my leper moment like St. Francis. I hope you do too. Push yourself to do something uncomfortable because moments like that change you - for the better.