Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the good Lord give you Peace!
What occurred in the life of Saint Francis as he moved to and through the process of conversion was a remarkable raising of consciousness. The responsible resolution of contradictions in what he experienced resulted in intellectual, moral or religious conversion, which caused him to become consumed by the ultimate concerns of life. Chief among these is the deepest meaning of love, an otherworldly falling in love. It is total and permanent self-surrender to God without reservations.
The Episcopal school that Saint Francis attended trained students to develop their intellectual capacities by placing a major emphasis on disputation. So there is no doubt that he would have embraced the challenge of sorting through conflicting understandings arising from his environment in these changing times – rather than shrink away – though perhaps with some hesitation. Because he entered into the struggle with singular courage and remarkable authenticity, the result was the conversion that we readily associate with Saint Francis. Following are a few observations regarding his insights on the nature of brotherhood as oriented toward intellectual conversion and the encounter with lepers that led to his moral conversion.
Saint Francis is sometimes portrayed as a mystical figure, one who entered the Christian world with fully formed tablets of truth, revealing in an instant and without effort the fullness of a spirituality that suited his own circumstances as well as ours. This view does an enormous disservice to the man who struggled so courageously and honestly to find meaning over the course of his entire adult life and who worked humbly at its integration into the reality of his own existence, enabling us to discover though his writings, meager as they may be (a form of poverty), the significance of his insights in our own times and lives.
Most people, even those who have only the faintest idea of who Saint Francis was, understand that his religious journey was one of seeking God in all things, a sometimes-romanticized quest for the meaning of life. This quest lured the spiritual pilgrim into a radical recovery of the biblical meaning of conversion and of what it means to “Take your cross and follow (Jesus).” (Mark 8:34) His unique blending of values from two eras, his marriage of the heroic principles of knighthood with the commercial social structures of the post-feudal economy, would have created disturbing conflicts within his mind and heart. The tension that ensued would have haunted him relentlessly until he found a satisfactory resolution.
Braced by a newfound sense of belonging to a collectivity rather than a hierarchy, his fascination with emerging social organizations would have afforded an adventurous young man like Saint Francis the opportunity to adopt this new lens for gazing curiously at what surrounded him. Through it, he would no longer view authority and knowledge as fixed structures or designed for the sole benefit of an earthly leader or lord. No longer would he view the people in this new world order as immovable fixtures with immutable roles and rules. He would begin to see how people can freely assemble to achieve great things, and that future possibilities would be at once exciting and frightening, giving rise to good and evil, depending on the values with which one conceived and seized those possibilities.
In the opening part of his Testament, Saint Francis declared what change resulted from an encounter with lepers: “While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them.” Then comes the sentence that signifies that this encounter developed into a major conversion experience and evidence of a key insight: “And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.” This was for Francis an epiphany experience and the beginning of a new way of understanding that would affect his judgments and key decisions about how to live out his faith.
“And afterward I lingered a little and left the world.”
– Francis of Assisi, Testament
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Saint Francis never alludes to the legendary encounter with one particular leper, a story typically related in pious biographies of his times. Rather, he uses the word in the plural, lepers. We do know that he did attend to lepers living nearby because they were the poorest of the poor, and that this was a transformative experience for him. Celano wrote, “He lived among them, and for the love of God, he diligently extended himself in his care of them.” The familiar story about his meeting one particular leper may be more symbolic than factual because it is reasonable for us today to interpret the fact that he met the leper “on his path” as meaning on his journey of conversion. There is no question that his experience among lepers was a turning point in his life. So important was it as the foundation of his spirituality that he wished to share it with his first brothers. In fact, in the initial years of the Order that Saint Francis founded, local leprosariums became part of the life of novices.
The Rule’s required “minority” does not consist in blind submission,
but in a way of living our fraternal relationships with everyone, based on the goodness recognized in each being. Thus one’s vision of the fraternity is expanded. The leper by the wayside is a brother on the same level as the Friar Minor, a privileged reflection of the Creator and a living portrait of Christ.
– Pierre Brunette, Francis of Assisi and his Conversions
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Scholars agree that Saint Francis accorded this event singular importance by placing it at the top of his Testament. It is generally seen as the single most powerful factor in his conversion and an experience that changed the way he looked at life. In the end, Saint Francis experienced something with the lepers. He and they became friends. As a result some have characterized this time with lepers as his novitiate. Consequently, all early biographers include accounts of this life-altering event, though with their own noteworthy variations.
Saint Francis could not be certain what would be the ultimate outcome of the changes operating within him. Indeed, his conversion, of which penance was the first utterance, was a decision to defer to the will and wisdom of God rather than to his own. Penance was not to his way of thinking about “beating yourself up,” but about turning your life around, the true meaning of metanoia. Actions like practicing mercy among the lepers, having faith in churches, priests and the Eucharist, receiving brothers, and working with his hands were part of the act of turning around.
Like prayer, fasting and almsgiving are what the Catholic Church now calls outer “expressions of inner conversion,” rather than conversion per se. Acts of mortification were not for Saint Francis the end of penance but merely the means. The outer sign of penance in his time was the wearing of the Tau cross, a Greek letter drawn from the Book of Ezekiel (9:4) to symbolize how those who repent will be spared by the angel of death.
In the end, what Saint Francis realized was that to follow Jesus as we are called to do is to make deliberate choices between different courses of action at the cognitive level, deciding by using the higher values of the human good…and eventually the transcendent as the highest value of all. This orientation or conversion forces a decision away from operating on the basis of egotism or limited group bias. Research into the form of life adopted and proposed by Saint Francis points clearly in this direction, which explains the need to do penance. Noted Franciscan scholar Kajetan Esser has suggested, “Not only is penance fundamental to Francis’ following of Jesus, but it is foundational for all those who follow his spirituality.”
“To be a penitent captures the very essence of what it means to be Franciscan.” For this reason, he boldly declared: “All of Franciscan spirituality comes from the idea of penance (metanoia)…Even the renunciation of extreme forms of penance as a means to spiritual joy was the result of a wearisome journey, both culturally and experientially.”
Raffaele Pazzelli, author of a fascinating book on the history of the Penitential Movement, has listed the steps on Saint Francis’ agonizing journey toward conversion as these: “his imprisonment in Perugia;…his return to a city divided by hatred;…his sudden recognition of the miserable plight of the poor;…a military expedition interrupted by the “mysterious” voice at Spoleto; the experience of his pilgrimage to Rome; his upsetting yet revealing encounter with the leper; and, finally the “mysterious” message of the Crucified at San Damiano.” But the religious experiences that most significantly marked two milestones on Saint Francis’ journey toward conversion, indeed two episodes that stand out as key turning points, are his encounter with lepers and Christ’s call from the cross at the nearby Church of San Damiano, which will be the subject of next month’s reflection.
“Francis reverently kissed that leper as one kisses a sacred object….
Now Francis was ready to hear the voice of the Crucified at San Damiano.
He was ready for his final conversion.”
– Raffaele Pazzelli, St. Francis and the Third Order
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May the New Year bring you all the blessings suited to your vocation in Christ. May your mind be filled with Light, Wisdom and Seeds of Renewal. May your heart be filled with Joy and Love. And may your soul reflect the Peace and Goodness of our benevolent God, Father, Son and Spirit.