He was born a child of wealth and privilege. His father a wealthy clothing merchant, he never lacked or suffered. One day, the man we would later call St. Francis was riding along on horseback when he met a leper. In those days, leprosy was the most dreaded of diseases. Not only was it a death sentence, but it was a horrible way to die – lesions, puss and the putrid smell that followed you made you a social outcast.
Under what would later be called the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Francis got off his horse, overcame his revulsion and disgust and gave the leper a full-on body hug. Then, he gave the leper all his money, hopped back on his horse and rode away.
Later, when Francis went to Rome, he was at St. Peter’s tomb and saw the beggars there. In a fit of piety, he swapped clothes with a beggar and sat there with the other beggars, begging for his food.
Thus started the career of the holy man who would go on to found an order of other holy men, who beg their own way, who devote themselves to poverty, who live among the poorest of the poor. It is obvious from reading the story that the encounter with the leper was trans-formative for Francis.
It is clear what was in it for Francis. He experienced the leper and, as a result, experienced personal transformation. But how did it turn out for the leper? He got some money (which he did not ask for). He got a hug (which he did not ask for – and random people coming up and hugging you is just weird). He is forever recorded in history, but not by his name. He is only notable for his disease, for how he was “wrong”, for how he is the “other”.
He was, as this story is told, reduced to a prop in the transformation of Francis. And as a reward for getting to play a part in the transformation of Francis, he got competition, for now Francis was begging along side him.
My problem with this story is that we naturally tend to identify with Francis. I mean, even if we would not touch a leper ourselves, we want to think we are the sort of person who would touch a leper.
This story has been used as an example of how the act of mission can change hearts, and we have been listening. Just the other day, I received a fund-raising letter from a teenager who was going off to somewhere in South America on a mission trip, and the key “selling point” was how much this was going to change the life of the teenagers that go on this trip.
When I read that, I thought back to the Francis story, and all I could think of was: OK, I see what is in it for the people going on the trip, but, well, what’s in it for the leper?
Lest you doubt my paraphrase of the Francis tale, you can see the original version here, from the Catholic Encyclopedia. I have pasted the applicable passage below.
One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of this repulsive object filled him with disgust and he instinctively retreated, but presently controlling his natural aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had. About the same time Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome. Pained at the miserly offerings he saw at the tomb of St. Peter, he emptied his purse thereon. Then, as if to put his fastidious nature to the test, he exchanged clothes with a tattered mendicant and stood for the rest of the day fasting among the horde of beggars at the door of the basilica.
The phrase “What’s in it for the leper” I first heard from my friend Brian Ammons , who is a member of an order based on the Rule of St. Francis and Clare. It gave succinctness and order to my own often crazed and wide ranging thoughts about the danger of identifying with only one person in a story. If you like the idea – credit him. If you think the idea problematic, then blame me.