St Francis

St Francis’ Day

Luke 17:11-19

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to love even the outcast, the repulsive and those who are impossible to love. Amen.

There are many things for which St Francis is famous. Today we remember his love for and his ability to communicate with animals because it resonates with our own love for and relationship with the animals in our care. However, there is much more to Francis than his love for God’s creation. Among other things he gave up the wealth of his father’s household to follow Jesus and to rely on the generosity of strangers. He lived a simple life preaching the word of God to the poor. He showed Jesus’ love for the outcast. He took on the Pope of the day and tried to end the Crusades by speaking directly with Al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt. He gathered around himself a group of like-minded people, forming a brotherhood which still exists in a variety of forms today.

The model for Francis’ life was Jesus himself and in all that he did, he tried to emulate his Saviour. A story about Francis meeting a leper illustrates this point. He was, like most people of his day filled with not a little apprehension and revulsion when he saw a beggar who was also a leper in his path. Considering Jesus love and compassion for all, Francis forced himself off his horse and not only embraced, but also kissed the leper before giving him his own tunic.

Another story, recorded in Chapter 25 of “The Little Flowers of St Francis” goes as follows:

“It happened once, that in a convent near the one in which St Francis then resided there was a hospital for leprosy and other infirmities, served by the brothers. One of the patients was a leper so impatient, so insupportable, and so insolent, that many believed that he was possessed by the devil for he ill-treated with blows and words all those who served him; and, what was worse, he blasphemed our Lord and his most holy Mother, that none was found who could or would serve him. The brothers, indeed, to gain merit, endeavoured to accept with patience the injuries and violences committed against themselves, but their consciences would not allow them to accept blasphemy, so they determined to abandon this leper, but this they would not do until they had signified their intention to St Francis. On learning this, St Francis himself visited this perverse leper, and said to him: “May God give thee peace, my beloved brother!” To this the leper answered: “What peace can I look for from God, who has taken from me peace and every other blessing, and made me a putrid and disgusting object?” St Francis answered: “My son, be patient; for the infirmities of the body are given by God in this world for the salvation of the soul in the next; there is great merit in them when they are patiently endured.” The sick man answered: “How can I bear patiently the pain which afflicts me night and day? For not only am I greatly afflicted by my infirmity, but the friars thou hast sent to serve me make it even worse, for they do not serve me as they ought.” Then St Francis began to pray most earnestly for him. Having finished his prayer, he returned to the leper and said to him: “My son, I myself will serve you, seeing you are not satisfied with the others.” “Willingly,” answered the leper; “but what can you do more than they have done?” “Whatsoever you wish I will do for thee,” answered St Francis. “I wish then,” said he, “that you wash me all over; for I am so disgusting that I cannot bear myself.” Then St Francis heated some water, putting therein many odoriferous herbs; he then undressed him, and began to wash him with his own hands, whilst another brother threw the water upon him, and, by a divine miracle, wherever St Francis touched him the leprosy disappeared, and his flesh was perfectly healed also. On this the leper, seeing his leprosy beginning to vanish, felt great sorrow and repentance for his sins, and began to weep bitterly. While his body was being purified externally of the leprosy through the cleansing of the water, so his soul internally was purified from sin by the washing of tears and repentance; and feeling himself completely healed both in his body and his soul, he humbly confessed his sins, crying out in a loud voice, with many tears: “Unhappy me! I am worthy of hell for the wickedness of my conduct to the brethren, and the impatience and blasphemy I have uttered against the Lord.”

In this account, the leper, overwhelmed by the goodness and mercy of God, becomes aware of his own pettiness, his self-absorption and his failure to trust in God’s love. His response to his external transformation is remorse and inner transformation. Having experienced first hand the great love of God and he realises that not only has he done nothing to deserve such love, but just the opposite. In great humility he turns to God in gratitude and penitence. When he dies his soul appears to Francis saying:”I am that leper whom our Lord healed through thy merits, and to-day I am going to life eternal, for which I return thanks to God and to thee.”

Leprosy was (and in some places still is) a disease that was treated with revulsion, fear and suspicion. Sufferers were segregated from healthy members of the community and forced to live on the charity of others. Not only were they isolated physically but also emotionally as they became objects of disgust and horror. In the days before medical science had developed a cure, healing was seen as something of a miracle and it meant not only an end to suffering but a restoration to society, to one’s family and friends.

The story of the lepers in today’s gospel quite extraordinary – ten are healed and restored to their communities yet only one of the ten returns to say: “Thanks” and of the ten it is the least expected – the Samaritan who, despite his healing remains marginalised and excluded. The one who from his position of exclusion, knows how much he has received, is the only one to return to give thanks. The others, it would appear, take their healing as their right.

We must be careful, who are on the inside, we who are not marginalised by disease, poverty, race, religion, ability or lack thereof, employment or any other condition need to beware lest our very respectability, the blessings which we take for granted, cause us to become complacent, to take for granted the blessings which God has so richly bestowed on us.  Every morning when we wake we have cause for thanksgiving and every evening when we fall asleep we have reason to offer thanks to God. Every hour of every day we have reason to thank God for all God’s gifts to us. Let us not be like the nine, but take as our model the one who knew what he had received and who responded by giving thanks.

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