A raging debate going on after the attacks in Paris last week. All over the West. Should countries accept Syrian and other refugees? Should those already there be forced to leave or have their freedoms curtailed? It is of course very complicated. Balancing a nation’s rightful desire for self-protection and security for its citizens, with the compassion and spirit of generous hospitality that only enlarges the soul of any people.
This morning I was reading some precious words about St. Francis and his encounter with a leper. This story from the life of a great saint is only more real in recent years, as the present Pope took his name and has ministered to people, including Muslims, in the same spirit. These words are written by John Michael Talbot, a country singer in his teens in the 1970’s along with his brother Terry. He experienced a radical conversion to Christ, and later formed a Franciscan community in Arkansas. He still does concerts and I highly recommend his music and writings.
Here is what he wrote about St. Francis and the leper: “Loving the unlovable didn’t come natural to Francis, either. He had to learn it the hard way….Francis grew up with a strong distaste for the sight and smell of lepers, with their oozing sores, foul rags, hideous faces, and stubby hands. As one biographer recalled, ‘So greatly loathsome was the sight of lepers to him…he would look at their houses only from a distance of two miles and he would hold his nostrils with his hands.’
“But as Francis began to turn his heart and mind over to God, things began to change. One day when Francis was riding down a road near Assisi he saw a leper approaching from a distance. He felt all the familiar feelings-the discomfort, the fear, the nausea, the desire to flee–as the lonely leper came closer and closer. But Francis, ennobled and enabled by God’s grace, got down off his mule, walked up to the leper, and kissed him. ‘When I was in sins, it seemed extremely bitter to me to look at lepers,’ recalled St. Francis, ‘and the Lord himself led me among them and I practiced mercy with them.’
“Soon, Francis was living at a leprosy hospital, caring for the lepers’ needs and washing their wounds. And as Francis’s movement grew, many of the friars lived with and served lepers, whom they called ‘our Christian brothers.’ But something deeper happened that day Francis first kissed the leper. A line had been crossed. Listening to his heart instead of his fear, he had ventured out beyond his comfort zone and reached out to another in love and compassion. And having done so once, it became easier to do so again and again. Soon he learned to express the same charity toward the chronically poor, the socially outcast, the lonely, the insane, and others. Gradually the love of God overflowed in his life and that love overcame his self-protection. These small victories changed the direction of his movement, and of human history.” (John Michael Talbot in “The Lessons of St. Francis”, pg. 155-156)
St. Francis listened to his heart rather than his fear and ventured outside his comfort zone. There is so much debate right now. So many fears. Some of them certainly valid. But we must continue to kiss the lepers in our lives. The outcast, the stranger, the needy. Not only as individuals but as nations. To kiss the “other” in grace and mercy, to be more concerned with compassion than our own self-protection, will determine our very futures as people and nations. As St. Francis did, may we let the love of God overflow our lives and nations, and may it overcome our self-protection, pride and fears.
“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.-—Frederick Buechner