“Formerly Francis could neither touch nor even look at lepers; indeed, his aversion to them was so strong that if by chance he happened to pass anywhere near their dwellings or to see one of the lepers, he would turn his face away and hold his nose. But, strengthened by God’s grace, he was enabled to obey God’s command and to love what he had hated: what had been so repugnant to him had really and truly been turned into something pleasant. Francis now abhorred the riches that he had hitherto wrongfully loved. In consequence of this he became such a friend to the lepers that, as he himself declared in his Testament, he lived with them and served them with loving eagerness.”
—Legend of the Three Companions
His feast day is October 04.
The Leper Heals Francis
In describing the conversion process of Francis, Fr. Augustine speaks of various encounters that he had to overcome. The first he called the visible enemies, the second, invisible foes, and the third...the greatest foe of all--himself. This final encounter refers to his own attitude and feelings about people that he feared intensely...lepers. The biographer tells us that Francis' revulsion was surprising; note the reason why.
"Before his conversion, the lepers had always inspired him with disgust. Even the sight of one in the distance filled him with horror and dread. He would never give them alms directly, but always through an intermediary. A hospital especially devoted to their care stood on the plain in the vicinity of Assisi, and whenever he went in this direction on business or for pleasure, to escape the nauseating odor…he hurried past with averted and closed nostrils. This is all the stranger when we remember that the leper inspired great veneration in these ages of Faith. The reason of this veneration was that the Prophet Isaiah represented the future Messiah as a leper struck by God and humiliated. [cf. Is 53 –The Suffering Servant]. Hence the lepers more than all other sufferers were looked upon as an image of the Redeemer, and spoken of tenderly as "the poor of the good God" and "the sick ones of the good God." Christ himself, too, during the days of His mortal life, had great compassion on the lepers, and never closed His ears to their appeals for cure. Legend had also consecrated stories of lepers being changed into Jesus himself in the arms of their benefactors. In spite of all this, however, Francis could not overcome the natural repugnance which the very sight of one excited in him."
The sight of someone radically deformed, disfigured or diseased can cause an emotional response that is extreme and repulsive. Some deep seated fear of the afflicted person; their pain, misery, and alienation; touches us and we naturally look to run away. It's akin to the fear of death, and in some sense perhaps, worse. Whatever is in Francis that must be purified, is holding him back. It's the last battle, so to speak, before he becomes entirely available for God's work.
"But the Lord was leading him by the hand and slowly purifying his sensitive nature. One day as he was riding across the plain below Assisi absorbed in thought, his horse suddenly swerved a little, and, looking up, Francis saw a leper before him asking for alms. His whole soul sickened at the sight, and his first inclination was to cast some coin on the ground, spur his horse and ride away. But he reproached himself in stern tones: "Thou art not yet a knight of Christ if thou canst not conquer thyself."
Francis is aware of the battle struggling within and laments his failure. It is well for us to stop and consider how these terrible moments which we dread, are so vital for us to overcome on our journey toward The Kingdom. If we could only remember to cry out: "God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help." Yet God did come to his assistance.
"The vision in the cave rose up before him, and he saw the figure of the wounded, bleeding Christ reflected in the leper. A wave of pity, compassionate love passed over his heart, and reining in his horse, he leaped down, ran back to the poor sufferer, placed a generous sum of money in his wasted hand, and then, raising it reverently to his lips, kissed it. Before the leper could utter a word Francis had clasped him in his arms, and received, in turn, the kiss of peace from the poor stricken one of the good God. Having borne away the prize in the third encounter, Francis felt that he was now a true knight of Christ."
Francis plunges into the mystery that God works even through suffering to accomplish his will. The leper becomes God's instrument of healing--to Francis; allowing the Divine Person to pour through and dissipate the fear and revulsion that had occupied his heart.
—Excerpts and reflection from an out of print biography: Some Loves of the Seraphic Saint, by Fr. Augustine, OFM Cap