Whatever gains I had I have come to regard as loss for Christ’s sake. For him I have suffered the loss of all things, and regard them as rubbish, in order that I may be found in him. – Philippians 3: 7-11 (NRSVUE, adapted)
In a famous story about the young Francis of Assisi, he came across a leper in the road. Townspeople regarded lepers warily, but often showed compassion, offering them a loaf or a coin. If, that is, they could get past their revulsion. Francis never could.
Yet that day, impelled by some mysterious inevitability, this wealthy young libertine dismounted, knelt before an afflicted man, and kissed his disfigured hand.
After Francis began attracting followers, their first ministry together was in a leper community. It’s not surprising, then, that the story of his spontaneous embrace of that leper on the road would come to be regarded as a radical conversion, the moment he became a saint.
But Francis never spoke about a converting encounter with a leper, never mentioned a kiss. Instead, in his final testament, he recalled simply that God had “led him among lepers,” to live with them, to share their lot. It was this daily rub that gradually drew him “out of the world” into Christ’s arms.
If Francis is a saint, it’s not because one day he didn’t turn away from a leper. It was because he didn’t turn away a thousand times more. It was because his life was an ever-expanding, ever-deepening turning towards the suffering world. Most of us are good at spontaneous gestures of compassion, but holiness is a discipline, a way of life.
God calls us all to turn towards something, and to keep turning until we’re made new. As a dying Francis said to his brothers, “I’ve done what God gave me to do. May you do what is yours.”
Turn me towards what is mine, O Christ. Keep turning me my whole life long.
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.