As a child I always wanted to be like St. Francis. My childish understanding of him was of some nice person who had birds sitting on his shoulder and deer eating out of his hand. It was only later that I realized that his kindness had made him controversial in his own day.
Perhaps you have heard the story of St. Francis as a rich young man in fine clothes riding on a beautiful horse which is also richly decorated. Suddenly, Francis sees one of the most horrifying sights in all the ancient world: a leper. Today we call it Hansen’s disease, and do not recoil in hysteria, but living in the superstitions of his own time Francis must have thought to touch such a person would mean his own hideous death. For a time, the rich young man sits frozen on his horse.
Some strange calling arises from within Francis. Dismounting, he places money in the beggar’s white misshapen fingers. His original intent was only to give charity, but suddenly his heart bursts open and he embraces the leper with a kiss. Francis’ conversion story is more than the healing of one sick person; it was the healing of the fear that dominated Francis’s soul. The poor and the sick had been a threat to his position, safety and wealth. By cutting himself off from the suffering of his sisters and brothers, Francis lost his own place in the family of God. After renouncing his own status and wealth, Francis spent the rest of his days in joyous conversation with every other living being he encountered.
Such was the beginning of St. Francis’ ecstatic life of love. Nowadays, we decorate our fancy gardens with statues of this saint and fence him off from the poor, but we must remember that his journey did not begin with birds alighting on his shoulder. The way of St. Francis began by renouncing everything that came between him and the entire family of God.