Francis of Assisi is my favorite saint.
The story of his sinful life as a young man and then his remarkable conversion, followed by a lifetime of heroic virtue, is truly inspiring, as are the lives of many saints. But sometimes when we read the biographies of these spiritual superheroes, we find ourselves somewhat deflated, thinking that we can never come close to imitating their examples. We throw in the towel early and declare, “God makes saints by giving them extraordinary graces. Apparently he has not done so with me, so I’ll just try to be a good Catholic and hope that’s good enough.”
It’s an understandable feeling, but perhaps we are failing to see the human side of these great people of God. We see their “perfection” after the fact and forget to see their all-too-human struggles on their journey to sainthood. But if we examine these struggles, we will learn at least two things: First, becoming a saint is hard work, and, second, maybe sainthood is possible for us. To illustrate the point, let’s take a look at one of my favorite stories about St. Francis.
One day Francis came to a leprosarium where some of the brothers cared for those unfortunate outcasts. One particular leper cursed anyone who would approach him. He shouted blasphemies against Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Francis approached the man and said, “May God give you peace.”
The man looked at Francis with scorn and shouted, “What peace can I have from God, who has taken away my peace and my well-being, and has made me all rotten and stinking?”
Francis encouraged the man to be patient and to try to understand that perhaps God had allowed this physical malady to save his soul.
Dissatisfied with Francis’s response, the leper said he could no longer endure his suffering and complained that the brothers did not take good care of him.
Francis walked away for a moment to pray.
When he returned, he told the leper that he himself would take care of him.
Skeptical, the man asked, “What will you do better than the brothers?”
Francis replied, “I shall do whatever you want.”
The man answered, “I want you to wash me all over, because I smell so bad I can’t stand myself.”
Francis had a bowl of hot water filled with sweet-smelling herbs brought to him. He began to wash the man with his own hands. Wherever Francis’s hands touched the man, the putrid flesh fell away, leaving healthy skin behind.
Realizing that he had been healed, the man cried great tears of repentance.
Now if you’re anything like me, you read a story like that and say, “Sorry. I can’t do that. I know, as a Christian, I should be able to, but I’m just being honest. That’s why I’m not a great saint and never will be.” But before you sink into a slough of despond, let’s look at another St. Francis story, one that took place years before the above incident.
A short time after his conversion, Francis was riding in the country when he heard the heart-stopping sound of a leper’s bell. As the leper drew closer, Francis felt the deep repulsion that most people experienced when confronted with this horrific contagious disease. He wanted to turn his horse and ride to safety, but he knew that to do so would be to deny this suffering child of God the love he deserved. Francis forced himself to dismount and stride purposely toward the man engulfed in rotting flesh and a putrid smell. Francis took the man’s hand and kissed it tenderly. Instantly the repulsion he had felt just a few moments earlier completely left him, replaced by a great sense of peace. The leper returned the kiss. Francis remounted his horse, and as he began to ride away, he turned his head to see the leper one more time. But the man had disappeared.
Was the leper an angel in disguise? Perhaps. But it really doesn’t matter. The focus should be on the fact that Francis forced himself to see the man as a soul in need of warmth and compassion. And then Francis forced himself to take the man’s hand and kiss it, even at the risk of contracting the deadly disease. So, Francis, using his God-given free will, had to overcome his fear before he could continue to grow toward sainthood.
This should give us hope. With God’s grace, we, too, can overcome those obstacles that hinder our path to sainthood. As Mother Teresa said, “Everything depends on these two or three words: I will or I will not. I must put all of my energy into this will. St. John Berchmans, St. Stanislaus, St. Margaret Mary said I will, and they did become saints. What is a saint but simply a resolute soul, a soul that uses power plus action?”
What better time to resolve to be a saint than right now?
*The above stories about St. Francis can be found in God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, by Julien Green.