"When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter to me to see lepers. But then God drew me near them, and I felt loving kindness for them. Then after some thought, I left the world."
This paraphrase of Francis' Testament helps us to understand the primacy of the scorned and rejected in his experience of God. Most of his biographers do not highlight the centrality of how Francis came to find God (and, concurrently, to grow toward his own authenticity as a person) in the community of lepers outside the city walls. But those who lived in this space of abandonment and cultural contempt were able to teach Francis things that he could learn nowhere else. Specifically, he they helped him access a profound tenderness, for God and for others, that Francis had never known.
It is deeply ironic that the famous Giotto fresco cycle in the upper basilica of San Francesco, inside the city walls, completely eliminates this central moment in the narrative of Francis' life--whitewashing the lepers from the church and skewing viewers' understanding of Francis' life. But we cannot understand Francis without acknowledging the centrality of encounter and of relationship with God, known through the marginalized, that is the core of the Franciscan charism. Entering the tender space of La Maddalena, the church built over one of the leper colonies in the valley below Assisi, helps us honor God's invitation to poverty, simplicity, and the joy of living together in love.