Most people look at the life of Francis of Assisi with admiration and even awe. How did a young person know his vocation so clearly? How did he find the courage to make such radical changes in his life and literally throw himself into the arms of God?
Without providing simplistic answers to such provocative questions, I want to suggest two things. First, Francis, while clearly admirable, was not doing anything more than proceeding, step by step, along a path led by his desire to be more authentic and more humane. We ought not let admiration for him keep us from proceeding similarly.
Second, as Francis himself tells us in his Testament, “No one told me what I should do…” There was no roadmap to the clarity and courage to change that he gained. However, his way was illuminated by the power of encounter with others at the margins—a way that helped him to meet the God whose aliveness is known as we become invested in one another’s well-being, as we “love one another as I have loved you.”
If we are serious about making the changes necessary to create a world that is truly home for all, we will have come to grips with how many of us belong at the expense of even more who do not. It is an honest recognition that the ‘success’ of some comes on the backs of many, and that this way of life is emphatically not the kind of human flourishing that God has in mind for us. There are many who have been abandoned, many who are routinely ignored, overlooked, even despised.
As Pope Francis reminds us: We have created a ‘disposable culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it.
Outcast. Thrown away. Left for dead. Did Francis’s experiences as a prisoner-of-war give him a new sensitivity to the underside of daily life? Did his own experience of the fragility of life give him a deeper sensitivity to the legitimate needs of others? Did it give him new eyes with which to see those whom he had previously avoided?
The way of Francis and Clare is a profound awakening to the God who walks with us, drawing us to the margins so that, slowly and steadfastly, the margins themselves are erased, and a wider, more fruitful space is created. This awakening necessarily precedes the metanoia, or shift in perspective, attitude and action, that can then emerge. And this shift comes about because we go out of ourselves in order to encounter the reality of others. It is our isolation, our lack of encounter and interaction with those who can teach us about our world, our lack of engagement with the complex social reality that keeps us small, individually and collectively. It is arrogance to think that we can know ourselves or our world without engaging it in ways that allow us to grow in solidarity, empathy, and knowledge of others’ experience. As Peter-Hans Kolvenbach said nearly 20 years ago, “Solidarity is learned through contact rather than through concepts. When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection.”
As our minds and hearts slowly take in the reality of what our brothers and sisters unjustly suffer, we can learn, as Greg Boyle says in Tattoos on the Heart, “to stand in awe with what the poor carry rather than in judgment at how they carry it.” More importantly, such encounters can get us to “rise up and walk” toward those whose burdens overwhelm them, catalyzing us not only into action but also into right relationship… into a solidarity that changes us and our world, as we learn to collaborate toward the common good rather than to act out of self-interest. This was what Francis learned, to his surprise and joy, as he rose up and walked toward the leper colony