Today Franciscans celebrate the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, a day that reminds us how committed Francis was to imitating Christ. But this was not always so. In Francis’ early years, the seed that God was sowing so generously (Lk 8) did not fall on good ground, but rocky, dry, shallow and thorny ground.
Francis was born into privilege. His father was the second richest man in Assisi, and Francis delighted in spending his father’s money and entertaining his friends. Although we don't have all of the details, Francis apparently lived an empty life, as Thomas of Celano his early biographer wrote, “he attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.” Francis himself said, “I lived in sin.”
One day, however, while riding in the countryside, Francis happened upon a leper who startled him. The sight and smell of lepers had always repelled Francis, but this time Francis dismounted from his horse and kissed the man, an act that sealed what had been happening to him internally.The seed of God's love was taking root and Francis knew he had to let go of the life of luxury he was leading and find another path.
The same is often true for us. We are gifted with a moment of awareness or insight and everything changes. While the behavioral shifts we will have to make are not immediately clear, our spirits will not rest until we discern a new direction, and then slowly new habits of quiet, reflection and prayer grow in us and what before seemed impossible now brings joy.
For Francis the desire to identify with and witness to the Christ whose grace had changed him forever would result in him bearing in his own body the wounds of Jesus. While the Stigmata might seem a strange gift to modern people, the desire to walk with others who suffer is not. How many times have all of us wanted to take away or identify with the suffering of a friend or family member. While painful, especially when we can do little to ease the physical suffering of another, to walk with those we love when they are most in need is a simple act of compassion that we often feel privileged to offer. That is what Francis wanted to do with Christ for the sake of the world and to build God's reign.
Today ask the Lord for the courage not to turn away from the leper and for the grace to open yourself again to the seed of God's love that is searching for the fertile soil within you so that you might bear fruit a hundredfold for the sake of all searching for a sign of God's enduring love for the world.