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04 October 2010

Tyler Clementi, Shawn Walsh and St. Francis

Prompted by the Gospel for October 10, in which Jesus heals ten lepers, and because today (October 4) marks the death of St. Francis, I want to spend some time reflecting on lepers. Growing up in Germany, the only word I knew for leprosy was "Aussatz", literally the condition that causes someone to be "cast aside" or "cast out". From of old, leprosy has done just that: those cast out were excluded from the life of their community, and lived and died in complete isolation from those they once belonged to. In Luke 17 we read that when Jesus meets ten lepers, he tells them to show themselves to the priests. Healed, they are found to be clean and restored to the community.

Even though in the days of St. Francis lepers were venerated by many as "The poor of the good God", history has it that Francis was filled with dread, horror and disgust whenever he encountered a leper; the pain, misery and alienation in which lepers lived repulsed him. Perhaps a year later, Francis was riding across the plain of Assisi and met a leper who was asking for alms. Taken aback and sickened, Francis was tempted to throw him some coins and ride away; yet he stopped himself and said, "As a man of God I must learn to conquer myself". At that moment he saw the figure of the wounded Christ reflected in the leper. As the story goes, Francis reigned in his horse, jumped down, ran back to the leper and put a substantial amount of money into his diseased hand.

Suddenly moved by love and compassion, he raised the man's hand to his lips and kissed it. In response, this "poor of the good God" gave him the kiss of peace; Francis realized that in the process he had been converted and healed.

Tyler Clementi in New Jersey (18) and Shawn Walsh in California (13) remind us that people are still being cast out. Because these two young men simply saw no way to return to their community, they stayed outside and took their own lives when their suffering became unbearable. These days, gay and lesbian teenagers belong to "The poor of the good God". The horror, dread and disgust expressed by others are their close
companions; when people avert their eyes and cross the street to avoid them, they feel deep pain; when their "friends" betray their confidence, they feel abandoned in ways difficult to imagine for someone who has never felt oppression.

Francis overcame his fears; from the way he did so, we can learn to let our lives be guided by our hearts, rather than by our minds. Dread, horror, revulsion and disgust are creations of our mind and its insatiable engine, the ego. Only our small minds insist that anybody out there is "other"; our hearts have known all along that all are one. The idea of "the other" is all about craving power. As Rumi puts it, "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself  that you have built against it."

Luke 17:11-19

PS Please take a look at what Gareth Higgins has to say (click here) about the Tyler Clementi case.

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