St. Francis’ Encounters with Mercy and Compassion
by friar Steve McMichael, OFM Conv.
Toward the end of his life, Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) wrote a personal reflection entitled the Testament, in which he tells of his encounter with the lepers:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus, to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.
Francis does not tell us anything about what happened in his life before this encounter with lepers, but it is obvious that Francis was already experiencing a relationship with God. In fact, God is the main actor in his conversion process, as Francis states that God led him among the lepers. He experienced mercy with them and became their brother. His life of self-centeredness was changed in this encounter in which he discovered that he was a brother to them, who were the most vulnerable in medieval Assisi.
Francis’ second encounter was with the face of Jesus on the cross in the church of San Damiano. The early biographies focus on the command that Jesus gives Francis: “Repair my church which you see is falling into ruin.” In his Testament, Francis refers to this encounter with Jesus:
And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would pray with simplicity in this way and say:
“We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the whole world and we bless You because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.”
This is Francis’ recognition that the face of Jesus was one of mercy, and therefore the second encounter in Francis’ conversion experience was with the merciful Jesus who died for our redemption.
Francis’ understanding of living a Christian life was to imitate the apostles, and therefore Francis took on the role of an apostolic preacher. His manner of life and his preaching eventually attracted others to want to embrace his way of living according to the Gospel. In the writings of Francis, he claims that the community of brothers is also a place of mercy because the Lord brought them together, as he states in the Testament.
“And after the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.”
The third encounter is Francis’ experience of mercy and compassion with his brothers in community.
Francis’ relationship with everyone in the society of his time was also an encounter with mercy and compassion. What was experienced in community life was to be manifested out in the world, as Francis states in the Franciscan Rule:
“I counsel, admonish, and exhort my brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ not to quarrel or argue or judge others when they go about the world, but let them be meek, peaceful, modest, gentle, and humble, speaking courteously to everyone, as is becoming. Into whatever house they enter, let them first say: “Peace be to this house.” According to the holy Gospel, let them eat whatever food is set before them.”
The fourth encounter of mercy was, therefore, anyone the brothers would encounter in the world, especially the most vulnerable (lepers, sick, poor, etc.). They are to have encounters of mercy and compassion because they were to consider themselves brothers to anyone without exception.
The ultimate encounters were with Creation and Muslims in Egypt. These constitute the full flowering of Francis’ relationship of mercy and compassion. Creation consoled Francis at the end of his life, as we see manifested in his Canticle of Creatures. Francis also experienced being a brother to those who were considered enemies to the Christian world in his encounter with the Sultan in Egypt in 1219.
From the moment of his first encounter with the lepers to the end of his days, his life was marked by all the encounters in which he experienced God’s mercy and compassion.