Francis and the Leper

There are many stories that people remember about Francis of Assisi; in my experience, most of them are from a book, the Fioretti, The Little Flowers, a collection of stories about Francis. It is the name given to the classic collection of popular legends about the life of St. Francis of Assisi and his early companions. The earliest extant copy is from 1390, some 164 years after the death of Francis. Scholars agree that it was probably written earlier, but in any case not within 120 years of Francis’ death. It is a collection of hearsay, colorful anecdotes, stories of miracles and pious examples from the life of Francis. Are the accounts in the Fioretti history? Are the pious fables? Are they just hagiography?

Hagiography? A hagiography, from Ancient Greek hagios “holy”, and -graphia “writing” is a telling of the life of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader which is a highly laudatory and idealized “biography” of a founder, saint, monk, nun or icon in any of the world’s religions. Is it biography in the way the modern mind understands the literary form? No. Is there biographical information within hagiographic writing? Yes. Can that information be extracted? Yes, no, maybe. In western Christianity, the lives of the saints and martyrs are hagiographic in part, but their purpose was not historic preservation of the saint’s life. It was to record an inspirational tract to inspire listeners of following generations. The scholar Hippolyte Delehaye offers that the role of hagiography was to increase devotion to the saint through five elements: to edify the reader, to verify the sanctity of the person, to increase devotion, to move the reader to moral change, and to bring pleasure to the reader. The overall focus was to teach (edify) the reader what it means to be Christian via the verification of the saint’s holiness with an interesting writing style. Embellishment was an accepted practice as was selective use of available materials. Add to this, “your saint” had to outshine other “competing saints” for attention, and it is not hard to imagine how hagiography is a different genre from biography.

And what has this to do with Francis and the leper, one of the most well known stories of the Saint from Assisi? Consider two sources (among many) that speak to some aspect of the encounter(s). What we do know is that within days of his dying, Francis left a “testament” that begins as follows:

“[I began] doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter to 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 in to sweetness of soul and body.  And afterwards I delay a little and left the world” (Testament of St Francis 1-2).

The narrative about “the leper” that people are most familiar with comes from a second work by Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of St. Francis. Thomas wrote a second book, referred to as “2nd Celano” (2C) but more properly known as The Remembrance of the Desire of A Soul. This was written some 20-25 years after Francis’ death, partly on other’s works written since his own first work, and on a collection of “remembrances” from friars collected as the first generation of Friars began to pass away.

In 2C-9, we read:

“Among all the awful miseries of this world Francis had a natural horror of lepers, and one day as he was riding his horse near Assisi he met a leper on the road.  He felt terrified and revolted, but not wanting to transgress God’s command and break the sacrament of His word, he dismounted from his horse and ran to kiss him.  As the leper stretched out his hand, expecting something, he received both money and a kiss.  Francis immediately mounted his horse and although the field was wide open, without any obstructions, when he looked around he could not see the leper anywhere.”

It is not difficult to see why modern scholars wonder about this account.  Does it capture the core of a real event in Francis’ life, only to add the miraculous disappearance of the leper at the end as a way of saying that the meaning of the story is about Francis’ encounter with God in his encounter with the leper?  Or is this simple account an illustrative one that simply condenses other experiences with the lepers of his day? Or is simply hagiographic?

In the coming weeks, I hope to explore different aspects of Francis’ encounters with lepers and how we can begin to think and reflect about the encounter. Biographical or hagiographical – both share the goals of teaching us what it means to be Christian and to bring about moral change in our lives.

I can’t guarantee that I will have time to write something to post every Saturday morning, but I will give it a try. Stay tuned.

Art credit: unknown, discovered on Franciscan University web

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