Update Embracing The Leper

My other post on today's Gospel is here
and please check out this additional post, Clothed Splendour, with Howard Schroeder's beautiful artwork of St Francis embracing the leper and his accompanying words ...

The encounter of St Francis of Assisi with a leper acted as a significant turning point in the life of St Francis. See Brother Dan's reflection at Dating God here.

The ‘leper’ is a symbol of any person we reduce to being a non-person;
"Who or what are the lepers in my life?" What is it that I fear to embrace? What is it I despise? 

The people in the time of Jesus and St Francis thought leprosy was a punishment for some profound and hidden sin. 

What do I think is so evil I don't want to be in its presence in case it is contagious?
These days we are also asked to embrace our own dark leprous aspects, that are made of our own shadows projected from  the darkness within.
Image by Getty Images via @daylife
There are so many aspects of our personalities that can often take a lifetime to keep in check. We prefer to remain on the outside of ourselves, we see so many aspects of ourselves as untouchable, too scabby and distasteful to be seen.

But paradoxically as St Francis realised, only by facing and embracing these shadows can it lead to the release of God's power and creativity.

It is true that encountering the shadow self often does release chaos into our lives. and for Francis it is significant that it was after the meeting with the leper that he looked around and saw that the leper had disappeared that he later went on to hear the message from God to rebuild his church.

English: OFM General Curia : Mosaic Saint Fran...
Image via Wikipedia

Francis met three lepers that day on the plains of Umbria: the physical leper, the dark leprous side of himself and the face of the suffering Christ on the cross.

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Christ in the gospel today knew he would be excluded the moment he touched the leper because it was forbidden by law and so he was sending a clear message that the law needed breaking.

In this parable Jesus defies the rules but in fact, both men broke the laws - the leper was not to approach, Jesus was not to touch or even speak to the leper.
When the leper spoke to Jesus it was from a faith that asked for recognition. 
It is significant that Jesus heals the leper by touching him.

The Gospels contain plenty of evidence of healings without a physical touch from Jesus. In touching the leper, Jesus deliberately defiled himself according to Jewish custom. In touching the leper Jesus is symbolically telling us that God is willing to get down in the gutter, down in the ditch, where we all are.

When Christ and Francis met the leper they took on everything we fear and hate and shone the spotlight of God's own love on it , touching it and healing it with an outpouring of compassion. 

As a result of his actions Jesus was excluded from societal norms was treated as an outsider, and ultimately broken.

“Jesus understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich, the thirst that can lead people to drink from muddy waters. 

He penetrated the outward shell of things and understood that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and whatever happens to oneself happens to another.”  
-Oscar Wilde

What in myself and my church needs to be broken open ?
What issues in myself and my church that are "untouchable" need to be touched, released and healed?

 I find that Richard Rohr's reflection in his book Everything Belongs which touches on themes of identity, and boundaries very relevant too.
 An edited extract is below :

“Julian of Norwich said… ‘First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall.  But both are the mercy of God.’  Maybe you can’t believe that until the second half of life.

“How did we ever lose that kind of wisdom?  Especially when it is almost everybody’s experience?…Jesus reminded Julian that his crucifixion was the worst thing that happened in human history and God made the best out of it to take away all of our excuses.  As they were for Jesus, ‘our wounds become honors.’  The great and merciful surprise is that we come to God not by doing it right but by doing it wrong!  [See end of Mark 2]

“On a very practical level, the problem is that contemporary Westerners have a very fragile sense of their identity, much less an identity that can rest in union and relationship with God.  

Objectively, of course, we are already in union with God, but it is very hard for people to believe and experience this when they have no strong sense of identity, no boundaries, and no authentic religious experience.

 People who have not experienced core are trying to create identities and let go of boundaries.  For them, it might be helpful to explain that prayer in the early stages is quite simply a profound experience of that core:  of who we are, as Paul says, ‘hidden with Christ in God.’ (Col. 3:3)

“Those who rush to artificially manufacture their own identity often end up with hardened and overly defended edges. 

They are easily offended and are always ready to create a new identity when the current one lets them down.  They might become racists or control freaks, people who are always afraid of the ‘other.’  Often they become codependent or counterdependent, in either case living only in reaction to someone or something else.  

To them, negative identity is created quickly and feels sort of like life.  Thus many people, even [especially] religious folks, settle for lives of ‘holier than thou’ or lives consumed by hatred of their enemies.  Being over and against is a lot easier than being in love.

“Many others give up their boundaries before they have them, always seeking their identity in another group, experience, possession, or person.  Beliefs like, ‘She will make me happy,’ or ‘He will take away my loneliness,’ or ‘This group will make me feel like I belong’ become a substitute for doing the hard work of growing up. 

It is much easier to belong to a group than it is to know that you belong to God.
Those who firm up their own edges and identity too quickly without finding their center in God and in themselves will normally be the enemies of ecumenism, forgiveness, vulnerability, and basic human dialogue.  

Their identity is too insecure to allow any movement in or out and their ‘Christ’ tends to be very small, tribal, and ‘just like them.’ 

If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional ‘threat,’ you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love. 
You have to develop an ego before you can let go of it.  Maybe that is why Jesus just lived thirty years before he started talking. 

Rembrandt the Leper

Too often, young adults full of Yeats’s ‘passionate intensity’ about doctrine and dogma and which group is going to heaven use God to shore up their non-selves.  Such traditionalism is actually avoiding the tradition of transformation through death and rebirth.

“Others let go of their edges too easily in the name of being tolerant and open-minded, but even here ‘discernment of spirits’ is necessary.  There is a tolerance in true contemplatives because they have experienced the One Absolute, their own finite minds, and the passing character of all things.

This is the virtue of humility or maybe even patience.  But there is another tolerance today which is simply a refusal to stand up for anything.  To this kind of tolerant person, there are no boundaries worth protecting. 

The tolerance of the skeptic is largely meaningless, creates little that lasts, and is unfortunately characteristic of much progressive and humanistic thought today.

“Traveling the road of healthy religion and true contemplation will lead to calmly held boundaries, which need neither to be defended constantly nor abdicated in the name of ‘friendship.’  

This road is a ‘narrow road that few travel upon’ these days (Matt. 7:14) It is what many of us like to call the ‘the Third Way’: the tertium quid that emerges only when you hold the tension of opposites.

“The gift that the true contemplatives offer to themselves and society is that they know themselves as a part of a much larger Story, a much larger Self.  In that sense, centered people are profoundly conservative, knowing that they stand on the shoulders of their ancestors and the Perennial Tradition.

 Yet true contemplatives are paradoxically risk- takers and reformists, precisely because they have no private agendas, jobs, or securities to maintain.  

Their security and identity are founded in God, not in being right, being paid by a church, or looking for promotion in people’s eyes. 

These people alone can move beyond self-interest and fear to do God’s necessary work.  Look at how many saints, theologians, and especially woman foundresses of [religious] orders were corrected, threatened and even persecuted by the church during their lifetimes. 

God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes.

“People who have learned to live from their center in God know which boundaries are worth maintaining and which can be surrendered, although it is this very struggle that often constitutes their deepest ‘dark nights.’ 

Both maintaining and surrendering boundaries ironically require an ‘obedience,’ because they require listening to a Voice beyond their own. 

If you want a litmus test for people who are living out of one’s True Self, that might be it:  they are always free to obey, but they might also disobey the expectations of church and state to obey who-they-are-in-God.  Think of St. Paul, St Francis of Assisi, Thomas a Becket, Joan of Arc, Thomas Merton, or Dorothy Day.  Scary stuff, this contemplation.  

“By contrast, probably the most obvious indication of non-centered (‘ec-centric’) people is that they are, frankly, very difficult to live with.  Every one of their ego-boundaries must be defended, negotiated, or worshipped: their reputation, their needs, their nation, their security, their religion, even their ball team. 

They convince themselves that these boundaries are all they have to worry about because they are the sum-total of their identity.  You can tell if you have placed a lot of your eggs in these flimsy baskets if you are hurt or offended a lot. 

You can hardly hurt saints because they are living at the center and do not need to protect the circumference of feelings and needs.  

Ec-centric persons though, are a hurt waiting to happen.  In fact, they will create tragedies to make themselves feel alive.  I am told that personnel work now represents 80 percent of the time and energy that American companies have to expend. 

You might even say that a certain degree of contemplative seeing is actually necessary for the effective life of an institution or a community.  

“Toward the end of his life, [psychologist] Carl Jung said that he was not aware of a single one of his patients in the second half of life whose problems could not have been solved by contact with what he called ‘the Numinous’ and we would call God (Letters, 1973, 1:377).  

An extraordinary statement from a man who had no great love for institutional religion.  

I believe that we have no real access to who we really are except in God.  Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are.  Only when we live and see through God can ‘everything belong.’  

All other systems exclude, expel, punish and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of ‘purity.’  The contaminating element always has to be searched out and scolded. 

Apart from taking up so much useless time and energy, this effort keeps us from the one and only task of love and union. 

As the Hasidic masters taught their students, ‘Rake the muck this way.  Rake the muck that way.  It will still be muck.  In the time you are brooding, you could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven."

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