Awakened by Love
However, this victory was not merely a renunciation of self-interest, a conversion away from sin. It was at the same time an awakening within Francis to his vocation to love. And in this too the initiative was God’s, in the realization that love given is conditioned by the primacy of love experienced and received. In this one might consider the thought of the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his illustration of the awakening of the human subject to love through the analogy of a mother’s smile directed toward her child. von Balthasar ( Balthasar (2004, 76) ) writes:
After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge: the initially empty-sense impressions gather meaningfully around the core of the Thou.
von Balthasar suggests that through his gaze upon humanity, which is itself love, God awakens love in the human heart through a similar process. God “radiates love.” His love awakens the human person to his vocation to love. “Insofar as we are his creatures, the seed of love lies dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace—in the image of his Son” (von Balthasar 2004, 76). This is also the basic tenet of Benedict XVI’s (2005) encyclical Deus caritas est. God is love. “He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has “loved us first,” love can also blossom as a response within us” (no. 17; see 1 Jn 4:19).
Thus provoked by love, Saint Francis was imbued with a new sensitivity. Through his encounter with Christ, whom von Balthasar( Balthasar (2004, 56) describes as “the self-interpreting revelation-form of love itself,” Francis could perceive the truth of the human person as loved by God. He was graced with new sight, with what Benedict (2005) refers to as “a heart which sees,” that perceives “where love is needed and acts accordingly” (no. 31). Francis was able to recognize the other as his neighbour and to perceive his need for a sign, for an expression, of love. He was thus “willing and able to physically touch and embrace the untouchables of his day, because he believed that all humans deserve reverence” (Nothwehr 2005, 12); to embrace “in them whatever others loathed” (Thomas of Celano 1999a, no. 3, 320). He was awakened to new possibilities, new dimensions of his own humanity. He was empowered to do surprising and extraordinary things, “that only the power of Jesus’ Spirit could explain” (Bodo 1988, 12), and giving testimony once again to the truth that what seems impossible to our frail and broken humanity is not impossible to God (see Mk 10:27; Mt 19:26; Lk 18:27).
Precisely those aspects about lepers which had previously filled him with disgust—their deformity, their smell, their disease, and their neediness—were transformed into signs of something precious and sweet. But, as Pope Benedict (Benedict (2005, no. 18) writes:
This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern.
Thus, with new eyes for the world, Francis was able to see in lepers an object of divine love: beings created in his image. More specifically, he recognized in them an image of the suffering Christ who identifies himself with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lonely, and rejected (see Mt 25:35–36). For him, God’s image in man was not something purely spiritual or ephemeral but is also recognized in the weakness and fragility of the human form. In the fragile flesh of a broken man, in the suffering face of a leper, Francis perceived the awful reality of the Incarnation: of God’s kenotic self-emptying in the flesh of the Son of Man. Taking upon himself this humility of Christ, Francis learned to identify with those whom he served. He did not stand over them in his ministry but saw in the sick and the abandoned an image of Christ to whom he desired to be configured more and more.
For Francis, therefore, lepers became a type of sacrament—what Canonici ( Canonici (1995, 254) again calls an “eloquent image and sign of Christ: Christ who suffers; who took on the sins of the world; Christ who atoned with his own suffering; Christ marginalized by society; Christ who needed love.” Thus, in that moment of awakening, of conversion, Francis perceived that it was Christ before him in the form of the leper. Some of his biographers make this explicit, noting that after Francis had embraced the leper, and continued on his way, on turning back he saw no one on the road: “and although the field was wide open, without any obstructions, when he looked around he could not see the leper anywhere” (Thomas of Celano 2000, no. 9, 249). The leper had disappeared, drawing the reader to presume that it really was Christ himself in a leper’s disguise. And while this interpretation takes us beyond the historical event, it nonetheless acknowledges the truth of Christ’s words in the Gospel, that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Gifted with a heart that sees, Francis was able to recognize Christ within those whom he served and to reverence them with a divine awe and respect. He thus called lepers by a new name: “Christian brothers” (“The Assisi Compilation” 2000, no. 64, 166), recognizing (in the words of the Council) that through his Incarnation, Christ “has united Himself in some fashion with every man” (Vatican Council II 1965, no. 22).