Fall is a challenging time of year. For many people, that challenge is going back to school, or starting a college or graduate degree. For everyone, fall is the end of summer, a time traditionally associated with vacations and rest. Leaves turn brilliant colors before disappearing. The very air trembles with the threat of cold, of winter.
So perhaps it’s an appropriate time to think about some other challenges. And as on October 4 we celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, it’s also appropriate to look to him for guidance. He was in many ways very much like us in his weaknesses: like us, there were people, things, and situations that made him uncomfortable.
Francis was born into a wealthy family, and spent the early part of his life doing precisely what he wanted when he wanted. Perhaps his fastidiousness was a leftover relic from those times, but we’re told in the Legend of the Three Companions that he had a particular aversion to lepers, the unfortunate victims of an infection that wasn’t understood (or treated) for centuries, and that often left sufferers blind and with lesions that led to amputation and death. The Legend says Francis shuddered at the sight of lepers, holding his nose and averting his eyes from them.
One day Francis was riding outside the city proper when a leper suddenly appeared on the path in front of him. This time, however, the Holy Spirit spoke to him, and he made himself get off his horse, forced himself to do what he didn’t want to do—approach the leper. Suddenly inspired, he embraced the man as a brother in Christ, and in doing so was transformed. Later he would write about the encounter, and say that “what was so bitter was changed into sweetness.”
Clearly, if Francis was to found and live in community, he had to extend his love and acceptance to all people, not just those he found appealing. God made that clear, by sending a single leper to encounter the saint and challenge him to change and grow.
It’s recorded in several sources that Francis was not a particularly organized person, nor did he have any natural leadership skills or gifts. He would have been perfectly fine living out his life as the humblest of friars in his new community, rather than being the community’s head and leader. He must have felt lost and ill-equipped to deal with his growing order and all the problems that growth engendered. God could have called someone who had those skills, but it was Francis he wanted, and Francis rose to the challenge.
John Henry Newman assures us that God has a plan for each of us. That doesn’t mean the plan will be obvious or feel natural or comfortable; God often calls people out of their comfort zones as he did St. Francis. Francis rose to the occasion because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and because he relied on God to help him do what he couldn’t do alone.
It’s often when we’re outside of our comfort zones that we experience the most spiritual growth—and that we accomplish things we never thought we could. God challenges us to step outside of what we like, where we feel good, in order to work out his plan for our lives. It’s in these situations, where we feel inept, incompetent, and afraid, that we have to rely on God to do what we alone cannot.
We are so quick to associate Francis with the natural world he loved so deeply. But perhaps today on his feast-day we can learn a different lesson from the saint. God challenged him to do what didn’t feel comfortable, and it changed his life. Perhaps doing the same thing can change ours, as well.