Sit in a circle where honest life stories are shared, and you’ll almost always hear a conversion story of some kind.
As a young, wealthy Italian at the beginning of the 13th century, Francis of Assisi believed that he heard God saying, “Francis, all the things you once loved in the flesh you must now despise, and from those things you formerly loathed you will drink great sweetness and immeasurable delight.”
Francis did more than reflect on these words; he applied them in a stunning and beautiful fashion. He rode his horse from town and encountered a person that he despised — a leper. At one time untreatable, this horrific disease involves bacteria infecting the nerves and then destroying them one by one, especially in the cooler parts of the body like toes, fingers and earlobes. “Nothing disgusted me like seeing the victims of leprosy,” Francis wrote of his pre-conversion life.
Remembering how he would come to love that which he loathed and filled with joy at his newfound faith, Francis leapt from his horse. He knelt before the leper, the story goes, and proceeded to kiss his diseased, pale hand. He kissed him. He then gave the leper money, jumped back on his horse and rode to a local leper colony. Francis “begged their pardon for having so often despised them” and refused to leave until he had joyfully embraced and kissed each of them. His life to follow would involve service and sacrifice on behalf of others, inspiring even the present leader of the Catholic church to make faith incarnate.
Some scoff at stories of conversion and transformation, but almost every human experiences it at one time or another. Conversion speaks of changing from one state to another, literally turning in a different direction. We may experience a conversion to a different political philosophy, to a different religion, or to a different lifestyle, but almost all of us experience at least one conversion moment.
And don’t we desire to be changed? We may want to be more compassionate, to have a more meaningful line of work, to be more loving, to make a difference. And yet, the process of how conversion takes place can be mysterious. We may be forced to change through adverse circumstances, resistant at first, but later grateful for the hardship that created a change in us that we knew needed to happen. Or we may desire a change for years and years and finally, feeling so exhausted and defeated by the old way, we know that it’s time to turn in a different direction.
Author Sue Monk Kidd says, “When you can’t go forward, and you can’t go backward, and you can’t stay where you are without killing off something deep and vital in yourself, you are on the edge of creation.”
The point is that transformation often involves a moment like kissing a leper. Faith must touch flesh. Conversion must go beyond the superficial and become explicit action.
When that happens, we have a story worth telling.