What do pandemics change? In this first guest blog of our ongoing historical series, Dr Rachel Davies considers the spiritual experiences of Angela of Foligno and Francis of Assisi in medieval Italy, as they learned to see Christ in those suffering from leprosy. The experiences of Angela and Francis illustrate how an embrace of human vulnerability that is free from shame or denial can inspire a radical openness to the lives and experiences of others. 02/07/2020
In a startling story from the thirteenth century, the mystic Angela of Foligno takes her friend to visit a community of lepers. Their object is to “find Christ there among the poor, the suffering, and the afflicted,” and when they do, they bathe his wounds, which are “festering and in an advanced state of decomposition.” But that’s not all. The two women drink the fetid bath water, which tastes sweet like Holy Communion. And when a bit of scab gets stuck in Angela’s throat, she refuses to spit it out.
Angela’s ritual is hard to understand without some background. In medieval Europe, lepers had symbolic value not least because Latin transmissions of Isaiah 53:4 depicted the crucified Jesus as one who appeared “like a leper” (quasi leprosum). For Christians like Angela, actual lepers became a sign of the Christ whose divine humanity enabled others to participate in the divinity—that is, to live in courageous and creative harmony with the God who is courage and creative power itself. Angela believed that contemplative encounters like the one described above could help her more fully embrace what God had made available to her in Christ, since spiritual graces (in this case the divine humanity) were mediated to physical creatures through physical symbols and experiences. (Catholics call this sacramental theology.)
But why did the sacramental encounter have to look so gruesome? An answer suggests itself when we consider the spiritual awakening of Angela’s mentor, Francis of Assisi.
Out for a ride one day, young Francis encounters Jesus in the broken body of a leper. Describing himself prior to this event, Francis writes, “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure”, but suddenly Francis feels moved to kiss the man before him. Instantly his fear and disgust are healed, and from that point lepers become a “source of spiritual and physical consolation”. By embracing Christ the leper, Francis comes to understand that his own human vulnerability is not opposed to his flourishing. He bravely holds his finite humanity open to God and to the unpredictable process of spiritual transformation.
Franciscan spirituality does not claim that human vulnerability is either good or bad, but it recognizes the ways it can be frightening. Because of the world we inhabit, the journey to ourselves in Christ may include social isolation, disease, and death, but the fact that Jesus’ divinity was not cancelled by his suffering means that the truest parts of us can survive it too. Angela and Francis develop a patient, compassionate understanding of selfhood that looks inward and moves outward, embracing vulnerability without shame or denial.
Feminist thinkers have expressed a healthy caution around texts like Angela’s. Any valorisation of suffering is dangerous, and interpretations of Angela, Francis, and even Jesus can quickly slip into that mould. But if past paradigms can teach us ways to live more peaceably with our vulnerable selves and neighbours in the age of Covid-19, then it might be good to listen how.
It could be that our collective discomfort with vulnerability is partly to blame both for the fact that some Christian thinkers valorize suffering inappropriately, and for the assumption of some contemporaries that Christian stories like suffering a little too much. If this is true, then sustained, honest reflection on our own vulnerabilities might be part of the antidote we need. It is interesting to note that early twentieth century assumptions about how leprosy was viewed in the Middle Ages took shape in response to fears over how a disease from the “colonies” was re-establishing itself in Europe at the time. Assuming leprosy to be highly infectious, nineteenth-century epidemiologists invented a “myth of [medieval] marginality and exclusion” in order to justify their own programs of isolation and stigmatization in Europe and abroad. But the stories of Angela and Francis testify to the fact that in many ways, medieval lepers had an elevated spiritual status in European society because of who they symbolized and the spiritual possibilities they represented.
Early twentieth century assumptions about leprosy show how discomfort with vulnerability can cause us to generate stories about the world that distance us from the suffering of others. On the other hand, it is also possible for experiences like Covid-19 to open our hearts to the stories of others—for instance, as protests swallow the United States, to the trauma and humiliation faced by people of colour in societies where whiteness dominates.
Francis’ encounter with himself in Christ the leper impacted a vast network of communities, and Covid-19 represents similar opportunities. For some, the pain associated with losing a loved one or source of income in recent months will be too raw right now to allow any measure of hopeful spiritual reflection. But others may find it possible to locate a source of stability within or beyond themselves from which to reflect on the reality of human vulnerability. With patience, such confrontations can turn us outward in the spirit of Angela and Francis. As we face growing economic uncertainty, and as we struggle to understand new ways of hearing and thinking in response to racial injustice, we can choose a radical openness that will impact Britain for future generations.
You can read the other blogs in the 'What do pandemics change?' series here.
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