The Embrace

The images went viral after the papal audience on Wednesday. Pope Francis met, embraced and kissed a man suffering from a rare disease called neurofibromatosis, a painful and disfiguring skin condition.

Those who know the story of St Francis embracing the leper, the most loathed in his society, can immediately see a connection. Surely the physical pain of that poor man in Rome is matched at times by the emotional pain of being shunned because his disturbing appearance. We see in the Pope’s gentle love, his physical touch a glimpse of the divine compassion that reaches the least of the Father’s children.

However I also believe that these images reach something even deeper in our hearts. In recent years Franciscans have looked again at the story of Francis and the leper. We now speak of how we are called not simply to embrace the “leper” we meet – those who for whatever reason are rejected and despised – but also the leper within.

In a powerful passage in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung writes β€œThe acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.”

He recognises that Christians can often show great love towards others. But he asks a disturbing question.

 “That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues.  What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ.  But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness – that I myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then?”

Then sadly Jung writes that from his experience for most believers compassion does not extent to self.  “As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us Raca, and condemn and rage against ourselves.  We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
 
Looking at the profound images of Francis holding in his arms the disfigured and the shunned is an invitation to cease rejecting the broken and despised within, to tenderly give to ourselves “the alms” of our own kindness.
 

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