As I sat staring at those words on my Blackberry, trying to comprehend the words on that tiny little screen, I could slowly feel my heart grow heavier in my chest. It didn’t make any sense. I had been told that there would be no problem. I had made plans…airline tickets had been purchased. I had a new set of custom made golf clubs in the trunk of my car. I had been going to the driving range to improve my game so that I wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the men I was going to be playing with. There HAD to be a mistake!!
But, it was no mistake. My request to travel to California on a short golf vacation with friends had been denied. Even my attempts to appeal the denial were turned down. There was nothing more for me to do than to let my friend Paul know what had happened so that he could find someone to take my place on short notice.
I’ve reflected on the words of that brief e-mail that I received from my probation officer a number of times over the past few days and I realize that the heaviness of my heart really doesn’t come from the fact that I don’t get to go on a golf trip. Not that I don’t love to golf… I do. And not that I wasn’t looking forward to this opportunity to travel with friends…because I was. The weight is my chest is caused by a much deeper realization. Two simple words in that e-mail that are completely life altering, because it places me in a class of people that are outcasts.
In Biblical times, there was another class of people that were outcasts from society. In fact, they were so unwanted, that if they came near people, they were required to call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Members of mainstream society were forbidden to have contact with these people, and if one were so bold as to touch them, they too would find themselves cast out of the community. These people were “lepers” and their condition caused them to be isolated and separated from all of society.
It has taken millennia for leprosy to be more clearly understood and for treatment options to be developed. But even with a greater understanding of the disease, there is still a stigma that will always be attached to those who have the disease. And so it is for me, and literally thousands of others who carry the same “scarlet letters” – “S.O.”
But, I’m learning that the first place that the stigma has to stop is with me. I’ve had to forgive myself for the choices that I made. I’ve had to accept that my moral core is not the person who spent countless hours on the internet in places I didn’t belong. And I’ve had to accept that my future is not what I thought that it would be ten years ago.
There is a story in the Catholic Church of St. Francis of Assisi embracing a leper one day on the road.
He could ride on. There is no reason to stop. As he passes, he can throw down his last coin to the leper. His horse lifts one hoof and paws the dirt. It is time to go on, to go home. As Francesco drops his hand to the reins, his eyes fall upon his own expensive, well-fitting glove, and it dawns on him that this leper is not wearing gloves, which is odd; he and his kind are required to wear them when they leave their hospitals, just as they are required to wear and ring their bells to warn the unwary traveler of their approach. Again Francesco looks down upon the solitary figure of the leper, who has not moved a muscle. His hand is still wrapped around the cord of the bell, his head arrested at an angle. He is like a weather beaten statue, and Francesco has the sense the he has been standing there, in his path, forever.
The leper watches him with interest. His blasted face is bathed in sunlight; the black hole that was his eye has a steely sheen, and a few moist drops on his lips glitter like precious stones. He moves at last, releasing his bell cord and extending his hand slowly, palm up, before him.
This supplicating gesture releases Francesco, for it dictates the counter gesture, which he realizes he longs to make. Without hesitation, he strides across the distance separating him from his obligation, smiling all the while as if stepping out to greet an old and dear friend. He opens his purse, extracts the thin piece of silver inside it, and closes it up again. He is closer now than he has ever been to one of those unfortunate beings, and the old familiar reaction of disgust and nausea rises up, nearly choking him, but he battles it down. He can hear the rasp of the leper's diseased, difficult breath, rattling and wet. The war between Francesco's will and his reluctance overmasters him; he misses a step, recovers, then drops to one knee before the outstretched hand, which is hardly recognizable as a hand but is rather a lumpish, misshapen thing, the fingers so swollen and calloused that they are hardly differentiated, the flesh as hard as an animal's rough paw. Carefully, Francesco places his coin in the open palm, where it glitters, hot and white.
For a moment he tries to form some simple speech, some pleasantry that will restore him to the ordinary world, but even as he struggles, he understands that this world is gone from him now, that there is no turning back; it was only so much smoke, blinding and confusing him, but he has come through it somehow, he has found the source of it, and now, at last, he is standing in the fire. Tenderly he takes the leper's hand, tenderly he brings it to his lips. At once his mouth is flooded with an unearthly sweetness, which pours over his tongue, sweet and hot, burning his throat and bringing sudden tears to his eyes. These tears moisten the corrupted hand he presses to his mouth. His ears are filled with the sound of wind, and he can feel the wind chilling his face, a cold, harsh wind blowing toward him from the future, blowing away everything that has come before this moment, which he has longed for and dreaded, as if he thought he might not live through it. He reaches up, clinging to the leper's tunic, for the wind is so strong, so cold, he fears he cannot stand against it. Behind him, the horse lifts his head from his grazing and lets out a long, impatient whinny, but Francesco does not hear him. He is there in the road, rising to his feet, and the leper assists him, holding him by the shoulders. Then the two men clutch each other, their faces pressed close together, their arms entwined. The sun beats down, the air is hot and still, yet they appear to be caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip about, their hair stands on end; they hold on to each other for dear life.
From "Saint Francis Meets a Leper on the Road", by Valerie Martin