Sunday, September 14, 2008

September 17: The Stigmata of Our Holy Father Francis

According to tradition, St. Francis of Assisi is the first Christian saint to have received the stigmata (pronounced "STIG muh tuh")-- or the imprint of the wounds of the crucified Christ on his own body. Franciscan sources report the event as having taken place at the hermitage of La Verna, Italy, on September 17, 1224, just two years before the death of Francis. What follows are descriptions by two of his biographers-- St. Bonaventure and Thomas of Celano. Bonaventure writes about the actual event, while Celano describes the reactions of Francis over time.

What is most significant for us as followers of Francis is not the event of his reception of this mystical gift. Rather, we are drawn more deeply into his faith and witness-- his total surrender to the love of God in his life and his longing to identify himself completely with the Crucified Christ. From this perspective, Francis's reception of the stigmata has very little importance solely as a physical anomaly or object of curiosity. it must be viewed as part of his entire faith journey and spiritual transformation.

From the Legenda Minor of St. Bonaventure, (de Stigmatibus sacris, 1-4; ed. Quaracchi, 1941; pgg. 202-204):

"Two years before Francis, the faithful servant of Christ, gave his soul back to God, he was alone on the top of Mt. Alverna. There he had begun a fast of forty days in honor of the archangel Michael and was immersed more deeply than usual in the delights of heavenly contemplation. His soul became aglow with the ardor of fervent longing for heaven as he experienced within himself the operations of grace.

"As he was drawn aloft through ardent longing for God one morning near the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and was praying on the mountainside, he saw what appeared as a seraph with six bright wings gleaming like a fire descending from the heights of heaven. As this figure approached in swift flight and came near the man of God it appeared not only winged but also crucified. The sight of it amazed Francis and his soul experienced joy mingled with pain. He was delighted with the sight of Christ appearing to him so graciously and intimately and yet the awe-inspiring vision of Christ nailed to the cross aroused in his soul a joy of compassionate love.

"When the vision vanished after a mysterious and intimate conversation it left Francis aglow with seraphic love in his soul. Externally, however, it left marks on his body like those of the Crucified as if the impression of a seal had been left on heated wag. The figures of the nails appeared immediately on his hands and feet. The heads of the nails were inside his hands but on top of his feet with their points extending through to the opposite side. His right side too showed a blood-red wound as if it had been pierced by a lance, and blood flowed frequently from it.

"Because of this new and astounding miracle unheard of in times past, Francis came down from the mountain a new man adorned with the sacred stigmata, bearing in his body the image of the Crucified not made by a craftsman in wood or stone , but fashioned in his members by the hand of the living God."

From: The Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano: The Second Book. Quoted from: Armstrong, Hellmann & Short (eds.), Francis of Assisi: The Saint, (New York: New City Press), 1999. pp.264-5:

"He (Francis) his those marks carefully from strangers, and concealed them cautiosuly from people close to him, so that even the brothers at his side and his most devoted followers for a long time did not know about them....

"He would never or rarely reveal his great secret to anyone. He feared that his special friends whould reveal it to show their intimacy with him, as friends often do, and he would then lose some of the grace given to him. He always carried in his heart and often had on his lips the saying of the prophet: 'I have hidden your words in my heart to avoid any sin against You.'"

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