St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 1/6)

October 4 is the feast day of the Latin saint, Francis of Assisi.  Francis’ sainthood is a matter of dispute between some Orthodox Christians (by which I mean members of the Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Romanian churches; or more generally put, the Byzantine Orthodox church), and this post is motivated by an experience I have already referred to earlier on How the Church retained me through my 20s, but lost me by my 30s.  Briefly, when I was on Mt Athos some years ago, I was given a copy of an article published in The Orthodox Word. Presumably, I was considered too ‘Catholic’ and not ‘Orthodox’ enough, and this article would set me straight with regard to how Francis of Assisi was a deluded man and not a saint at all.

The article began in response to a question posed by a layperson. She had noticed some of her Italian Catholic friends had a devotion to Padre Pio. Padre Pio (1887 – 1968) was a Southern Italian monk who was marked by the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ. In Padre Pio’s case, these wounds developed spontaneously and slowly. He had reported to one of his superiors that his hands and feet were getting sore. He was told to pray about these sufferings, but the pain did not cease. Eventually the wounds broke open, and he bore their marks for the rest of his life.

None of Padre Pio’s biography, however, was mentioned by the priest who answered the question. Instead, in order to demonstrate the errors of Latin Catholicism  (in which Padre Pio must certainly have participated, being a Latin friar), the author of the article decided to present an account of the first known stigmatist, Francis of Assisi. Using the Fioretti di San Francesco, the priest attempted to demonstrate that Francis’ reception of the stigmata was due to self-delusion and a meditative technique filled with visualisations, the result of which was a demonic marking on Francis’ body, mocking the Passion of the Incarnate Word. All other stigmatists (none of them named, but among whom is another Latin Saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena), by implication, were therefore also equally deluded into error.

Rather than convincing me of the Truths of Orthodoxy, however, the article merely left me annoyed by its unscholarly character and the fact that it devolved into mere Catholic bashing. When I expressed the former sentiment to one of the monks, he just rolled his eyes and walked away.  Another monk was more keen to hear my objections and looked thoughtful about them. (Both monks were Americans, and converts from Protestant churches.)  One of the laypeople I encountered at another monastery, a convert to Orthodoxy from the Episcopal church who frequently visited the Holy Mountain, was very keen to defend the article.  He urged me to read the original Latin life of Francis to which the article referred; surely then I would be convinced. I pointed out to this young man (he was my age at the time, actually, about 24 or 25) that the article referred to the Fioretti, a rather late work, written in Italian.

Nonetheless, I suppose I have followed his advice, and followed up on my own criticism of the Orthodox Word article.  Leaving aside the Fioretti, which I read when I was 15, and which did influence my own spirituality, I have turned to two of the earliest works on Francis life, both of which were key texts in fashioning the canonical image of Francis as a saint in the eyes of the Roman church.   (The Fioretti  influenced my own spiritual life in terms of introducing me to the concept of Holy Obedience, the simple prayer Deus meus et omnes, ‘my God and [my] all, and a love of a poverty which imitates the kenosis of the Incarnate Word.)

I can agree with the author of the Orthodox Word article that spirituality differs across geography and is at the root of why the schism between East and West continues. Indeed, one can argue differences in spirituality — and disjunctions in the theology which informed and continues to inform those spiritualities — is why the Protestant schism occurred between the Latin and German churches as well.  However, I do not agree that Francis is an exemplar of all the delusion (a term which really needs to be defined) that Catholic spirituality and theology has come to embrace; in fact, what I have read in the earlier Lives mitigates against this belief. In the context of Francis and the stigmata specifically, I strongly disagree with the idea popular in some Orthodox circles, that Orthodoxy never went through an ’emotive’ phase devoted to the Passion. In fact, it did, in the twelfth century, roughly contemporaneous with the lifetime of Francis himself.  I have touched on that devotion in a post treating Heraclios, the Crusades, and the True Cross.

In order to examine the case of Francis’ stigmata more closely, in Part 2, I will present substantial sections from two early works which treat that event specifically. The first example is from Thomas of Celano; the second from St Bonaventure.  Another early work, written by Julian of Speyer and roughly contemporaneous with Thomas of Celano’s First Life, may treat the stigmata, but I have not read that Vita. As will be discussed in Part 3, these accounts differ substantially from that presented in the Fioretti, and on which the Orthodox Word author’s argument is based.  Part 3 will also take up the question of authenticity and miracles after Francis’ death, and provide links to various references mentioned in this series of posts.



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