Earliest Accounts: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 2)


This post continues the previous one regarding the polemic surrounding Francis of Assisi’s reception of the stigmata on Mt Alverna is Tuscany during August-September 1224.  Here, I will present the account of St Francis’ experience as related by two sources much earlier than the one used by the author of the Orthodox Word article.  The first account is by Thomas of Celano; the second is drawn from Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.

  Thomas of Celano’s Account

Thomas of Celano was a disciple of Francis, present with him from around 1213 to 1216, though apparently not one of the inner circle of Francis’ companions.  Although he was absent the last two years of Francis’ life, during which time Francis bore the stigmata, he would have remained in touch with Francis’ companions who could have provided him with his sources of information for this time period.  Thomas was present at Francis’ canonisation on 16 July 1228, and by February 1229 had written the first life of Francis at the direction of Pope Gregory IX.  His account is thus not the textual basis on which Francis’ sainthood was decided; however, it shaped most subsequent accounts. The work can also be viewed as the earliest ‘official’ understanding (by the Latin church) of Francis’ particular sanctity and way of life. Thomas’ account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata appears in this First Life. Between 1244 and 1247, however, Thomas also wrote a Second Life of Francis for the Minister-General of the order. This second work fills in some lacunae left by the initial Vita. (All quotes are from Howell’s 1908 translation, and therefore ought to be in the public domain.)

In Thomas’ telling, the appearance of the stigmata is framed by a chapter in which Francis sought in prayer to know, “in what manner, by what way, or by what desire he might most perfectly cleave to the Lord God in accordance with the counsel and good pleasure of His will.” Francis therefore prayed prostrate that God would show him His will by opening the Gospels at random, and that Francis would have the strength to do what was God’s will for him. Francis opened the Gospels to the Passion narrative. He repeated this three times, each time his gaze falling on similar passages recounting how Jesus suffered tribulation. Francis took this to mean, “that it behooved him through much anguish and much warfare to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Earlier, in the second part of the First Life, Thomas had recorded that Francis, in imitating Jesus, would spend one part of his time profiting his neighbour, and one part in contemplation and repose (meaning solitude). Thomas avers that Francis was engaged in continual prayer, and that this frequent contemplation led to intimacy with God. (Possible ‘methods’ of contemplation that Francis might have used will be treated in a subsequent post, drawing on some of St Bonaventure’s writings concerning the topic.) Thomas thus already set up in the reader’s mind the idea that Francis was engaged in an earnest pursuit of imitating Jesus’ earthly life as closely as possible.

In chapter three, the vision on Mt Alverna is recounted. In Thomas’ account, the earliest we possess, the vision is not preceded by any particular notice; it just happens. Francis is not contemplating anything in particular, though he was in retreat celebrating the Fast or Lent of St Michael. The Lent of St Michael is observed between August 15 and September 29 (which is the Feast of St Michael, or Michaelmas, in the Latin Rite). As Thomas writes: “While [Francis] dwelt in the hermitage, which, from the place in which it is situate, is called Alverna, two years before he gave back is soul to heaven, he saw in a vision of God a man like a seraph having six wings, standing over him with hands outstretched and feet joined together, fixed to a cross. Two wings were raised above his head, two were spread for flight, and two veiled the whole body. Now, when the blessed servant of the Most High saw this, he was filled with exceedingly great wonder, but he could not understand what this vision might mean.”

For Thomas, the vision of a Seraph is like any other vision of angels; it provokes wonder in the beholder. Later, we will look at one possibility of how a Seraph might have come to be associated with the Cross, via the ever popular Judah Cyriacus legend. In any event, Thomas goes on to say that while Francis was delighted by the beauty of the seraph’s expression, he was fearful of the angel’s suffering. “Thus he arose, so to speak, sorrowful and glad; and joy and grief alternated in him. He anxiously pondered what this vision might portend, and his spirit laboured sore to come at the understanding of it. And while he continued without any clear perception of its meaning, and the strangeness of the vision was perplexing his heart, marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, such as he had seen a little while before in the Man crucified who had stood over him…” (Emphasis mine.)

Thomas goes on to describe the stigmata in detail. “His hands and feet seemed pierced in the midst by nails, the heads of the nails appearing in the inner parts of the hands and the upper part of the feet.” The ends of the nails were bent and driven back. Francis’ right side was overlaid with a scar, but often shed blood.

In contrast to the presentation in the Fioretti, Francis’ contemplation followed the vision; it did not precede it. Nor does the text allow us to posit that Francis was practising a sort of visualisation technique that might have led to such a vision. Additionally, a close reading of the text demonstrates that Francis wondered at the meaning of the vision: words like portend, understanding, perception of meaning, strangeness perplexing the heart, all point to a desire on the part of Francis to meditate on a puzzle in need of deciphering, or a revelation in need of interpretation. It seems that he did not arrive at an answer until after the stigmata appeared in his body. Only then was a meaning assigned to the vision: the Seraph appeared to Francis in order to prophecy Francis’ own bodily transformation, and as a result of his thus far perfect imitation of Jesus’ life. (In later imagery, i.e. in frescoes of Francis’ vision, rays shoot from the Seraph’s wounds to Francis’ body. However, the text does not offer such an account.)

Bonaventure’s Account

The source for Bonaventure which I am using is the easily accessible Classics of Western Spirituality series, edited by Ewert Cousins and prefaced by Ignatius Brady, OFM in 1978.

Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church for Roman Catholics, holds an important place in the history of medieval Latin spirituality. Being a professor at the University of Paris (1254-1257), Minister General of the Franciscan Order (from 1257), and a Cardinal, Bonaventure exerted wide influence on his contemporaries. Together with Thomas Aquinas, also at the University of Paris at the time, he defended the development of the two mendicant orders, Franciscan and Dominican. He was also an advisor to various popes. His influence over the popes of Rome was not limited to the thirteenth century, however; while a student of theology, the current pope, Benedict XVI, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bonaventure. As Cousins sums up, “Grounding himself in Augustine and drawing from Anselm, he brought together the cosmic vision of the Pseudo-Dionysius with the psychological acumen of Bernard of Clairvaux and Richard of St Victor… In a certain sense, Bonaventure achieved for spirituality what Thomas [Aquinas] did for theology and Dante for medieval culture as a whole.” Therefore, if one wishes to understand pre-Tridentine, medieval Latin spirituality, especially as it relates to theology, a knowledge of Bonaventure is indispensable.

Bonaventure composed his Life of Francis around 1263, drawing on the earlier works by Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. (Francis was canonised when Bonaventure was 11 years old, but Bonaventure had earlier been saved from an illness by invoking Francis’ intercession when Bonaventure was a boy.) The intervening forty years from Thomas of Celano’s First Life (and twenty since his Second Life) allowed Bonaventure’s hagiography to place Francis in the framework of a consistent theology, especially since this work followed Bonaventure’s treatises on the Journey of the Mind to God (1259) and The Tree of Life (1260). Bonaventure’s organisation and interpretation of the saint’s life is therefore somewhat unique, inasmuch as its chronology and presentation is subordinated to other concerns. The biography was officially approved in 1266, and served as both a political and peace-making work for the Order (the details of which do not need to be addressed at the moment; suffice it to say that some wanted to take Francis’ example in a much more zealous or radical direction than others found prudent).

For Bonaventure, Francis’ life is a quintessential example of the spiritual journey, and as already mentioned, his account of Francis’ life should be understood in the context of two prior works, his Journey of the Soul (or Mind) to God and the Tree of Life, a meditation on the life of Christ. In the former work, Bonaventure uses the six wings of the Seraph of Francis’ vision to describe the three paired roads by which the mystic can reach the sort of rapture in contemplation of God experienced by St Francis. Those three roads are consideration of nature, the soul, and God. A fruitful comparison could be made by comparing this ‘method’ with that of the thirteenth century Athonite fathers’ emphasis on contemplating the logoi of all created things. The Tree of Life continues that line of thought, and “presupposes the theological vision of the former treatise.” Since my current interest is in presenting only the experience of the stigmata by Francis, I will return to these works at a later date. I have presented them only so that the careful reader will know how to contextualise Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.

Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ reception of the Stigmata is preceded by chapters on Francis’ zeal for prayer (in chapter X), and a much earlier chapter on humility (chapter VI). In Bonaventure’s telling, as Francis began the fast of St Michael, he “experienced more abundantly than usual an overflow of the sweetness of heavenly contemplation, he burned with a stronger flame of heavenly desires, and began to experience more fully the gifts of heavenly grace.” Bonaventure likens this spiritual grace to being borne aloft like the faithful and prudent servant searching out God’s good pleasure, to which Francis wished to wholly conform himself. Inspired to to take up the Gospel, Francis had a companion take the sacred book and open it three times in the name of the Trinity. Passages narrating the Passion were revealed each time. From this, “Francis learned that now he must imitate Christ’s passion, just as he had worked before this in imitating Christ’s earlier life.

As Bonaventure foreshadows regarding Francis’ “seraphic” ardour at this time, “by his sweet compassion he was being transformed into Christ…”

Bonaventure continues, “On a certain morning about the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross [September 14], while Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a seraph… descend…” Like Thomas’ version, Bonaventure describes Francis’ joy at the vision; however, Bonaventure says that Francis felt compassionate sorrow for the suffering in the vision, rather than fear, as in Thomas’ account. In both cases, Francis wondered at the vision. Bonaventure specifies the topic of Francis’ meditation: the incompatibility of human weakness and the Passion with the immortality of the Seraph. It allowed, in other words, a meditation based on analogy to the hypostatic union and the kenosis of the Word: here is an angelic being who yet also can suffer, imitating Christ’s earthly life.

“Eventually [Francis] understood by a revelation from the Lord that divine providence had shown him this vision so that as Christ’s lover, he might learn in advance that he was to be totally transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by martyrdom of his flesh, but by the fire of his love consuming his soul [literally, incendium mentis, ‘conflagration of the soul or mind’].” (I should note in this context that Bonaventure also wrote a work called The Triple Way or Fire of Love.) “As the vision disappeared, it left in his heart a marvelous ardour and imprinted on his body markings that were no less marvelous. Immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet…”

Bonaventure adds something more to the account, however: Afterwards, not wanting to publicise what had happened, Francis called some friars and sought their counsel about the stigmata, “speaking in general terms” so as not to reveal what had happened. A friar named Illuminato told Francis not to bury the talent with which God had entrusted him. Taking Illuminato’s advice, Francis recounted his vision, adding the vision also spoke, but that Francis would not reveal those words. Neither Thomas of Celano nor Julian of Speyer mention anything about the vision speaking. The experience on Mt Alverna, therefore, was more than merely visual for Francis; it was also auditory. What those words might have been, one can only speculate.

In Bonaventure’s version, we see that while Francis was aflame with love for God during his yearly retreat at La Verna in Tuscany, the topic of his prayers remains unnamed. The seraph descends while Francis is at prayer, true; but the marks of stigmata appear before Francis has much time to contemplate the meaning of the vision. We have no indication that Francis was using any particular techniques of meditation; indeed, Bonaventure repeatedly says ‘contemplation’, which ultimately came to be distinguished from ‘discursive meditation’ in Latin theology. Meditation has a topic; contemplation enters into silence — or if it uses words, they are short phrases such as the Jesus prayer, or that favourite of Francis: Deus meus et omnes, ‘my God and my all’. If Francis was in the midst of a silence brought about by his prayer, and he had an experience with visual and auditory components, that experience can hardly be held to be the result of delusion brought about by specific practices of imaging Jesus in his mind’s eye during that prayer. Rather, the vision in Bonaventure’s account, like that in Thomas of Celano’s, appears to have been rather spontaneous.

I do not have space here to include the account in the Fioretti (likely composed around 1390) for comparison. The Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St Francis, is the work used by the author of the Orthodox Word article. Because the argument in the Orthodox Word was based on a late work, and because it assumed a type of mental exercise not clearly in evidence, the argument presented in the Orthodox Word article is invalid and must be reassessed.

In my next post, I hope to explore some issues raised in the two accounts presented above. Those issues include the purpose of the various hagiographies; an exploration on holiness in context, which may examine the questions of why stigmata? and why a seraph? It also will note how Francis became a node uniting several medieval devotions, and presenting an alternative masculinity or way of imitating Christ’s life, in counterpoint to the warrior-image of male Crusaders at the time.

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