Why Stigmata?: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 5)

Discussion of Allied Questions:  Why Stigmata?

Having addressed the sources which pertain to Francis’ reception of the stigmata, and having looked at some of the contemplative and meditative techniques common to the Latin west of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we then addressed the question of the Seraph and the meanings associated with angels held by Christians of Francis’ time. With that initial groundwork, we can turn to the question of the stigmata themselves (their meaning at the time, their use by later writers, and the meanings which have emerged for us today as a result of that use).

It is important to first contextualise the word or concept of stigmata historically. How the word was used prior to Francis’ time may shed light on the context in which Francis’ contemporaries applied the term to the marks Francis bore. By looking at antecedent examples of what were called stigmata, we can better discern what was new and different about Francis’ stigmata and what similarities may link Francis to his predecessors. What were Francis’ stigmata, and what were they not? Were they actually part of an older, larger tradition? How did the symbol and meaning of the word ‘stigmata’ change as a result of Francis’ experience, or more specifically, through the portrayal of Francis experience by his hagiographers?

After this brief historical foray, a look at how Francis’ stigmata were situated devotionally among his contemporaries is in order. How do the stigmata, and specifically, how does a person miraculously imprinted with them, fit into ideas about the wounds of Christ, the body of Christ, and the imitation of Christ, all devotions popular among Christians — to an extent both Eastern and Western — of the time? Although the focus is predominately on West European experience, we must take account that twelfth century Latin Christians were also very much aware of their ongoing political connexion to the Crusader kingdoms of Outre-Mer, and the liturgical changes in both Byzantium and the West flowing from that association. One liturgical change in Byzantium which slightly predates the Crusader period (and predates the Latin occupation of Constantinople by about a century) is Byzantine devotion to the icon of Christ’s deposition; this devotion became increasingly assimilated to, even as it expanded upon, earlier devotion to the Cross.

Keeping in mind these two analyses, the larger Latin tradition of naming something ‘stigmata’ and the liturgically influenced spirituality of the Cross, a comparison of the Latin ecology of religious symbols with Byzantine devotional forms undergoing changes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries can be fruitfully undertaken. The purpose of uncovering similarities and differences between East Roman and Italian City State spirituality is to discover why stigmata appeared or ‘made sense’ in the West but not in the East, and rests on the fundamental theorem that a miracle of holiness only occurs in a context in which it can be interpreted as such without doing violence to the preceding tradition. (That thesis was developed in Abbasid period Baghdad to facilitate ongoing Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inter-religious debates; and belongs more properly to the theology of revelation, which I will hopefully explore in a later post. For the same reason, I will not address the question of deceptive or delusional miracles, which adds the question of discernment to an exploration of the theology of revelation.)

What, then, was similar in both the East Roman Empire and the Italian City States, in terms of religious expression and symbolism? Would Francis’ stigmata have been understood in the Byzantium of the Comneni [dates], or is the phenomenon of stigmatism confined to the West for reasons of prior tradition and later devotional elaboration?

Understanding Francis’ stigmata as both unique and, from a thirteenfth-century Latin perspective, a miracle of holiness forms the final portion of this post. What were the subsequent Latin interpretations of Francis’ stigmata? How were they brought into the theological tradition of the West? How do these medieval Latin interpretations relate to Byzantine models of spirituality and holiness from the twelfth century through the close of the Palaiologan dynasty? Can a certain rapprochement with Byzantine spirituality and theology of today be considered, or is the repudiation evinced by the author the Orthodox Word article the only way to understand the phenomenon of stigmatism, particularly in Francis’ case, but also in the lives of subsequent stigmatists such as Catherine of Siena, who lived during the Great Schism following the Babylonian captivity of the papacy in the Renaissance, and Padre Pio in the twentieth century?

I. Word-concept of stigmata, historically: Peter Damian. Imitatio in Alsace.

In her wide-ranging and very thorough From Judgement to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800 -1200, published in 2005, Rachel Fulton devotes significant space to an examination of Peter Damian (d. 1072) and his hermits. Peter Damian is significant for her purposes inasmuch as with him, devotion to Christ as Judge becomes fused and turned towards devotion to the Passion, the Cross being the judgement seat from which the world and its corruption is judged. The shift is interesting to consider in the light of Peter’s own seemingly judgemental sermons and his involvement in the Gregorian reform movement, a movement which set the stage for the spirituality and emphases of practice in the Latin West for the following three centuries.

One example of Peter’s devotion to the judgement-eschatology as it is linked to the Passion will suffice here. Presenting a long prayer by Peter contained in one of his letters, Fulton notes that Peter’s prayer ends with an exclamation that just as he is signed with the mark of the cross and thereby ‘configured to the crucified in punishment,’ so may he deserve to be the companion of the Arisen in glory.’ (Damian, Opusculum 50 (Letter 66) ch3, PL145, col 735, quoted in Fulton 2005:104f.) We thus see that for Peter, conformation to Christ in his passion, through penitence or self-mortification, one is led through death to transformation in Christ at his resurrection. Here, we see also how Latin and Byzantine emphases began to depart in emphasis, the Latins linking the Passion to the Resurrection as a necessary part through which the individual Christian, too, must pass.

More important to our purposes, however, what seems to be the first known reference to ‘stigmata’ appears in the vita of one of Peter’s monks at Fonte Avellana, where Peter’s reforms had taken root (Fulton 2005:101f, 105, 116, 460). Among the monks there was a former hermit called Dominic Loricatus (d. 1060, Oct 14), ‘Loricatus’ deriving from the chain mail he wore as a hairshirt. Fulton quotes from his vita:

“Dominic bore Christ as the crucified Judge, his body so tortured that it ‘bore the stigmata of Jesus’ for he had ‘fixed the sign (vexillum) of the cross not only on his forehead [at baptism], but printed it on every part of his body'” through self-mortification.

The idea of bearing the marks of Christ seems to hearken back to Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:17, associated at the time of Peter with the sort of self-mortification in which Christ’s power is made manifest or complete. This idea was already set out in Peter’s prayer, referenced above. Fulton, referencing Constable (1995), cautions that while “here, in Dominic’s vita, we encounter ‘the first known reference to what may have been the reproduction of Christ’s stigmata on a living person,’ … it is hard to know how descriptively Peter intended the allusion to Paul’s stigmata. (Constable. Three Studies in Medieval Religion and Social Thought. 1995. cf Elm ‘Pierced by Bronze Needles’ J. Roman Studies 1987:139 – 55.) In other words, Dominic’s stigmata may simply be an overall allusion to the ‘suffering servant’, and not to the five wounds of the crucifixion, which is what Francis’ stigmata specifically reference. This then raises the issue of the sheer novelty of Francis’ stigmata: actual marks of Christ were reported on his body.

In the eleventh century, ‘stigmata’ seems to reference asceticism undertaken in imitation of the sufferings of Jesus. It appears to be a general term, not linked to the Wounds of Christ. However, by the thirteenth century, as explored by Bynum in “Women mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” (reprinted in Lock and Farquar 2007), Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life, 202-212; from Chapter 4 of Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, 1991.), the term seems increasingly confined to the five wounds of the Cross.

Setting up the context of this imitation, Bynum clarifies that “Illness and asceticism were … imitatio Christi, an effort to plumb the depths of Christ’s humanity at the moment of his most insistent and terrifying humanness — the moment of his dying.” (Bynum 2007:206) Bynum’s focus in the article is on the Eucharistic spirituality of thirteenth century female mystics, some of whom, like Gertrude the Great, were later canonised. “For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporeality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’s humanity was Christ’s body and blood.” (Bynum 2007:204). (Exploring the divergence between Byzantine and Latin eucharistic devotional theology must await another post; the devotion of the women Bynum treats in her article may not have made sense in the Byzantine contexts contemporary to them.)

Self-mortification in such a context was not viewed as a means to uproot lust, nor destroy the body or physicality as such, in contrast to such earlier ascetics as Jerome. Instead, it was meant as an aid to conform the practitioner to the Incarnation. As Fulton glosses Bynum’s work, Bynum traces how people ‘explored boundaries between body and person, person and God.’ (quoted in Fulton 2005). Devotion thus takes the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Church as the Body of Christ, and the individual’s participation in that corporeality as a means of self-transformation, as starting points for a deeper engagement of the person with the divine life.

After presenting various examples of Christ’s humanity in the visions of these mystics — as an infant in the host, for example — Bynum writes, “No religious woman failed to experience Christ as wounded, bleeding and dying. Women’s efforts to imitate this Christ involved becoming the crucified, not just patterning themselves after or expanding their compassion toward, but fusing with, the body on the cross. Both in fact and in imagery the imitatio, the fusion, was achieved in two ways: through asceticism and through eroticism. Thirteenth-century women joined with the crucifix through physical suffering, both involuntary and voluntary — that is, through illness and through self-mortification… We see this particularly in the case of stigmata, where it is sometimes not only impossible to tell whether the wounds are inner or outer, but also impossible to tell how far the appearance is miraculous and how far it is self-induced.”

Bynum goes on to quote a thirteenth century Alsatian author who wrote of the local nuns, “‘In Advent and Lent, all the sisters, coming into the chapter house after Matins, or in some other suitable place, hack at themselves cruelly, hostilely lacerating their bodies until the blood flows, with all kinds of whips, so that the sound reverberates all over the monastery and rises to the ears of the Lord of hosts sweeter than all melody…’ And she [the Alsatian author Bynum just quoted] called the results of such discipline stigmata.’ Francis ended his life in the first quarter of the thirteenth century; whether these sisters had heard of Francis or not, the evidence provided by this author suggests a wider idea of what constituted ‘stigmata’ than the spontaneous appearance of wounds on Francis’ body: any self-mortification in imitation of Christ’s passion was enough to be called, ‘stigmata’.

Two cases from the early fourteenth century also support that idea, and show how the term ‘stigmata’ becomes constrained to reference only the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet; both cases are from nearly a century after Francis’ death, and thus the term may have changed its meaning due to how the term was applied in Francis’ cases specifically. Bynum notes the case of Lukardis of Oberweimar [d. 1309], who ‘drove the middle finger of each hand, hard as a nail, through the palm of the opposite hand, until the room rang with the sound of the hammering; and stigmata ‘miraculously’ (says her thirteenth century biographer) appeared. Beatrice of Omacieux [fl. 1305, diocese of Grenoble, thus 80 years after Francis] thrust a nail completely through her hands and only clear water flowed from the wound.” (Bynum 2007:206. I would note this point corresponds to the acupuncture point PC-8, ‘LaoGong’, and avoids hitting major blood vessels in the palm; thus while the people of the time might consider it miraculous, today it would not, and we would say only lymphatic fluid drained from the area).

The difference between Francis and all the cases mentioned above — Peter Damian, Dominic Loricatus, the Alsatian nuns, Lucardis von Oberweimar, and Beatrice d’Omacieux — is that Francis did not take up a specific re-creation of the five wounds himself, whereas in the case of the others, particularly the last two, the physical imitation was clearly self-initiated.

When and how did this devotion to the Imitation of Christ originate? Is it aberrant? How can it be understood in Byzantium, if at all? A follow-up post may plumb the beginnings of this devotion to the Imitatio Christi (in addition to a whole series exploring the fifteenth century’s peculiar forms of Christianity — the century which gave rise to the Reformation); for now, however, let us return to the task at hand: clarifying what Francis’ stigmata were and what they were not, so that we can see what was ‘miraculous’ for his contemporaries about their appearance on him.

In terms of the larger tradition, the stigmata were associated with the Cross (by the date assigned to their appearance) and love (by the image of a Seraph, and by commentary of the hagiographers) rather than judgement or punishment (though the Alsatian sisters seem not to have seen their self-flagellation as punishment, but rather as Imitatio). They were treated as a seal indicative of conformation to Christ’s life.

What is different, however, is that Francis’ stigmata were not self-inflicted, according to the evidence we have in Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. These stigmata were not taken upon himself by Francis himself — no self-flagellation or self-piercing is recorded in the context of his reception of stigmata, although Francis’ efforts at self-mortification earlier in his life were clearly noted. Additionally, the wounds seem to have contained nails which were not removed (not removable?), and the wounds did not heal.

It seems, then, that Francis subscribed to the earlier notion of stigmata evinced by Peter Damian and Dominic Loricatus, namely, a general self-mortification, or specifically in Francis’ case, devotion to ‘Lady Poverty’, rather than the later versions taken up by Lucardis of Oberweimar and Beatrice of Omacieux. Bonaventure’s statement made at the beginning of the Legenda Major bears out this interpretation: “[Francis] paid great attention to the mortification of the flesh so that he might carry externally in his body the cross of Christ which he carried internally in his heart.” (Legenda Major 1.6) Thus again, we see self-mortification as a form of voluntary Imitatio Christi, conforming to an interior bearing of the Cross Francis carried inwardly; the stigmata were unwilled, though accepted, marks of that interior devotion, impressed by all early accounts through the vision, if not the action, of the Seraph. The novelty of the five wounds specifically on Francis’ body therefore become not Imitatio so much as a surprising Transformatio in Christe.

Francis’ stigmata fit into the larger tradition of Imitatio Christi; the peculiar manifestation of the wounds in Francis’ case, however, moves beyond imitation and enters the realm of transformation. The transformative aspect is especially emphasised by the commentators, particularly when they describe the conformation of Francis’ external body to his interior life. Thomas of Celano, for example, describes the origin of the mystery (or sacrament) of Francis’ stigmata to the Cross rooted in Francis’ heart, “And therefore did the stigmata shine outwardly in his flesh because within that deeply planted root [the Cross] was sprouting in his mind.” (The phrase could plausibly be rendered in Anglo-Greek as ‘the noetically sprouting root of the Cross shone outwardly in his flesh’.) The image would be taken up again by Mirandola’s image of seeds bearing fruit — transforming one into an angel or Son of God, as described in the previous post on angels. No longer is the idea of angelification primary; with Francis, theosis, divinisation in the form of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ becomes visible.

Thomas of Celano refers to Francis’ stigmata as a mystery or sacrament, the transformation of the lover into the Beloved through or by means of his reflection of the Cross. I hesitate to use the scholastic definition of a sacrament as ‘the making visible of an invisible reality’, as the scholastic movement is only just beginning during the lifetime of Thomas of Celano. Nevertheless, Thomas does accept the stigmata as a revelation of an interior grace; merely the reason for its revelation at the time are concealed, as he exclaims in Chapter 154: “Be this alone announced to human ears, that it is not yet wholly clear wherefore that mysterious thing appeared in the Saint; for, as revealed by him, it derives its reason and purpose from the future. He shall prove true and trustworthy whose witness shall be Nature, the Law, and Grace.”

For Thomas of Celano, Francis is an exemplar of the Christian life. Francis’ behaviour and the symbolic importance of the stigmata were used in teaching the faithful. From a literary structuralist viewpoint, this can be seen in the arrangement of additional chapters treating Francis’ stigmata (e.g. ch. 98). These chapters are associated with Francis’ behaviour following the appearance of the stigmata, i.e. the remaining two years of his life, during which time Francis diligently concealed the marks from strangers, and even those closest to him were unaware of them for a long time. The chapters are placed so as to follow sections counselling against vainglory, and to precede those which discuss the virtue of hiding virtues; the climax occurs in chapters which praise humility and caution against trusting in one’s own opinion. In the entire series of chapters, we see an ongoing emphasis in Christian spirituality, drawn from Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax-Collector, against self-aggrandisement in the name of righteousness. The implication is that while Francis could have been tempted to boast of the stigmata and proudly bear them, he did not; rather, Thomas writes, “He exerted himself in every way he could to hide it,” because he did not want to lose the grace through the favour of human beings. “For he had found by experience that it is a very evil thing to impart all things to everybody.” At the same time, Francis did not think it wise to conceal ‘revelations’ from others. In the Second Life, chapter 102, Thomas writes, “In many matters he had learnt his opinions by revelation, but yet he would bring them into discussion and prefer the opinion of others. He believed his companions advice to be safer… He used to say that anyone who kept back the treasure-chests of his own opinion had not left all for the sake of God.” In other words, a theology is being drawn from Francis’ life, whose sanctity and embodiment of particular virtues confirms previous ideas regarding them. Francis, in keeping with Gospel precepts about not boasting about grace, was afforded additional graces. This was proof enough for Thomas to hold Francis up as an example for readers to learn how God rewards those who follow His counsels.

“And indeed the glorious life of this man sheds clearer light on the perfection of earlier saints; the Passion of Jesus Christ proves this and His Cross makes it most fully manifest. Verily our venerable father was signed in five parts of his body with the token of the Cross and Passion, as if he had hung on the cross with the Son of God. This sacrament [mysterium] is a great thing and makes known the majesty of love’s prerogative; but therein a secret counsel lies hid… wherefore it is not expedient to attempt much in praise of him whose praise is from Him who is the Praise, the Source, the Honour of all, the most mighty, giving rewards of light…” (Thomas of Celano, First Life of Francis, Part 2, on the last 2 years of Francis’ life.) Key in this passage are the links drawn between the union of earlier saints with Christ’s kenosis as expressed in the Passion (the term at Thomas’ time can include the Resurrection, although the two — Passion and Resurrection — slowly separate into their own respective, overlapping domains), through whose reconciliation grace flows to humanity; between love, the Cross, and sacramental mysterium; and between the singular favour with which Francis was loved and how that love given to him to love Christ was manifested outwardly in his body. These links are drawn more fully by Bonaventure, as presented previously. One additional example here must suffice.

In Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata, he relates that at the end of forty days, Francis comes down from the mountain as a second Moses, bearing the image of the crucified as engraved in his body by the finger of God, glossed “when the true love of Christ had transformed his lover into his image.” The finger of God, of course, is the Seraph or the action of the Seraph in imprinting the marks of Christ’s wounds on Francis, the symbolic image of love; while the transformation is of Francis’ physical body into the image of the body which Thomas the Apostle saw and sought to probe. From imitatio Christi, Francis came to experience transformatio in Christe. Bonaventure makes a further leap, however: just as Christ is the giver of the law of grace, so also Francis inaugurates the physicality of that grace, becoming like a second law-giver, but a law which must be embodied. Unless the idea of law be attached to fear and punishment, Bonaventure adds another motivation: love, specifically, God’s choice to impress the marks of the Passion on Francis. Bonaventure emphasises becoming Christ, shifting from earlier Augustinian images of the Trinity manifest in humanity. A possible counterpoint to Richard of St Victor as well may be detected, inasmuch as the transformative power of grace operates on both mind and body.

As for later commentators, I have already posted how Olivi exalts Francis on the basis of his perfect Imitatio Christi, placing Francis in the sphere of the Seraphim. Mirandola, likewise, uses Francis as an example of how the seeds of virtue planted during one’s life can bear fruit in the divinisation of sainthood.

Why did the phenomenon of the five-wounds stigmata appear in Italy, then, and not in the East Roman Empire?


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