Why a Seraph?: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 4)

Discussion of Allied Questions

(II)

However much the examinations of manuscript transmission and the particular politics of the various vitae sketched at the outset of part 3a might add to adiscussion about the question of Francis’ vision and reception of the stigmata, that information is subsidiary to more pertinent questions. Three questions, from the perspective of one assessing the potential Orthodoxy or heterodoxy of Francis’ stigmata, assume primary importance. The most central involves the question of the Stigmata as evidence of holiness or divine favour. Is it a valid miracle, or is it delusion of the faithful? What does such a sign mean to the people among whom it is found (in this case, medieval Italians)? How was it interpreted by them? How was Francis himself affected by the wounds? Of related concern, we might ask who or what was the Seraph which appeared to Francis? In the simple and sceptical terms of the theological and hagiographical literary tradition, where could this seraph have come from? What precedents mark it out as intelligible to thirteenth century Christians? Finally, the third main question asks how was Francis himself interpreted and portrayed in the early Lives? Why was he held up for international devotion, and what made him so popular a figure, both in the sense of being an object of lay devotion, but also in the sense of being an object of meditation for scholastic and mystical theologians? How must Orthodoxy grapple with this ongoing devotion, and is an ‘economic’ interpretation available to Orthodoxy of Francis as a saint?

I will address this questions by first treating the vision of the Seraph, before moving on to examine the Stigmata, and finally addressing the question of interpreting Francis life.

Why a Seraph?

One question underlying an examination of Francis’ vision of the Seraph concerns what medieval interpreters thought of visions in general. After ascertaining attitudes towards this contextual marker we can then move on to examine the content of Francis’ vision, namely, the Seraph of the Passion. To accomplish this goal, we will turn to the writings of Richard of St Victor (fl. 1162 – 1173), who lived and wrote in Paris about a generation before Francis. Because his writings, together with other authors from the monastery of St Victor, were influential in forming the emerging scholastic movement in medieval theology and spirituality and were subsequently transmitted throughout Latin-reading Europe, and because of the high regard in which Richard’s writings were held by theologians in the century following his death, his opinions on the matter will be considered representative of Latin Europe at the time of Francis’ own vision.

Richard of St Victor, in the first book of his Commentary on the Apocalypse, partitions visions into four types, two of which are bodily (corporales) and two of which are spiritual (spirituales). The first bodily type of vision bears little mystical significance, but the second is quite different: “A form or action is revealed to our sense of exterior sight while interiorly a virtue of great mystical significance is contained.” In contrast to the first type of vision, this second sort of vision overflows with heavenly mysteries. The third and fourth visions, ‘seen in the heart’, move the soul to an understanding of celestial matters, either by the forms of visible things, or by “subtle and sweet internal aspirations.” Of these four types, the vision of the Seraph seems to be of the second type: a vision seen with the eyes, containing visual elements, which though incongruent, raised Francis’ mind to contemplation of heavenly matters. It is possible, however, that the vision was of the third type, the form of a visible thing seen in the heart. However, neither Thomas of Celano nor Bonaventure seem to treat the vision as being only seen in the heart; for those writers, the vision appears to Francis corporally. Therefore, the vision would have an internal significance quite apart from the external appearance of the Seraph.

(Although the Latin Saint, John of the Cross (d. 1591), might argue that in terms of grace visions convey their transformative significance to the visionary from the first instant they are perceived, his writings post-date our time period by about four centuries. The more famous writings of John of the Cross concern how one enters a dark night of illumination through the leaving behind of all sensibly perceived phenomena, Richard of St Victor, in contrast, is most famous for his writings on meditative and contemplative techniques. To grossly oversimplify the difference between the two, John of the Cross describes the landscape and maps the experience of the journey to stillness; Richard gives us descriptions of what to do before we are there. In several respects St John’s work presupposes the practice of Richard’s technqiues. Thus the idea of the careful consideration of the import of a vision, inasmuch as it is a ‘doing’, fits in with the overall didactic purpose of Richard’s oevre.)

With Richard’s statements about how theologians contemporary with Francis understood the phenomena (plural) of visions, we can now take up the specific content of Francis’ vision of the Seraph of the Cross.

The problem of the Seraph

The image Francis saw, to recount Bonaventure, was of a “Seraph with six fiery and shining wings… when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God [Francis], there appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Two of the wings were lifted above his head, two were extended for flight and two covered his whole body.” (Bonaventure, Life of Francis, ch 13, p305; cf earlier sources in Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima 94 and Tractatus de Miraculis 4; cf Julian of Speyer 61.) While no sources record what the vision might have said to Francis, Bonaventure, at least, does note in the same chapter that Francis mentioned to his disciples that the vision did include an auditory component. Let us note at the outset that this was not the first time an image of a crucified man spoke to Francis (cf Bonaventure, Life of Francis 1.5, relying on Celano 2.10-11.) The same sources, however, also note that Francis declared he would not tell them what the vision said, and so the authors of his Vita, and ourselves, are faced with deciphering the vision from its visual components only.

Why a Seraph? Who or what was it? Was the Seraph an actual angel or a theophanic angel (i.e. a manifestation of Christ, the Word in the form of an angel)? Was it a devil? How are we to interpret this vision today? Are the foregoing questions taken up in any form by our writers?

“Theophanic angels” are manifestations of God in the form of angels. The idea was proposed by early writers who had to confront passages in the Bible which would switch from speaking of ‘the angel of the Lord’ to then declaring that such an angel was the visible manifestation of God. An example of such a switch occurs in the Akeidah, the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. In Genesis 22: 1 – 19, when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, an angel of the Lord appears to Abraham and tells Abraham not to kill Isaac. Abraham desists, and names the site Adonai-yireh, for the Lord was seen on that mountain.

The tradition of associating theophanic angels with Jesus stretches back to at least the fourth century, if not earlier, in commentaries on Moses’ visions of the Burning Bush, the return to Egypt, and the Crossing of the Red Sea, as well as in those which treat Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot (or specifically, the man of electrum at the centre of that vision), to say nothing of commentaries on the Apocalypse. A clearly Christian example of the phenomenon can be seen in Victor of Vita’s records of the Vandal persecution. There, he recounts a vision which a Catholic layperson had during the Arian Visigothic occupation of North Africa. In this vision, a bronze or copper skinned man dressed in white linen comes down form heaven and separates grain from the chaff. The man then separates the full grains from the thin ones. The vision was interpreted as symbolic of the winnowing of the Church through persecution, but the content clearly has links to Ezekiel’s vision of bronze- or copper-skinned angels who guided him through the future Temple — and for Victor, the implication is that the figure the visionary saw was a manifestations of Jesus.

Thomas of Celano seems loathe to claim or disclaim the seraph as a manifestation of the Word. In fact, he seems particularly keen not to make any definite statements either way, but leaves the question obviously and entirely open. Even in his later Life, Thomas still appears confused over what to make of the nature of this particular angel — creature or Christ? Bonaventure, on the other hand, neglects the question altogether, although he does write at one point that our Lord imprinted the stigmata on Francis (through the vision of the Seraph), he does not directly state the Seraph was Christ (XIII.9). Instead, Bonaventure tends to concentrate on the form, rather than the substance of the angel. We will take up his approach in more detail, below.

Perhaps Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141), a predecessor of Richard’s at the monastery of St Victor, can clarify the difficulty. Discussing why the redemption of humanity occurred through the Incarnation of the Word, rather than through that of an angel, Hugh writes, “[An incarnate angel] would thus be both man and angel, that is, man and greater than man. He would restore the loss of service to God through his righteousness, make satisfaction for the length of the lost service through his dignity, and satisfy the contempt through his own unmerited suffering. But we say that this could not happen that way. For if God were the Creator and another were restorer, then indeed the love of man would be divided between the Creator and the restorer because, as it was said above, it is a greater benefit to renew than to create…” God wanted unity of love from humankind, Hugh says, and “this is even perceived from the unity of the number, namely six, which was found both in the work of creation and in the work of restoration, as we also taught above.” (Sentences on Divinity in Coolman and Coulter 2011:124.) Thus our writers were also careful to preserve the centrality of Christ — as Thomas does in a rather convoluted praise to the Source of Praise when he comes to speak of the stigmata more directly (Vita Prima, part two, treating the last two years of Francis’ life).

Ultimately, the issue does not seem to have been explored with any certainty by our sources, perhaps because they had no way of ascertaining the exact nature of the angel, or perhaps because ambiguity better served the interests of Bonaventure and Thomas of Celano, in that it would not split devotion to Christ. In any case, both sources continue to specify the vision as one of a Seraph; this is not in dispute, however much the writers may suspect a theophany.

The flipside of the question asks whether the Seraph who appeared to Francis can be interpreted as a ‘devil in disguise.’ Just as the nature of this angel cannot be ascertained as theophanic in our sources, so also whether this angel was a devil in sheep’s clothing cannot be discerned from the texts. Demons and devils do, however, make an appearance in our sources (e.g. Bonaventure, Life of Francis 6:10), and are clearly distinguished as such. One can surmise, then, that our authors did not believe this vision to have been diabolical in nature.

In the various Vitae of Francis, devils, when they do appear, seem to play a role similar to that found in earlier hagiographies about monks and hermits, St Anthony of Egypt in particular. For example, demons attack the saint through the night, but he repels them (Bonaventure Vita 10); they tempt him to give up his way of life, or moderate it, but the saint redoubles his commitment; the demons try to distract him, but the saint exorcises them from other people. (cf. Bonaventure Vita ch 5 p219; 6, p236; 7 p 242 – 243; 10, p 274.) In the Latin and German West the role of devils as direct opponents of angels in the life of human beings becomes particularly prominent only after the Reformation, corresponding to a point in time when angels had lost their place as a hierarchy and science. In matter of point, most often Bonaventure uses the terms ‘the devil’s tricker’ or ‘the devil was in it’ and really only in Chapter 10 does he affirm the physical manifestations of devils fighting with Francis.

It is true, that the Fioretti — a fourteenth century work — include an account of a devil masquerading to a friar as his guardian angel; Francis told that friar to tell the guardian angel to open his mouth and the friar would shit in it. However, in the Fioretti, devils seem only able to imitate angels (guardian angels in particular), rather than archangels or any of the highest of the celestial hierarchy, the thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. Although William of Auvergne (d. 1249; like the Victorines, a Parisian Master of Theology) did posit ‘anti-seraphim’, ‘anti-cherubim’, and so on in his writings on angels, this seems to have been a theoretical exercise only, and did not exert much influence on the hagiographical genre.

I bring up the question of devils because such beliefs are occasionally intimated among Orthodox writers regarding Latin (and ‘Monophysite’) saints. The whole question of diabolic delusion is fraught with double standards in polemical argumentation, and is rarely useful as an analytical tool — unless one is specifically examining how such accusations are used and developed in different times and places, and for different purposes. For our purposes, however, since we cannot know what the angel was, we must turn to what is accessible to our analysis from our sources: namely, what the angel meant within the context of Francis’ world.

As we noted above in Richard’s distinction between the four types of vision, the second sort of vision contains an internal significance which sometimes needed to be puzzled out by the recipient. This puzzling out meant, in today’s language, that the visionary had to rely on his or her own symbolic universe in order to decipher the vision, not unlike the way some psychoanalysts (particularly of the Jungian, rather than the Freudian, sort) do today. Therefore, it seems reasonable that we approach the question of what meaning would lay behind a vision of a Seraph, from the perspective of someone living in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Certainly this was the approach Bonaventure took, when he concentrated on the form of the Seraph, rather than its nature.

Iribarren and Leaz explain in the Introduction to their volume of collected essays treating the topic of the function and role of Angels in Medieval Philosophy, that as “creatures of two worlds, angels provided the ideal grounds for exploring aspects of both God and his creation, forming a nodal point where a wide range of subjects from metaphysics, cosmology, epistemology, ethics, to (mystical) theology converged and developed.” As the authors clarify, “Angels can also be seen as protagonists of thought experiments in which metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical issues are analysed under ideal conditions.” (Iribarren and Leaz. Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry. Their function and significance 2008:7)

The convergence of subjects under the particular theme of angelology was particularly true for the twelfth century theologians, whose interests lay in preserving the concepts of hierarchy rooted in the writings of Dionysios (Denys) the Aeropagite, which had been passed down since the Carolingian era, while assimilating the newly encountered science — scholastic logic — emanating from Muslim Kingdoms in Spain and recently conquered Norman Sicily. Both notions, hierarchy and science, were appropriated by scholastics. Central to this rapprochement — which was looked upon with skepticism by monastics like St Bernard — were angels. As a result of Francis’ vision, the concern to reconcile the two came to the fore, and ideas about humanity’s place in the hierarchies of the celestial world became ascendant, with the effect that philosophers advanced a further integration of revealed tradition through their encounter with the lived experience in the personal holiness of Francis.

Denys the Aeropagite was quoted from the fifth century onwards, although who the author of the works transmitted under the name of Paul’s Athenian convert and first bishop of Athens remains in dispute. His Celestial Hierarchy became a key reference for theologians writing on angels for centuries to come. He is the first to divide the angels into a Neoplatonically oriented set of nine choirs, each further removed from the Divinity. As Dionysios writes, “This, then, the theologians distinctly shew (viz.) that the subordinate Orders of the Heavenly Beings are taught by the superior, in due order, the deifying sciences; and that those who are higher than all are illuminated from Godhead itself, as far as permissible, in revelations of the Divine mysteries.” (Celestial Hierarchy, section 2 and 3) The Seraphim are the highest and closest to the Divine Source, and burn with the pureness of divine love. They convey deifying virtue to those further removed from the wellspring of grace. These ideas were still common currency in twelfth and thirteenth century Latin theologians. (It should be mentioned the locus classicus for Seraphim are in Isaiah 6:1-11)

Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141), already referred to above, mentions the Seraphim in his De Arca Noe. (Recently Conrad Rudolf has argued that this treatise, as it has come down to us is the result of a reportatio, a set of class notes published by one of his students — see Conrad Rudolf (2004). “First, I find the center point”: Reading the Text of Hugh of Saint Victor’s The Mystic Ark.” American Philosophical Society.) The treatise seems to be a set of instructions on how to paint a particular meditative device, a diagram of the Word encompassing the cosmos, framed by the circle of the zodiac and the months in the ether, the winds in the air, and the earth — with its historical and geographic events tied to salvation history. Christ himself is supported on either side by two Seraphim. Rorem, in his examination of Hugh of St Victor writes, ‘The Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up,’ with ‘the whole earth full of His glory’ and ‘two seraphim standing’ were given visual expression and exegetical interpretation [in the first mention of a diagram in Noah’s Ark]. The seraphim, for example, with their three pairs of wings, signify scripture in its three senses (history, allegory, and tropology), each one pairing love of God with love of neighbor. In that they cover the Lord’s head and feet they show that we cannot know God’s beginning before the creation of the world or God’s end after the consummation of the age, but we can know the era of the church in Christ’s body in this age. ‘This is the ark, of which we have set out to speak; and it reaches from the head to the feet, because through successive generations, Holy Church reaches from the beginning to the end.’ Thus the ark as the historical church, the body of Christ, is framed by the protective arms of the Lord who will guide it as if through the flood into a safe harbor of eternal rest.13 (Rorem, Hugh of St Victor. 2009:131) The Seraphim, in this instance, function as the means whereby the faithful have access to knowledge of Christ’s body. For Hugh, that body is the Church as contained in the world. Later in the thirteenth century, that body becomes increasingly associated with the corpus of Christ on the cross and on the altar, as we will examine in the section treating the stigmata. Important here is also the association of Seraphim with love of God and neighbour, and the means by which such love can be nourished, namely, full use of scripture. Bonaventure will draw on the interpretation of the Seraphim’s three pairs of wings as symbols in his own treatise on The Journey of the Mind (or Soul) to God.

Allan de Lille (1128 – 1202 or 1203), another theologian associated with Paris, continues the idea of angels as transmitters of Divine revelation in his Hierarchia. “Alan describes the chief characteristics of the angelic orders and then the specific function of angels in relation to human beings who will, after receiving appropriate angelic tuition, join the angelic order which most suitably corresponds to their condition.” (Lascombe, D. 2008. “The Hierarchies in the Writings of Alan of Lille, William of Auvergne, and St Bonaventure.” in Iribarren and Leaz 2008:17.) Thus, like Denys, divine tuition is passed through the orders — but now also to humans as well as to angels. The difference, though, is that the orders of angels are static, whilst humans have the potential to move from sphere to sphere through the angelic hierarchies.

Taking only the most central Triad of angels as representative of Allan’s thought, the order of Seraphim indicates those who burn with divine love. Those who embody and progress towards this proximity to the divine are contemplatives who are wholly given over to divine love — e.g. men of the cloistered life (the mendicant orders had not yet been founded or ‘invented’; cf Bonaventure Vita XI, p280). The order of Cherubim, illustrative of divine knowledge, are augmented by humans who devote their time to the study and teaching of Sacred Scripture. The sphere of Thrones, those who sit in judgement, is the worthy home of those who judge justly and not rashly. Again, for Allan, contemplation is that which is above the active life, that is, the union born of stillness. This is the sphere of the Seraphim. Speculative theology, and the clarity of knowledge derived form seeing in a clear mirror is the domain of the Cherubim. Discursive meditation or the virtue of discernment, the level of Thrones, is characterised as a broad, yet peaceful undertaking.

Angelic speculation was further systematised around 1220 – 1225 with the publication of Alex Hales’ Glossa Ordinaria. This work set the stage for future Parisian scholastic writing on the subject. Subsequent to Hales, Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas discuss angels in the context of their role in transmitting the outpouring of divine grace through the celestial hierarchy. Albert the Great discusses how angels ‘illuminate’ humans in his Super Dionysium de Caelesti Hierarchia (ed. Simon and Kuebel, Muenster 1993), following the tradition taught by Denys the Aeropagite. Appearances of angels therefore occur in order to bring the message of grace to earth and earth’s inhabitants. The movement of humans through these hierarchies continues as a theme.

The Parisian most pertinent to illuminating the role angels play in medieval mystical theology, and in Francis’ vision particularly, is Bonaventure. “For Bonaventure — the souls that are most hierarchised [i.e. the closest to the centre of the hierarchy], the most filled with the Spirit, the most contemplative, the most comparable with the Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Thrones are found in the holiest of the religious orders, in their greatest representatives St Francis himself [Seraph], in the mendicant orders [Cherubim] and in the orders of Cistercian monks and of Praemonstratensian canons [Thrones].” (Iribarren and Leaz, 2008:27; As a side note, Bonaventure places the four Byzantine patriarchs alongside pope in the hierarchy.) For Bonaventure, contemplatives become associated with knowledge, losing their place in the realm of the Seraphim. Like previous authors, Bonaventure characterises the Seraphim as burning with the ardour of divine love. Indeed, the chapter in which Francis sees the vision of the Seraph is framed in such language, with repeated uses of words related to ‘burning’ or ‘ardour’ and ‘love’ peppering the account. Francis, associated with the Seraphim, is thus paired with virtues of burning love.

Bonaventure set the precedent for later Franciscan speculation on humanity’s participation in the angelic and divine hierarchies. Among these later writers, Olivi (fl. 1266 – 1273 in Paris; ultimately censored in 1283) stands out in particular contrast, not the least for provoking a controversy which led to a shift in angelology for the subsequent century. (Olivi is also noted for his thesis that the chain of Being — causation — intelligibility holds together the universe.) “Peter John Olivi asserts Christ’s soul is higher than any angel’s; seconded by His mother’s soul; third is possibly Francis, who took the place ‘left vacant by Lucifer’ (Summa vol 1 q47p753).” (Iribarren and Leaz 2008:38) In this way, Olivi links the characteristics of the angelic orders with the particular virtues most in evidence in the most highly venerated saints of the period. These saints achieved their place through the imitation and execution of the virtue most associated with the angelic order at which the saint ultimately arrived. For him, Francis and the Blessed Virgin are the two exemplars of the mobility humans have with regard to the divine life. Iribarren and Leaz, commenting on Olivi’s particular synthesis state that “[his] view heralds the Christocentrism shaping most of fourteenth century thought and leading to the Reformation.” (2008:9) Francis vision of the Seraph, for Olivi, was indicative of the sphere to which Francis had come to belong — that closest to Christ, after His mother.

Iribarren and Leaz point out that one practical result of this synthesis, from the point of view of the ordinary layperson was the increased relevance of the communion of saints, not only in the transmission of virtue or grace and as exemplars for imitation but also as a focus for meditation. As Iribarren and Leaz phrase this change, “the period following the condemnation [of 1277]… gave way to new forms of religious spirituality, whereby what brings humans closer to God are no longer quasi-divine ‘intelligences’ in a static hierarchy leading to the first principle, but rather the merits of humans leading sinless lives and [who] have accordingly received the divine gift of grace.” (2008:4)

In some ways, the synthesis provided by incorporating Francis into the angelic hierarchy, as representative of the potential for human advancement in proximity to the divine, is nicely epitomised in Mirandola’s (d. 1494) assertion that whatever seeds humans cultivate will bear fruit: those who cultivate the vegetative aspects of their souls will be no more and no less than plants; those who pursue merely their animal and sensual affects will ultimately end as brutish creatures; those humans who concentrate on their rational powers are transfigured into heavenly beings; while those whose attention has been directed to intellectual and noetic contemplation and activities become angels and sons of God. The saint, for Mirandola, is a human being whose movement through the angelic hierarchies renders him or her divinised.

The sixteenth century saw incredible changes in theology, both in Catholic and the newly emergent Protestant circles. Melanchthon’s (d. 1560) Protestant theological axiom, to argue only about what is necessary for salvation, not on irrelevancies, effectively did away with angelology for Protestantism. The Catholic theologian and mathematician Charles de Bovelles (d. p1566) articulated a typically Counter-Reformation, highly philosophical, Catholic position: In his writings, the angelic intellect is pure presence, the presence and actuality of all things; the human intellect by contrast means distance and future potentiality. Like contemporary Protestant theologians, angels were thus effectively removed from discussion in Latin/ Catholic theology as well.

Thus, the general trends in angelology (particularly as summarised in Chapter 12 of Ibarren and Leaz, from which the above paragraphs are derived) develop from the early twelfth century, when angels provided material for thought experiments by medieval philosophers, to being seen by Renaissance thinkers as tenders of cosmological order. During and after the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, angels lost their cosmological and speculative functions, and were portrayed merely as providing a counter to the devil; Protestant reformers went further and also eliminated the role of the holy human intercessor, a role which had been articulated through the Medieval period through reflection on Francis’ place in the integrated celestial-terrestrial hierarchy of St Denys.

The vision Francis related to his disciples, as recorded in our sources, however, was not simply of ‘an angel’, but was a very specific image, quite particular in fact: a Seraph with a crucified man at the centre. A disjuncture occurs between images of creatures burning with love due to their proximity to the Source of joy and tranquility, and the image of a crucified man. This disjuncture is key not only to understanding the meaning the vision might have had for Francis, but also to understanding why Francis is described as wondering at the vision. As the reader will recall, the author of the Orthodox Word article would tend to focus on just that element of Francis vision — wondering — arguing that such wonder was the same as the mulling and obsessing over a creation of an unstable mind.

However, St Denys speaks of dissimilar and deformed symbols as precisely the means of raising one’s mind to celestial mysteries: “[While] a manifestation through dissimilar shapes is more correctly to be applied to the invisible… incongruities are more suitable for lifting our minds up into the domain of the spiritual than similarities are.” (Celestial Hierarchy, II.3) As one interpreter of Dionysius notes, “The dissimilar images… their failure is a stimulant for the spirit which prevents it from becoming sluggish or hypnotised by figures through which the natural enchantment might perhaps otherwise jeopardise one’s motion toward God.” (Roques, Struct Theol. 142.) In the East, these incongruities found liturgical expression in the most loved of Greek rhetorical devices, the paradox (e.g. ‘the uncontainable was contained within a womb’). In the West, paradox was more restrained rhetorically; but our focus is on Francis’ individual vision and we need not digress on the particularities of East-West rhetorical divergence here.

Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure both explicitly state that Francis was struck by the dissonance in his vision, of an impassible Seraph enwrapping the image of the Passion. How could two such symbols have come together? Taken separately, what meaning does each have in common with the other? Where did these symbols come from?

One possible answer (reference has already been made in a previous post to the Judas Cyriacus legend) to all three questions is the observation that the vision incorporates the simple juxtaposition, readily understood in the minds of medieval Christians, of two symbols of supreme love: the first being the Seraph, a theme we noted in several authors above; and the second being Christ’s love for humanity as manifested by his death on a Cross. Particularly in this latter capacity, we see the ‘celestial’ God emptied out and at his most ‘terrestrial’ and incarnate. In Francis’ vision we thus have the image-able symbol of love in the celestial sphere — a Seraph (since God cannot be imaged as such, angels must stand in as the image and form of the divine virtues apprehensible to human sight) — united with what for Latin and German Christendom at the time was the icon of love in the terrestrial sphere — the Cross with the Crucified Christ. For someone whose theme of contemplation was love of God, and imitation of Christ out of love, such a vision is not at all out of the realm of possibility.

If these two symbols were obvious to any medieval Latin Christian, why should Francis have wondered at what the vision meant? If we remember the overarching topic of meditation during Francis’ retreat at Alverna, he was contemplating how else he could imitate Christ. Presumably this imitation included Christ’s love of neighbour, the poor, the sick, and the suffering (cf Bonaventure Vita ch 4, p208, and ch 13, ‘by his sweet compassion’). The question Francis had in mind was what more could he himself do to completely conform himself to Christ’s love? The result was a vision of supreme Love — a union of the highest celestial with the highest terrestrial images of love — but how was such a symbolic illustration of love applicable in practical terms? I would suggest that the meaning Francis sought regarding the vision was exactly that practical aspect — how was Francis to apply such love in the human sphere? How does it, in the words of St Denys’ modern commentator, allow Francis to continue to pursue God while on earth?

Those questions lead to what is unique in the vision, that it seems to have resulted in, if not merely foretold, Francis’ reception of the stigmata. The stigmata themselves bring us to the heart of the Orthodox confusion about the significance of the vision.

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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.

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.