Summary Conclusion: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 7)

Final Summary of All Posts

Because Francis’ sainthood has been the object of polemical attack by those Orthodox unversed in critical scholarship who yet feel that zeal for Orthodoxy should permit them to discuss in ways which not only work against the generosity of spirit encouraged by Paul in his admonition to speak only about what upbuilds, but which also tarnish the reputation of Orthodoxy as a repository of well conducted theology, I decided to post this series of essays. It was my hope that writing the series should help frame my desire to see a critical, rather than polemical, theology among the Orthodox, and a reinvestment in the richness of the Medieval, Pre-Tridentine tradition among Catholics.

I divided the series into six parts. The first situated the series in the context of a polemical article in a popular magazine intended for the Orthodox faithful (OCA-ROCOR specific). The second traced the earlier accounts of Francis’ life which have come down to us, in contrast to the article’s reliance on the quite late and vernacular Fioretti di San Franceso. To enquire whether the article’s argument about Francis’ visualisation techniques was valid, the third part looked at meditation techniques in the Latin church of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The fourth and fifth sections asked ‘why’, and tackled the meaning assigned by Francis’ contemporaries to Seraphim and Stigmata, respectively. The Sixth section, which I divided into two parts, looked at changing patterns of devotional forms in the Byzantine Commonwealth during the Comneni dynasty (1081 – 1204), with specific attention paid to Byzantine devotion to the Passion. The latter part of the same section noted the motivations and understanding of Passion devotion as presented by Latin writers during its heyday of development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I also briefly touched on Crusader sermons to illustrate the context in which Passion devotion played out in other spheres of life for Latin Christians. Several conclusions have emerged from the various themes covered in the series of posts, which I present below as I review the series as a whole.

Why were stigmata absent in Byzantium? Is something wrong with Byzantine spirituality that its saints do not have this mark? Or is the phenomenon of stigmata a sign of the deviance of the Latin church? Those questions drove this series of posts. Rather than approach the latter two questions head on, I proposed an ‘archaeology’ of Francis’ stigmata in its twelfth century context. I adopted the logic that miracles of holiness are identified by local communities, and I sought to ‘excavate’ why particular miracles, in this case stigmata, are understood as signs of Christ-like-ness. I augmented the question by comparing the international Latin experience with the situation in the Byzantine Commonwealth under the contemporary Comneni dynasty. The hope was that uncovering the medieval contexts of stigmata and the initial understandings of the phenomenon would prove the most helpful approach in illuminating possible approaches to the larger ecclesiastical concern of venerating saints from other denominations.

Related to the question of Francis’ stigmata is the issue of saint-identification and saint-repudiation, or as an academic might phrase it, ‘saint-making and unmaking’. This is the implicit theme of the first post, although i did not draw it out as such, my articulated concern being to frame the debate as a whole. Saint making is inherently political: that is, it involves position relations of power within and between communities and the individuals who populate those communities. These relations of power exist quite apart from whatever revelatory process of grace was provided by the saint in question during his or her life.

In the context of saint-making and saint-unmaking, the questions were: Why is it important for the OW author to debunk the idea of Francis’ sainthood? Why was Francis made a saint to begin with? Are either considerations, those which prompt the article’s author to debunk Francis sainthood, and those which prompted his canonisation in the thirteenth century, universally applicable? How does the history of local proclamation of saints in Byzantine commonwealth, and the papal decrees for universal veneration of a saint in the (particularly post-Reformation) Roman Catholic Church impact today the proclaiming as unholy those whom other ages and communities proclaimed holy? This last question is not new; it was raised before during the Three chapters controversy during the early medieval period.

As mentioned already, several conclusions emerged during the course of this series. First, devotion to the Eucharist, Passion, and Icons are inter-related, especially in Byzantium, but to a lesser extent also in the Latin Kingdoms. Second, due to the peculiarities of his life, Francis became for Latin theologians and laity a node in a network of medieval devotions, allowing the devotee’s mind to move from Francis to any number of other theological topics: the Cross, transformation in Christ, the Body of Christ, Eucharist, angels, the virtue of Love, and so on. A third conclusion which emerged was that although important for Latin theological speculation on cosmological themes, the Byzantine Commonwealth had other concerns at the time (e.g. residual iconoclasm; scepticism regarding the ability of real people to become saints; the efficacy of saintly intercession after the holy person’s death), concerns which Francis’ life, or specifically his stigmata, did not address. Although it is possible to marginally fit Francis into a Byzantine framework of devotional and meditative associations, it isn’t really necessary; Byzantine spirituality came to cultivate other emphases. On the other hand, the fourth conclusion is that because Francis did leave relics and his contemporaries do see him as having been transformed in Christ, his sainthood and holiness should not be disparaged simply on account of his life not being applicable to the theologico-political situation of an empire in which he did not spend much time. Saints are given to locales first, and only later to Christendom as a whole.

I noted at the end of the second post (‘Earlier Accounts’), the primary argument put forward in the Orthodox Word article, namely, that Francis’ stigmata are a result of delusion induced by excessive visualisation exercises, is invalid. The argument is invalid on academic grounds because (quite apart from the fact that the article did not answer the prompting question directly), the author relies on one of the latest sources, written for popular consumption, rather than on the earliest sources which have survived. The argument is invalid on ecclesiastical grounds in the sense that the sources used were not those promoted by the proper ecclesiastical authorities for the canonisation of Francis; that is, they do not reflect the mind of the Church authorities of the time (or today). Finally, the argument also fails on a theological level for a similar reason, that the source documents the author used were not those of theologians per se, but of popular devotion. The problem here is that the author did not draw out the ways in which popular accounts, or rather popular spirituality, also represents the mind or consensus of the faithful with regard to the spirituality of a time and place. As such, the Fioretti are indeed evidence of popular devotional ideas of the fourteenth century (or at least of one author in the fourteenth century), and as such could have been used to tentatively illustrate differences in devotional emphases between Byzantine authors and Italian authors of the time period in question — if the overall framing of those stories had been properly taken into account. When I have used examples of popular devotion to further my own argument, I have done so precisely to illustrate the popular context in which Francis lived, and not to illustrate Francis’ own biography and possible thought-processes. Popular works are too uncritical a source to be used with any such certainty about the life of an individual.

In both the second post (‘Earlier Accounts’) and the third post (‘Meditation techniques’), I noted that the earliest sources do not support an interpretation which claims Francis’ used various visualisation techniques, in contrast to the author’s claims. For the author, ‘visualisations’ are a technique viewed with disapproval, as particularly likely to lead to delusion. (The visualisations under discussion are those in the mind, as opposed to visualisations as externalised and objectified in written icons; icons are able to be viewed, critiqued, and assessed by relevant authorities for their theological orthodoxy.) I delved into the various meditation and contemplation practises which were described by Latin contemplative theologians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These sources do not indicate that visualisation techniques are to be habitually practised. (For more on meditation, though a touch later than my sources and treating a specific type, see McNamer (2010). Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion.) More to the point, the earlier accounts of Francis indicate that his vision occurred in a moment of contemplative stillness, rather than during the discursive meditations on how he could conform his life to Christ more fully. The vision did, however, provide material for Francis and others to meditate upon, namely, why a Seraph? why a Crucified man with the six-wings of a Seraph?

Bonaventure wrote that the stigmata were ‘Imprinted on Francis by God via the action of Seraph’. The action came from God, but was this Seraph real or false? (The implication being that demons can serve God’s will, too, as evidenced in the book of Job; was the Seraph a ‘devil in disguise’ is the question.) How could such a question, of concern to an Orthodox pastor, be ascertained? The question is part of a larger one: do angels appear to people who are potentially heretics? Can an ‘orthodox’ angel appear to heterodox Latins? In truth, the reality or falsity of the vision cannot be certainly determined by us today, in part because of the scepticism of the age when it comes to angels and visions, and in part because all we have to rely on for evidence are hagiographical documents, none of which even hints that the Seraph was a devil. (Writers do evince uncertainty about whether the vision was one of Christ or of a Serpah. Bonaventure seems to come down on the side of the vision having been of an angel.) Inasmuch as the biographers of Francis point to an increase in devotion and love, however, rather than a flagging of his devotion, the veracity of his vision is implicitly confirmed according to the evidence acceptable in both Latin and Byzantine assessments of holy, as opposed to unholy, visions. What can be determined today, and what I focused on instead, was the meaning a Seraph had for Francis’ contemporaries.

Although no biographical account of Francis indicates that the Seraph was the devil or a demon in disguise, hagiography regularly discusses demons disguised as angels who appear to friars in order to deceive them. (The Fioretti itself contains several such instances, had the author of the Orthodox Word article chosen to give signs that he had read through the work as a whole.) The evidence from Francis’ biographers would seem to mitigate against a demonic interpretation, as Francis’ love for God did not flag after the vision, despite his suffering — a suffering accepted by Francis and described by his hagiographers as the final aspect of Francis’ perfect imitation of Christ’s life.

It is bad form to introduce new data (as opposed to analytical theory) in a concluding section. Nonetheless, for readers still in doubt about eleventh and twelfth-century Byzantine assessments of demonic activity, I will refer readers to the Byzantine scholar Psellos’ work (titled in Latin), De Operatione Demonorum. In this work, his interlocutor describes several classes of demons, and the forms each are capable of taking; assuming form of Seraph seems not to be one of them. Byzantine beliefs of the time do not posit an ‘anti-hierarchy’ to Dionysios’ Celestial hierarchy. In fact, the Seraph which appeared to Francis was not only in keeping with the hierarchy presented by Dionysios the Aeropagite’s Celestial Hierarchy, namely, indicative of love of God, but the association of a Seraph with the Cross and Passion can be located in a Byzantine text, the Judas Cyriacus (Kyriakos) legend, which became popular throughout the Christian world from Spain to Armenia, and Britain to Egypt. Francis’ vision thus had the potential to be understood throughout those regions where the History of the finding of the True Cross was recounted.

In any event, the vision of a Seraph was full of meaning for Francis’ contemporaries, a meaning which would have been readily intelligible in Byzantium. If Dionysios’ Celestial hierarchy had been more central to theological concerns of the Palaiologan dynasty following the Latin occupation of 1204, perhaps notice of Francis’ vision would have been different. By that dynasty, however, theological concerns lay more with defending the reality of internal experience, namely through or by means of hesychasm, than with external cosmological realities. (Quite apart from any association the Byzantines made between Franciscan friars and the Venetian Republic which sacked Constantinople in 1204, or between the friars and papal interference in the life of Constantinopolitan patriarchate during the period of Latin occupation.)

If anything, theological meditation on Francis’ vision of a Seraph prompted subsequent Latin writers to move away from an earlier image of the ‘angelification’ of humans as they pursued divine contemplation. Instead, combined with the clear evidence of Francis’ imitation of Christ, the speculative and contemplative theologians began to posit a much more Christocentric vision of humanity, in which ‘Christified’ humans move among the spheres of the angelic harmony, in contrast to the angels who remain stationary within each sphere. (I would argue that both the ‘angelification’ and ‘Christification’ of humans are aspects in Latin theology of what in Greek is called theosis, or divinisation. The issue of theosis in Latin and Byzantine theology is a contentious one, and the development of such an argument must await another post.)

The stigmata presented a similar problem to the seraph, and in the fifth section, I pursued the question, ‘what was the meaning of stigmata for Francis’ contemporaries?’ In light of examples of ‘stigmatists’ before Francis, Francis’ stigmata were truly novel, both in form (bearing nails, unhealing) and method of reception (via a vision, not via self-infliction). When it comes to interpreting what stigmata mean, both before and after Francis’ lifetime, two chief themes presented themselves to Latin theologians. The first was that stigmata were evidence of participation in or imitation of Christ. The second, and ultimately more broadly influential, was the idea that the stigmata were physical evidence of a mystic’s transformation into the Beloved (the contemplatives’ goal).

In Francis’ case, the stigmata were in fact interpreted by Francis’ contemporaries as evidence both of his complete imitation of Christ, and attested to Francis’ actual transformation in Christ. (The actual devotional work called Imitatio Christi would not be written for another century and a half. The history of that devotion as such — from its origins before Francis’ time, through his particular articulation of such an imitation as a way of life, to Thomas á Kempis’ work — deserves a later examination.) The stigmata, in other words, were taken by Latin theologians as a very physical manifestation of theosis — specifically in this case the ‘Christification’ I mentioned earlier. This theosis was authenticated, according to the sources, by the relics left by Francis,and the continued transformation of his body after his death.

Are these two ideas, participation and transformation in Christ, good enough evidence for the orthodoxy of stigmata, if, indeed, one can ask if an unsought, spontaneously given miracle is ‘orthodox’? Or do they point to a more fundamental difference in what it means to be transfigured in Christ? The stigmata cannot be used to demonstrate Francis’ orthodoxy; on the other hand, his relics can be used in that way.

The transformation in Christ of Francis’ body continued after Francis’ death, inasmuch as his relics continued to transfigure in holiness, leaving behind pleasant fragrances and miracles. The idea that false relics, scented and miracle working, could be fabricated by demons is belied in Orthodox hagiographical literature. Never are demonically-created relics mentioned, though stories of falsely-believed-to-be holy people whose remains stank and putrefied, and repelled people, abound in both Byzantine and Latin accounts of post-mortem revelations about false saints. (Of course, just because a saint’s body decomposed does not mean that the bones could not be relics; Dostoevsky certainly takes up that idea in his Brothers Karamazov.)

Finally, I traced devotion to the Passion in both the Byzantine Commonwealth and in the Latin Kingdoms of East and West, in order to contextualise Francis’ stigmata even further. I operated on the notion that because Francis’ stigmata were associated with the Cross and Passion, those two symbols provided an overarching context for understanding how Francis ‘fit’ into the symbolic worlds present in Byzantium and Italy. I asked two questions, first, did Byzantium have a devotion to the Passion at all? Second, how did medieval Latin conceptions of Imitatio Chrsiti come to focus on the wounds of Christ, such that stigmata, rather than say, the light of Tabor or the Resurrection, come to function as the sign of transformation in (or into) Christ?

I traced changing Byzantine devotion to the Passion through the development of several icons, their association with the Eucharist, and the derivation of additional icons from image-bearing relics of the Passion contained in the Imperial Palace. I suggested that a focus on the Passion in both Latin and Byzantine devotions of the period was prompted by the renewed accessibility to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (whose Latin precincts ultimately became stewarded by Franciscan friars). While in Byzantium monastic changes to liturgical practice led to the focus of devotion resting on the Cross or the icon of the Man of Sorrows, rather than the Passion as an event, nevertheless, the eleventh and twelfth centuries saw a common interest in the humanity of the man who suffered on the Cross.

Instead of icons, in the Latin west, devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist was shifted to a more often than not ‘conceptual’ devotion to the wounds present in the body which shed the blood of the altar. Latin devotion to the Eucharist outside the liturgical epiclesis, including the monstrance processions of the feast of Corpus Christi (instituted in 1246), did undergo elaboration during the thirteenth century, though its roots perhaps lay in the earlier reforms of Gregory VII. Devotion to the wounds of Christ seems to have been the result of a confluence of commentaries on the Song of Songs as they met Eucharistic devotion, coming to focus conceptually on the visual source of the gift of love: the body on the Cross, and more specifically, the ‘wound of love’ (cf. Fulton2002:292-294).

Bynum’s article “Women mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century”, which I used in the post on Stigmata, examined Latin devotion to the Body of Christ and the Eucharist, but did not treat the accessibility of Christ’s humanity to Byzantine Christians through the medium of icons — including most especially the ‘new’ icons emerging from the religious ferment of the two centuries preceding the Latin capture of Constantinople (i.e. the eleventh and twelfth centuries, from the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos through the Komnenian dynasty). Yet, according to Belting (1980)’s article on the icon of the Man of Sorrows, one of the newer icons developed during the Comnenian renaissance, the Threnos, appears to take its genesis from its association with the aër covering the Holy Gifts at the altar. In other words, in post-iconoclastic Byzantium devotion to the Eucharist (which was considered one of the few ‘true’ icons by the iconoclasts) is transferred to newly-written and emotive icons which, it can be argued, were more lay-accessible, particularly outside the specific liturgies into which they were embedded. (Belting (1990) in particular has traced the portrayal of the Passion events and the uses to which those portrayals were put in his The image and its public in the Middle Ages : form and function of early paintings of the Passion (German original: Das Bild und sein Publikum im Mittelalter).)

Thus in Byzantium the progression moves from the Eucharist and Cross to icons; from relics of the Passion, to icons of the relics of the Passion. The links between Eucharist, Passion, and Icon were reinforced by the association of the Image of Burial of Christ as already present on the aër covering the Eucharist. That image, however, assisted the creation of Icons of the Deposition and the Akra Tapeinosis funerary-like portrait for private devotion. The movement of devotional focus to icons occurred in a context which recognised sanctity through the creation of icons of the sanctified, an implicit result of holiness being the ‘Iconographisation’ of the believer. One might also frame the Byzantine devotion as one of transferring the holiness of the material Eucharist to the image which touches the gifts, and through the icon portraying what covers the ‘true’ icon of the Eucharist, to the believer. In contrast, Latin devotion had a paucity of immediate relics from Jerusalem (though this was eventually remedied by fifteenth century monarchs), and the ‘transferral’ of material holiness was obtained through imitation, rather than association. In the Latin kingdoms, the progression moves from Cross, Passion, and Eucharist back to the human Body of Christ on the Cross and present in the Eucharistic elements to a more immediate focus on the Blood of Christ received in the Eucharist. That movement is united with commentaries on the Song of Songs, tied to the Passion through the imagery of the ‘wound of love’ which transforms lover and beloved. The resulting practise leads to a conscious Imitatio Christi on the part of the believer and meditation on the embodiment of Christ’s body in the believer through participation in Christ’s acts of mercy, His sufferings, and his self-giving at the altar, made possible by the Crucifixion.

 

Analytical Possibilities: Francis within a Network

Lastly, I presented evidence from Crusader sermons in order to illustrate how Francis became so internationally popular among Latin Christians. The purpose of that section, in combination with the foregoing, was to illustrate my conclusion that Francis became a node uniting several devotions. Francis functioned for medieval theologians and the devout as an indexical tag, meditation on whose life can lead in numerous other directions: Cross, Eucharist, crusades, poverty and kenosis, imitation of Christ, Body of Christ, the angelic hierarchy, and so on. I showed how eucharistic spirituality, the spirituality of the cross and crusades, devotion to the wounds of Christ, and contemplation of virtues such as love and the celestial hierarchy all came together in Francis’ life, particularly through his vision on Mt Alverna. I reached that conclusion after examining popular devotions as they developed in Byzantium and the West.

I have mostly held off from analysing the presented evidence through explicitly theoretical (i.e. academic, sociological methods) perspectives. A few such theoretical lenses may help focus the processes surrounding Francis stigmata. The theoretical approach is not without utility to theological and ecclesial ends. Such utility is demonstrated when the approach opens new possibilities for understanding the faith of previous eras; when it raises new questions or complicates old questions about topics such as revelation from lived experiences of saints and hagiographers — hagiographers being the mediators between society and theology; and when it sheds light on ecclesial integration, both in its problematic aspects and in its more appreciative aspects, as when it deepens the spirituality of the faithful, even in the presence of difference. I intend only to sketch out possibilities here, rather than fully develop any one approach.

I have already mentioned a few theoretical approaches. First is an ‘archaeology’ of a phenomenon, which owes a certain amount to Foucault as a proponent of this method. Second is the idea of saint-making and -unmaking, for which Galatariotou’s monograph on St Neophytos is an eminent example. Embodiment is another theoretical term I’ve used a few times, but I would see it drawn into relation with concepts of contagion, in this case, contagion or transfer of holiness, rather than impurity. Finally, Lukacs’ idea of reification, particularly as that reification can bring a ‘thing’ into a network such that it becomes either highly connected or even an obligatory passing point, ideas developed in (actor-)network theory, seems pertinent.

Lukacs developed his idea of reification in the context of a Marxist critique of capitalism. Briefly, the idea is that one thing becomes separated from its original context and comes to have associations of its own derived from that context, although in and of itself, the item does not possess any such relationship. Although abstract ideas are capable of being ‘thingified’, money is the primary example which he uses to demonstrate the idea of reification. As paper bills, money has no relationship to anything, except perhaps artwork. However, money originates as a proxy for the relationship between employer and employee. It represents labour-hours. Those labour-hours become reified, or embodied as a material ‘thing’ in the material object of money. The next step occurs when money then becomes an actant on its own, whereas before, it was the recipient of an action. For Lukacs, reification is the embodying of social relations into a material object which comes to replace or stand for social relations, but in a way which obscures those relations. (See his ‘History and Class Consciousness’ for more on this idea. He has an interesting idea of orthodoxy as residing in faithfulness to developing methods laid out by the founders of a field, which might be interesting to pursue in the context of what it means to be Orthodox.)

I would suggest that the twelfth century was a period when Latin and Byzantine theologians developed two slightly different methods of reifiying relations between human and divine. For the Byzantine commonwealth, the item which comes to reify this relationship is the icon, and secondarily relics (although the Eucharist is a close runner up); in a way, even icons of relics are efficacious, maintaining their relationship to the prototype’s relationship to the original. While it can be argued icons derive their power from the intercessory capabilities of their prototypes, nevertheless, the material object which comes to function in that intercessory capacity is the icon, egg tempera written on gesso and wood. In some cases, icons of the cross appear to have supplanted the actual cross as intercessory object, in an icondoule effort to root out iconoclastic groups still dubious of the orthodoxy of icons. If the cross is efficacious on its own, why not an image of the cross? If an image of the cross, then also the image of the body on the Cross, or the body which hung on the cross.

The choice of externalised iconographic expression for devotion to the Passion, rather than embodiment (even in metaphor) within the devotee’s body in suffering, is one key to the differences which emerged between Latin and Byzantine approaches to devotion to the events surrounding Christ’s death. Why icons became the vehicle of reification, or even better, how icons came to be viewed as bodies capable of embodying a relationship with the divine (rather than the human person him or herself), is a process which the literature surrounding iconography sometimes touches on, but not in such theoretical terminology, and certainly not in the wider context of historical Byzantine experience. Is the key to bringing the reification to the icon rather than the human found in devotional literature? How do ideas about stillness and the divine light touch on the human body which experiences such phenomenon? How is that embodied experience phrased and framed in an iconographic context, if at all? Did the reification occur in response to opposition by the intellectual elite of the time, their mocking of miracles and appearances of the holy man (as a type)? (See Belting 2005, “Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology”, Critical Inquiry, 31:2:302-319, for more on the idea of icons as material objects which embody relations. I may develop this idea more fully in a later post, under the category of STS and Theology.)

In the Latin kingdoms, in contrast, the eucharist and bodily imitation are reified as the relationship between the devotee and the divine; or, in the case of Francis, his stigmata, a physical sign, becomes the ‘thingification’ of Francis’ ‘perfect’ imitation of Christ for Christians of his time. In a sense, the idea of Francis becomes ‘thingified’, and as such becomes capable of drawing together a series of relationships which extend beyond the confines of his own lived social relations. To take that approach, I am treating Francis as an object of popular devotion, rather than as a person with a popular following. How Francis, or Francis’ stigmata, fit into such networks of devotion has been articulated through even the cursory examinations of medieval angelogy, art history, Passion devotion, Eucharistic piety (at least one story in the Fioretti bears that later association out) and the crusader spirituality of the Holy Cross set out in this series of posts.

Francis was situated socially in the context of Crusades, with a nimbus of a new chivalric ideal promoted by Troubadours, but not without the fervor of missionary zeal. Francis becomes associated through his own travels and through his order’s responsibilities with the Holy Land and Latin pilgrimage there. By the latter half of the Middle Ages, Francis becomes a node in a nexus of devotions, linking several disparate strands of spirituality and sociality into an internationalised symbolic figure of the perfect, or near perfect, Christian: masculine, soldierly (or brave) yet eschewing worldly honour, of consummate devotion to his lady (Poverty), physically transformed by Love, having a place in the Angelic hierarchy, linked to the Holy Sites of Outre-Mer, honoured by infidels, the founder of a powerful order of intellectuals, and reformer of the Church who was yet never a priest. This is a far cry from the animal-loving, ecology-appreciating saint we often see today.

Francis comes to be the node on a nexus uniting medieval devotion to Angels, the Cross and Passion (especially as evidenced through devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ), the Lamb of God (and its associations with Judgement, Revelation, and Sacrifice), and the name of Jesus. He embodies the idea of transformation in God, and imitation of Christ; his creation of the Nativity scene links him with Mary and the Nativity; his Poverty with the Gospel counsels, Troubadour songs about devotion to one’s lady, as well as the theological idea of the kenosis of the Word; and finally, ecclesial approval by the patriarchate of which he was a member. As such, Francis remains a potent theological focus. All the mentioned devotions are unified, for our imitation, in the person-symbol of the stigmata-bearing saint, Francis. Imitation of him is imitation of transformation in God. As already mentioned, Francis seems to be the catalyst for one articulated strand in Latin theology of approaching to the Byzantine idea of theosis, though through a practical, rather than theoretical exposition. In imitating Francis, devout remain devoted to these other aspects of Medieval spirituality.

The Call of Orthodoxy

Much of the Catholic-bashing which occurs in zealous Orthodox polemic seems to originate in an opposition to the ecumenical movement. If ecumenical endeavours are to be opposed, I would argue that such opposition must be well-founded on good scholarship, not based on over-zealous, over-ambitious and ultimately shallow polemic. Such polemic does more to foster a dismissal of one’s own claims and arguments than it does to prevent the ecumenical process from moving forward. The ecumenical process will move forward precisely because zeal is deemed ignorance rather than informed faithfulness to the Fathers. In so doing, not only will the intention of opposing ecumenism fail, but the opportunity to present the ‘ecumenicists’ with the Patristic and orthodox inheritance as interpreted, preserved, and lived in the Orthodox Commonwealth will be missed.

Without an understanding of both Latin and Byzantine theology, as well as the historical contexts which formed them, any pre-conceived response to questions about Latin practices will serve merely to entrench the Orthodox in xenophobic and narrow-minded stagnation, rather than move us towards a deepening awareness of the possibilities of our own tradition for deepening and elaboration.

For the Orthodox, I would see higher standards of scholarship even in a popular magazine, or at least an effort to move the faithful to the heart of the matter, and take the argument forward from mere Latin-bashing. Following a programmatic ‘we hold the one true interpretation, and they are wrong and deluded’ agenda will only work in certain social contexts — and we live in a rapidly changing society. Latin Catholics, though, must also step up their own background in how the (Latin) Church has had a very beautifully textured past, and cannot not simply to be divided into essentialised categories of ‘Pre’ and ‘Post’ Vatican II practice.

Educating the faithful, whether Roman Catholic or Byzantine Orthodox, by pointing out that not all questions have been answered (or need to be answered), that there is more to our tradition than any one of us can answer for them, and encouraging the faithful to educate themselves through critical scholarship and personal engagement with primary sources, is a pastoral responsibility. Letting an increasingly savvy laity know that one’s own simple (or even complex) answers should not necessarily be enough to satisfy them is key to igniting that thirst for God of which the Psalmist, and Symeon the New Theologian, speak. Simply because an articulation of the Christian faith occurred after the arbitrary date of 1054, and west of Serbia and Kiev, that articulation should not be irrationally considered as a valid reason for ignoring insights into Christian revelation evidenced by the lives of Christians practising in good faith. Unfortunately more frequent among some Orthodox is an a priori rejection of such persons altogether in order to maintain a schism whose importance has only recently become seemingly the sine qua non of certain ‘Orthodox’ identities.

If a critique of Francis is desired, a good critical and well researched account of Francis, as opposed to a superficial and polemical one, is The Poverty of Riches by Kenneth Baxter Wolf. That monograph, written by a historian, examines how Francis’ poverty was qualitatively different from that of other poor people in Italy at the time. The epitome of his argument is that unlike the urban poor around him, Francis was able to maintain his ties with the merchant and aristocratic classes from which he originally hailed. He was thus not ‘resource poor’ or ‘network weak’, to use current terminology. Wolf also discusses other devout people of Francis’ ilk working in Italy at the time, and addresses possible reasons why Francis, in contrast to them, reached the (posthumous) international popularity — as a person — that he did, while they remained at best locally remembered. Wolf thus begins to address how the intersection of popular and elite theological perspectives in the person of Francis came about.

The question among the Orthodox of how to interpret Francis’ stigmata, and the ongoing phenomenon of stigmatists in the Latin church, though, does open up larger questions regarding how the character of spirituality, and differences in spirituality between the Orthodox and Catholics, and even within Orthodoxy over time, can be examined. What meaning should be imputed to those changes, if, indeed, they are even admitted to exist? Spirituality need not remain static over time to be considered faithful to its forebears. Nor is such stasis when it does occur automatic evidence of Orthodoxy (much less holiness), and faithfulness to the Patristic and apostolic sources of our faith. Emphases, outward forms, and community understandings shift over time; they unfold deepening awareness of the revelation which sustains the Christian faith, as manifested in particular locales. Just as the Church Fathers wrote, and their works were copied, because they developed an articulation of the tradition they inherited through confronting and thinking through questions, with the goal of vetting what is conformable to the tradition and what is not consonant with it, so also have lay practices and understandings of sainthood for their communities.

Raising people up to the faith includes teaching them how to think critically and methodically about questions concerning differences in various Christian spiritualities. It does not mean feeding them pre-digested bits of impermeable boundary making. The Orthodox can point to national (and thus by definition ultimately temporal) characteristics in various saints and spiritualities: the giants of Egyptian monasticism are said to reflect the blazing sun of the desert and Nile; the eloquence of the Greek Fathers shows forth the acumen of Byzantine genius; while the poetic and devout lives of Russian hermits are washed in the watercolour hues of the birch and pine forests of their homeland. All are celebrated as being ‘Orthodox’ despite the clearly evident changes in emphasis and expression — because what is emphasised in these accounts is the continuity, rather than the disjunctions, shared by them and other Orthodox saints. I am not denying the tenet of continuity, but I am pointing out the ideology of continuity conceals the contradictions of time and place, change in form and expression throughout history, while attempting to highlight the presence of change among Latin Christians while exempting ourselves from any critical view of the same in Orthodoxy. This contradiction, or better, paradox of continuity despite outward change, deserves greater theological articulation, precisely because it can be misunderstood or scandalous to the faithful, as well as to outsiders.

The purpose of hagiography parallels icon creation. Hagiography and iconography both teach, and inspire a relationship between the devout and the prototype. Both hagiography and iconography, as examples of popular devotions, illustrate the symbolic universes which inform (lay) people’s understandings of holiness and the marks of being a ‘true’, or at least exemplary, Christian. Hagiography both shapes and responds to this understanding. Like iconography, by its communal nature, hagiography promotes some interests over others. One interest is the preservation of, and integration with, the memory of a larger chain of historical tradition. As Thomas of Celano wrote, Francis is an exemplar of the Christian life, but not one divorced from those who came before him: “And indeed the glorious life of this man sheds clearer light on the perfection of earlier saints..”

Rapprochement

The second purpose of this series was to demonstrate why stigmata would not be understood in Byzantium. The conclusion I reached was simple: in Byzantium, devotion to the Passion took a different direction, becoming bound up with icons; other forms came under suspicion from heterodox use of the Mandylion’s festal Kanon; and perhaps because of heightened visibility among Catholics (or comparatively lessened visibility among Byzantines), passion devotion may also have become a political identity marker in the wake of Venetian and Papal interference in the political life of the Capital after 1204.

The question of whether the meaning of stigmata for the thirteenth century Latin church is an orthodox meaning, as understood today, would demand a foray into how much an ‘economic’ interpretation of the course of Christian history can be embraced. That foray stands quite apart from any discussion on how new events tied to spirituality can be evaluated as ‘acceptable’ or ‘heterodox’. By ‘economic’, I mean how much divergence from the usual course of events can be acceptably deemed as within the will of the Holy Spirit to teach the Christian faithful and create situations which elevate the people towards the divine life. In the case of Francis’ body, however, the leaving behind of relics would seem to mitigate against a push away from an economic interpretation of Francis’ sainthood. The reality of relics certainly trumps discussions over the meaning of stigmata, and in Orthodox fashion, should direct the argument’s course accordingly.

In and of themselves, the impression of the Five Wounds on Francis are not antithetical to Byzantine sensibilities, however unique at the time they were. Had Francis lived out his life in Byzantine lands one could speculate that the stigmata may well have been described by hagiographers as evidence that Francis was a living icon (of the Threnos-type, rather than the Man of Sorrows type). That approach might cause problems, though, implying that obtaining stigmata was the sure sign of theosis, or at the least, calling into question the position of the emperor as an Alter Christus. Lest one think that such devotion became alien to Byzantine spirituality, I would refer readers to the seventeenth century St Dmitry of Rostov’s prayers to the Passion (Bednarsky 1996: Tuptalo’s verses on Lord’s Passion.

One aspect of the larger tradition, a point of common genesis and possible starting point for rapprochement between Byzantine objects and Latin understandings of the account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata can be found in a common devotion to the Cross. (I insist on relating Francis’ stigmata to devotion to the Holy Cross because that is the context in which Francis appears iconographically most frequently in the century following his death: in frescoes adorning churches of the Holy Cross, Crusader chapels, and oratories devoted to Francis.) The empire in the East and the kingdoms of the West shared a common inheritance of devotion to the Cross, to the Last Supper, and to the events of Holy Week. Werner 1990 describes a history of the cult of the true cross in both Byzantine Empire and Latin kingdoms, with a special focus on insular British devotion to the material cross and its image. She notes that both Roman Pope Leo and Alexandrian Pope Cyril ‘understood devotion to the cross as devotion to the material object’.

While the idea of the feast day of the cross is fairly old, it was not particularly widespread. Angold (1995:186) mentions that the feast of the Elevation of the Cross was not celebrated in Thessaloniki until Eustathios’ episcopacy, in other words, not until after 1178 and before 1195. Eustathios was initially bishop of Myra, and perhaps devotion to the Cross was stronger in Asia Minor, where iconoclasts had strongholds (although iconoclasts seem to have been more centred in Anatolia). The time period of Eustathios’ introduction of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross does, however, correspond to the changes in Byzantine devotional patterns, with their refocusing on the Passion.

The particular narrative of Francis’ reception of the stigmata shares elements in common with the Judas Kyriakos (Cyriacos) legend of the Invention of the Cross. How the life of that legend as it circulated throughout the Mediterranean and Northern Europe prompted devotion to the Cross as such, but also, in Byzantium, to the Man of Sorrows icon in particular (as distinct from the Bridegroom/ Nymphios or Ecce Homo icon), has already been told. Likewise with its impact in the Latin West, where devotion turned towards not just the Cross, but focused more intensely on the body of that man of sorrows who hung upon the Cross. In the legend, a Seraph is said to guard the Tree of Life, which is identified with the Cross. I would speculate that the Seraph which guards the tree of life in the Judas Kyriakos legend, when paired with Francis’ vision of the Seraph of the Passion, elaborates on the character of that particular angel. This is particularly the case if — and the early writers do not agree — Francis’ vision was of an angel, and not of Christ. The devotional situation of Francis’ stigmata can thus be set within Byzantine and Latin devotions centred on the Cross, the Man of Sorrows icon, the Wounds of Christ, and the seraph within the Judas Kyriakos account.

Later Stigmatists

The subsidiary question of later stigmatists cannot be addressed here. While it was the question which prompted the Orthodox Word article, my purpose is to examine that article’s focus on Francis. Frankly, Catholic theology has not integrated into any wide theology-cosmology the phenomenon of spontaneous stigmatism present in individuals who have lived subsequent to Francis’ life. Francis remains unique in that regard. On the other hand, no other stigmatist has been able to secure associations with as many other devotions and social models present in his or her age and succeeding generations, as Francis of Assisi did. The problem is compounded because the Church — or rather, the Franciscan lobby — forbade all later stigmatists, aside from Francis, from being portrayed with stigmata. (Padre Pio (1887 – 1968) and Teresa neumann are exceptions, as they lived during a time when they could be photographed, rather than painted or written into an icon.)

The way, or rather timing, stigmata have appeared in other individuals differs from Francis’ case as well. Francis’ stigmata were the crowning event of a long life; Padre Pio’s stigmata occurred in midlife. Catherine of Siena’s stigmata became visible only after her death, while Gertrude’s appeared only on her heart. What about stigmatists during the intervening seven centuries, among whom were Teresa Neumann and Padre Pio? What are the implications of such changes in manner of appearance, timing in the life of the stigmatist, and other manifestations related to the stigmata? How are they — stigmata and stigmatist — interpreted in the Latin context? While it would seem reasonable to assume these later stigmatists fall easily into a developed structure of interpretation in which the stigmata are evidence of transformation into Christ through love; I would caution against such wholesale assumptions. The religious climate of each stigmatist is likely to have been quite different from Francis , or even Gertrude of Helfta and Catherine of Siena. Stigmatists in wake of Francis, in other words, need a new, or at least augmented, cosmological framework. Something for Catholics to ponder over.

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Theology: Defining the Term

I seem to have put the cart before the horse in publishing a post about my theological method before I had even defined the term ‘theology’. Therefore, in this post I will set out what I mean by theology, and attempt to ‘discipline’ the field by distinguishing it from other related fields of study and practice.

I.  Definition

Theology, in my view, is the work of making sense of divine revelation, revelation including both ‘revealed’ texts and the mystical experiences of recognised holy people. Theology is the engaging with this body of revelation with the goal of deepening the theologian’s own experience of the accepted revelation as well as the divine (or transcendent) life of holiness revealed through it; or to make such experience more deeply accessible by and to others.

A somewhat circular or self-reinforcing argument is produced by this definition, in that experience and a faith illumined by its own questions and doubts, precedes the theological endeavour. The above definition also undermines non-believers from engaging in theology, if the non-believer is not seeking to deepen his or her experience of God and holiness as revealed through particular texts and lives. However, it does leave the door open for cross-religious interaction and discussion, particularly when certain texts or traditions are shared, as for example with the complex of ‘Abrahamic traditions’, or the medieval interaction of these religions with Neoplatonic monotheism.

II.  Theology as a Discipline

An objection can be raised that theology is for elites within a religion and that it functions to reinforce the current state of power relations. I would disagree, and argue that it holds authority figures accountable for their decisions. (The question to ask is how the legitimate actors who can do theology is decided; history has shown that sometimes these actors do not come from privileged social or hierarchical positions. The Latin idea of the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, and the Byzantine notion that a council is not ecumenical if it is not accepted by the people are examples in favour of a dispersed set of power relations not embodied in hierarchs, abbots and abbesses, emperors and empresses.) Theology does create a disciplinary imperative by giving space to and enrolling a network of fellows engaged in the same work, a community of others who further one another in the deepening of engagement and experience with the texts, revelation, and divine life embodied by those texts; but this can spring as much from the local community as from any top-down decision. Who is allowed to take up this work rests very much on the local community and its powers of negotiation vis-a-vis those who would oppose them; but ultimately, history, and the power to transmit someone’s perspective, has the last say.

It is true that theology as a discipline legitimates certain power and knowledge relations, but these involve issues such as the canon of scripture, the composition of hagiography, and the communal establishment of an obligatory passing point that all theological work must address (e.g. in Christianity, that passing point would be the Incarnation or the Resurrection of Christ; in Judaism, it would be the Torah itself). As a discipline, theology establishes and clarifies language and the meaning attached to that language (Jerome has much to say on the topic of using different words to express the same meaning). Both the creation of a group of fellows and the clarification of language lead to internal debate within the field over what questions exactly need solving. Such debates further positive developments in keeping with the tradition, and clarifies anomalous developments which are currently not reconcilable with the tradition in some way (i.e. heresy).

(Readers may note that some of the above characteristics of a discipline are drawn from Katz, 1996.  Disciplining old age:  the formation of gerontological knowledge.  Uni Press of Virginia.  Actor-Network Theory, or translation theory, in which people agree to form a network, provides additional elements incorporated into the above discussion.)

The knotty question about what are the disciplinary boundaries of theology, of how it is not philosophy,  not religious studies, not history, psychology, and how it uniquely makes use of each of the above disciplines must be left to another post. Instead, I will uncover the assumptions foundational to the definition of theology I set forth above.
III.  Assumptions within the Definition

Leaving aside additional questions of how a revelation is construed or constructed as ‘authentic’ and who or what community is responsible for recognising someone as ‘holy’ or ‘numinous’, the fundamental assumptions underlying the above definition are:

1.  the existence of some sort of divine revelation (and the attendant notion that human-divine communication or relation is possible);

2.  the possibility of having an inner life expressive of external reality rooted in divinity;

3.  the accessibility of texts, whether oral texts or written canonical texts; and

4.  that such texts, experiences, and relationships are open to analysis and interpretation.

Taking up the last assumption first, we can interrogate the idea of openness to interpretation in several ways. Does revelation need analysis? Why does it not speak for itself? What contexts allow for the questioning and interpretation of revelation, and when is this proscribed or discouraged? Who has the authority to make such interpretations, and who has the authority to publicise them? What sorts of analysis and interpretation are allowed? These questions are often more anthropological or sociological than theological, though theology would be wise to answer them if it is to defend its own existence. Ultimately, the question theology itself must address in the face of the fourth assumption is specifically, in what way does theology make sense of revelation and experience?

Theology makes sense of revelation first, through augmentation and commentary on the text at hand. Commentary means the incorporation of new insights with regard to earlier texts, liturgical works, and artistic norms. Argumentation includes not only debates about the integrity of the revelation or life being discussed, but also the creation of a dialectic movement with other experiences, philosophies, methods, and knowledge systems outside the one at hand.

Second, by applying that revelation to specific situations, including novel, literal, physical or embodied applications of metaphorical statements. Examples of this sort of interpretation include the very literal application and embodiment of scriptural ideas in early Syriac asceticism. Theology also delimits the applicability of a text, not in the sense of reigning in holiness, so much as curtailing the sort of zealousness that would destroy holiness altogether.

Third, theology engages with revelation in lives and texts by deepening existential knowledge, that is, the knowledge of one’s existence in personal and interpersonal terms and with regard to time and place in their dimensions as processural and changing. Related to this task is the augmentation of the theologian’s personal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. (I distinguish the three as different activities, although prayer can be rather encompassing with regard to the other two.)

Finally, theology makes sense of divine revelation by generalisation of a particular experience to other people, making it accessbile to them, either through translation into locally understood meanings and terms, or through simply bringing these experiences to the attention of other people. This can be done either by bringing the revelation down to the level of the people (which Byzantines observe Latin theologians doing) or through raising the people up to the level of the revelation (which Byzantines, like myself, argue is the real litmus test of a tradition well-transmitted). Making revelation accessible to a general audience addresses the third of the earlier assumptions. Theology is in part the transmission and making available of texts and lives which will lead others to greater holiness or deepen their interior lives and existential experience.

Of the above, how does argumentation and commentary further the stated goal of entering more deeply into divine life? I will draw an example from the Talmud, which is quite appropriate since the Talmud (and Mishnah) is an example of grappling with divine revelation through argumentation par excellence. The Talmud relates that R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish were debating partners in the yeshiva. Resh Lakish was not afraid to challenge his friend and brother-in-law when he thought R. Yochanan was ruling incorrectly on a matter of Torah. Often R. Yochanan would concede to Resh Lakish’s logic; Resh Lakish, in turn, would abandon his own argument if it could not find support in the tradition. After Resh Lakish died (a tragic story I need not relate here), R. Yochanan was assigned a new debating partner. As if R. Yochanan’s grief at the death of his friend were not enough, this new debating partner had the nerve to always agree with R. Yochanan. As a result, R. Yochanan felt he no longer made progress in deepening his knowledge of Torah, and mourned the loss of Resh Lakish (and his own role in Resh Lakish’s death) for the rest of his days. The challenge offered by Resh Lakish helped R. Yochanan sharpen his own ideas and look ever more closely at the texts available to him. In the process, they both created commentaries which would be referred to by the next eighteen centuries of Jewish theologians.

I will leave the assumptions of an interior life and the possibility of revelation for other posts. For now, I will move on to mention how one knows that theology is being done properly.

IV.  The Worth and Fruits of doing Theology

The fruits of theology properly done are peace, joy, pleasure, awareness, and engagement.  These are the goals of theology in particular. Mysticism, more broadly speaking, may be different in its goals and aims, as well as its fruits.  What are not the fruits of theology properly done are stasis, self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, and authoritative domination over others (at least, dominion over contemporaries of the theologian).  By stasis I mean specifically the sort of crystalised position that does not admit of further questions; theology, as I see it, is dynamic and changing as new people speak of their own experiences and these are positioned within the experience of the tradition as it was known and experienced by previous generations. Theology — and ritual — is not the absence of creativity as an extreme Durkheimian position might have it. Room for dispute within the discipline, including anger and criticism of poorly argued ideas and misapplied interpretations is still possible despite restrictions on domination and self-righteousness; after all, criticism can be respectfully leveled.  Augustine, whose theological corpus was formed from debates with Manichaeans, Donatists, and others, wrote that he is a man who makes progress by writing, and writes because he has made progress.  This is the sort of dynamic and humble process by which theology is advanced, or done.

Is theology worthwhile today?  Was it worthwhile in the past?

I would passionately argue that yes, theology remains worthwhile today. Like other intellectual disciplines, it sharpens skills in debating, writing, and cricial thinking, but with an eye to how people create meaning in their own and other’s lives.  Keeps ‘religion’ from being misused/ abused; reigns in fanaticism, promotes personal experience and engagement with society, a tradition, embodied transcendence; lends interest to apathetic; opens new questions (about life, inter- and intra-personal relations) to exploration; deepens meaning; aids aesthetics (although I sometimes debate this when looking at some results stemming from Vatican II; but by aesthetics I think of the Platonic triad of Love-Beauty-Truth); and alters the body and its deployment. Ultimately, theology is its own reward, in that it deepens one’s inner life and opens the world, in all its beauty and tragedy to oneself.

At its best, theology empowers actors to make reflective and conscious decisions, examine life, and clarify ideals, ideals both personally developed and socially received.   Theology has the capacity to critically evaluate new developments and, because it grapples with the slow movement of humanity over the course of centuries, can overcome the limitations of temporal and geographical constraints — that is, it becomes something enduring and unbounded by the perspectives and concerns particular to the writer’s present moment.  Something written in 360, or 1240, or 1810 can still be applicable and helpful to someone in 2025 and beyond.