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..”


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.


Latin Devotion to the Passion: Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic (Part 6b)

Passion Devotion in the Latin Kingdoms

What are the origins of the Latin devotion to the Passion? This is a qualitatively different question that what I asked regarding the Byzantine Commonwealth. There, the question was about the presence of any Passion devotions whatsoever. I argued from the iconographic and liturgical record that yes, Byzantium did have a devotion to the Passion, but that it took a different form, focusing on the Burial of Christ, although it maintained Eucharistic overtones. Likewise, its theological importance lay in its association with relics of the Passion which bore images attesting to the Incarnation. I did not examine in any detail texts from the kanons, akathists, or other liturgically-oriented writings on the topic (I hope to rectify that at some point in the future). In this section, however, because my focus is on the understanding and interpretations Latins themselves gave to devotion to the Passion, I will draw not so much on the artistic heritage of the West, but on its textual sources.

The best source of information on the development of devotion to the Passion in the West is provided by Fulton (2002)’s magisterial work, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800 -1200. Here, I will rely on only a few examples drawn from her monograph (which I highly recommend). Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856), provides an early recommendation for using devotion to the Passion as a way to open up the heart. His advice is taken up by John of Fecamp (d. 1079) in a small book given to the dowager empress of the Holy Roman Empire. This little book concerns contemplation, and details how meditation on the Passion, or specifically, on the Body of Christ, is the beginning of that path.

The twelfth century sees a new set of highly influential writers, among whom are Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173). Anselm is important for a series of prayer-meditations in which Christ is portrayed as the Bridegroom of the soul. That theme is taken up by Bernard in his Commentaries on the Song of Songs, which open with a meditation on the Incarnation as the kiss, or union of two lips, at the start of the Scriptural canticle. Because Bernard’s work is rather long (and because my copies are stored in a box 3000 miles away), I will not examine any texts from him. Rather, I only wish to point out that his commentaries helped popularise the notion of an intimate, even romantic relationship between the soul and Christ. Richard we have had reason to mention before; he will receive only brief mention, in the context of the Song of Songs. Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) would be a useful counterpoint if I wishes to provide an example highlighting the types of devotion which preceded the thirteenth century. My purpose, however, is to look at devotees’ understandings of what it means to meditate on the wounds and Passion of Christ. Therefore, I will not delve into her works here.

Three related groups of Old English texts, Ancrene Wisse, the Wooing Group, and the Katherine Group, however, do illustrate the shifts happening in Latin-rite devotion to the Cross and Passion in the years leading up to the thirteenth century. The subject matter of the texts combines imagery of the crucifixion with that of Christ as a bridegroom, bringing together Bernard’s mystical communion with Christ and the very real imagery of the Royal Cross. All three groups were written in the West Midlands dialect of English presumably for an audience of anchoresses (female hermits and recluses who lived in cells near churches and shrines), and in terms of composition date, seem to span the 12th and 13th centuries. Some of these anonymous prayers may have been part of an oral tradition and later written down. They may have been written by the women themselves, though one historian who focuses on the texts, Dr Innes-Parker, suggests they may have been written by a man. Regardless, “the intended audience for these prayers were anchoresses,” who had no access to education or libraries. These prayers were therefore written to provide them with their own devotional material. Nor could they speak Latin, which is why these prayers were written in English. They were the first passion meditation prayers written in English, and will serve as the most northerly examples of Passion devotion I will dip into in this post.

When it comes to devotion to the blood and wounds of Christ as that devotion developed on the Continent (and ultimately came to rest in devotion to the Sacred Heart), three women in particular are often mentioned. Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Mechtilde of Hackeborn, and Gertrude of Helfta, are associated with the High Medieval devotion, not just to the Passion in general, but to the blood and wounds of Christ specifically. (Relics of the Blood shed at the Crucifixion were some of the few relics which could be easily disseminated in the West, while Constantinople held the majority of other material remains associated with the passion.) These three women all lived in the Holy Roman Empire, and are associated with the Cistercian monastery of Helfta. Mechtilde of Magdeburg was born around 1207 (coincidental with the composition of the Wooing of Our Lord), and is thus also contemporaneous with Francis. Her writings attest to the currents of devotion present north of the Alps during Francis’ lifetime; as a Dominican sister, she was not especially invested the Franciscan project of promoting the founder of the ‘rival’ order — but she gives ample evidence of devotion to the Passion.

Mechtilde of Hackeborn (d. 1298) and Gertrude (d. 1302) post-date Francis, and both were contemporaries of Magdeburg after she entered the convent at Helfta. Gertrude was the most famous ‘student’ of Hackeborn, but the two are often mentioned together. Gertrude and Hackeborn were Cistercians, and therefore also not associated with the mendicant movement which developed in response to the new opportunities for pastoral care afforded by urbanisation. As Cistercians, they were part of a contemplative reform movement predating the mendicants, but closely associated through Bernard of Clairvaux with the Crusader kingdoms and the ‘taking up of the Cross’. (Cistercian architectural elements could be seen in the chapels of Crusader castles, of which Krak de Chevalier had until recently been the most well preserved.) The evidence provided by Magdeburg and Gertrude can thus be of use in elucidating the way Francis’ stigmata would be understood in the wider Latin Christian world around his lifetime. These women illustrate how devotion to the Passion was intimately wrapped up with a Eucharistic spirituality which was nonetheless contextualised within the convent’s discourse of women vowed to Christ as their Bridegroom.

Finally, the Cross and the courage in taking it up are themes widely preached in Crusader recruitment sermons to a broader, secular and lay public. The ways in which the Cross and Wounds of Christ are used in such sermons also sheds light on wide societal associations into which Francis easily fit, as a saint who preached to the Sultan, whose order was given custody of the Holy sites around Jerusalem, and as a human whose body bore evidence of taking up the Cross in a hyper-literal, though miraculous sense.

Elite Theologies: Passion as Preparation for Contemplation

Devotion to the Passion was not a sadistic glorying in pain and suffering for Latin Christians. Rather, they took seriously the admonitions of Paul, who to turn the Cross from stumbling block to corner stone of faith. Meditation on the Passion, as the means by which salvation was achieved, according to the Letter of the Hebrews, became for these Christians the first step in communion with the Divine. Fulton (2002:154) quotes a significant passage from Hrabanus Maurus, who comments on the Passion as the entry point for devotion to Christ in his Opusculum de passione Domini,

“If you wish to enter into life through Jesus, who is the way and the door… do not let it deter you, nor seem to you vile, if you find the approach to him everywhere troublesome and base. He has thorns on his head, nails in his hands and feet, a spear in his side, whip-marks on his arms; his body is torn to pieces, and like a leper he is ugly to look upon and hard to follow. But beware lest you throw away the nut on account of the bitterness of the shell: for the more bitter the outside may seem, so much the sweeter you will find the kernel inside. So that therefore you may be able to comprehend in some measure… the length, breadth, height, and depth of the mystery of the holy cross and the Lord’s passion, which God has hidden from the wise and knowing of the world and revealed to the little ones, understand the weight of the words… because, with God’s help, they will prepare the soul to have devotion in prayer, consolation in trouble, and revelation in contemplation; and you will know not only what has been given to us by God, but also the one who was given for us… even if you simply meditate on these things according to the letter.”

Hrabanus recommends the Passion precisely because it is an object of compassion or aversion. He promises that meditation on the Passion will lead to sweet fruit in the measure that the bitterness of Christ’s sufferings contain. Even if the person meditating focuses just on the literal events portrayed in the Gospel narratives, and not on the mystagogical interpretations handed down by the tradition of faith, Hrabanus says, benefit will accrue to the soul.

Hrabanus was not alone in composing a ‘little work’ (opusculum) on the Passion. John of Fécamp, who served as abbot of a monastery in Dijon in mid-eleventh century, at the request of the Holy Roman dowager empress Agnes, sent a small book of prayers to her. The empress by this time had entered the convent, and her request was for devotional reading for her new vocation in life. John’s Libellus was the response. It was copied, together with some of Anselm’s prayers into MS Metz 245, creating a thematically unified collection of prayers relating to the Passion (Fulton 2002:155). Fécamp, it should be noted, was a monastic school, founded by John’s own abbot, who had been called there by Richard II of Normandy. Earlier in life, John had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he had been held prisoner. How that pilgrimage affected his devotion to the Passion would make an interesting study itself.

Like HrabanusMaurus, John of Fécamp discusses meditation on the Passion in the context of prayer: “The contemplative ascent begins… as John has insisted throughout the Libellus, with Christ’s own body – or rather, his wounds, those ‘saving wounds which you suffered on the cross for our salvation and from which flowed the precious blood of our redemption.’ By these wounds, John implores Christ, ‘wound this sinful soul of mine for which you were willing even to die; wound it with the fiery and powerful dart of your charity that is beyond compare… pierce my heart, then, with the dart of your love, so that my soul may say, “I have been wounded by your love” [Song of Songs 2:5]…'” (Fulton 2002:169)

The excerpt just quoted is from John’s fourth prayer in his Libellus, which actually focuses on contemplation of Christ’s resurrection. For John of Fecamp, participation in Christ’s resurrection begins with Christ’s passion. Participation in Christ’s passion begins with the wound or wounds of love, which are here explicitly tied to the love of Bride and Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.

The association between Christ and the soul becomes even more concrete in another passage, in which John identifies Christ’s flesh with our own. This incarnational mystical theology contrasts with Peter Damian’s “conviction that it was necessary to bear with Christ not only his humanity but also the very wounds he suffered in taking on that humanity” (Fulton 2002:159-160).

John, in contemplating the Incarnation as God’s assuming human substance, writes, “And in this humanity is founded all my hope and all my trust. For in Jesus Christ our Lord resides a part of each of us, our flesh and blood. But where part of me reigns, there I believe that I too reign. And where my flesh is glorified, I recognize that I too am glorified. Where my blood rules, I see that I too rule. Although I am a sinner, i do not lose hope because there exits this grace-given communion. And if my sins bar the way, my substance requires that I be there. My sins may exclude me, but my communion in nature does not force me away. For the Lord is not so cruel as to forget humanity and not remember the creature whom he himself assumed, or not to want me for its sake after accepting it for my sake.” Far from being a statement of presumption on his part, it expresses a hope founded on theological faith in the incarnation. Yet it is also an expression of identification with Christ through the Word’s assumption of human nature. We as humans, can participate with Christ in his human experience, which includes a post-Resurrection glory.

Another figure, who, like John of Fecamp, was active during the ‘Norman renaissance’ of theological letters, was Anselm. Originally from Italy, he later settled at the monastery of Bec before being called to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Giles Gasper (2004:53) has suggested that John of Fecamp and Anselm of Canterbury mutually influenced one another, both coming from Norman monasteries located a mere 50 miles apart. (Gasper (2004). Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance. Ashgate Publishing.)

Like John of Fecamp, Anselm composed meditative prayers which have been preserved, giving us an insight not only into his particular devotional themes, but also his approach to prayer. In his ‘meditation on the redemption of humanity’, Anselm recommends that it be read aloud, “…said from the depths of the heart and at a slow pace… give them your whole attention, and … do it was well as you are able, so that with humility of mind and the feeling of fear and love the sacrifice of prayer may be offered” (Fulton 2002:171). Key to making lectio divina into meditatio is attentiveness, at least for Anselm. One way to do that is to focus on one clear idea, and slowly work it over in the mind, ‘chewing it’, as Anselm describes. Fulton (2002:189f), in fact, argues that what is new in Anselm is “one of condensation and distillation: Anselm took elements available in the tradition — the image of meditation as rumination, as a slow chewing over of ideas within the stomach of the mind; the injunction, so clearly articulated by Hrabanus, to gaze upon the face of the Redeemer so as to kindle fire in the heart and understanding in the mind; the practice of private, confessional prayer to Christ and the plea, so richly articulated in the long prayer translated above (“Domine Iesu Christe, qui in hunc mundum”), that Christ hear the sinner and forgive all his or her many negligences and sins — and refined and enriched them in the alembic of his reasoned approach to the Christian faith… Above all, he transmuted the fear of Judgement, heightened as it had been for a generation or more by the passing of the millennial anniversaries of Christ’s Nativity and Passion, into an obligation to meditate on the immensity of Christ’s sacrifice.” Anselm, in other words, simply deepened the emphasis of devotions already at hand by imbuing them with an accessible mystagogy, and the methods for entering into that noetic contemplation.

The result, however, was that later Christians “would learn to think of their relationship to Christ in terms of an obligation to praise not simply the God-man but the man who had died in payment for their sins.” By focusing on the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice as achieved through his human nature, the reality of that humanity came to the fore. As Anselm later lamented, “Alas for me, that I was not able to see the Lord of Angels humbled to converse with men, when God, the one insulted, willed to die that the sinner might live. Alas that I did not deserve to be amazed in the presence of a love marvellous and beyond our grasp” (Fulton 2002:144). Anselm recognises in the crucifixion not simply human suffering, but the presence and will of Love, a love which transcends his ability to fully understand. As such, he recognises, but stands outside that love, contemplating it, rather than as in John of Fecamp’s prayerbook, identifying with it, or as in later writers, entering into it — at least in this particular lament.

Because Anselm recognises the love inherent in the act of submitting to the Crucifixion, the humanity of Christ for him is clearly not irreconcilable with a betrothal to one’s soul. In fact, one could draw the logical conclusion from his writings that in that act of supreme love was Christ’s betrothal of himself to the souls of humanity; the tomb, thus truly becomes a bridal chamber, which he enters and lies in wait for the soul of his beloved to join him, that later they may rise together in glory. But Anselm doesn’t quite carry out the imagery through the full triduum, at least not immediately. In the aforementioned prayer-mediation on the redemption of humanity (Meditatio Redemptionis Humanae), Anselm address Christ as Bridegroom in the following words: “I thirst for you, I hunger for you, I desire you, I sigh for you, I covet you… O that I might see the joy that I desire! O that ‘I might be satisfied with the appearing of your glory’ [Psalm 16.15] for which I hunger! O that I might be inebriated ‘with the riches of your house for which I sigh! O that I might drink of ‘the torrent of your pleasures’ [Psalm 35.9] for which I thirst! Lord, meanwhile, let ‘my tears be my meat day and night’ [Psalm 41.4], until they say to me, ‘Behold your God,’ until I hear, ‘Soul, behold your bridegroom'” (Fulton 2002:188). The imagery of Christ as Bridegroom was taken seriously by both male and female writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and formed one aspect of the mysticism which flourished within and outside the monasteries of the period.

The Chivalrous Christ and the Wounds of Love

Perhaps the most influential preacher of the period was Bernard of Clairvaux. Often called ‘the Last of the Fathers’, he is credited with invigorating the nascent Cistercian reform of the Benedictine order. He preached for a Crusade, advised popes, and wrote extensive commentaries, sermons, and homilies. His commentaries on the Song of Songs, in addition to his work ‘On Loving God’ (De Diligendo Deo or De Amore) are considered to have been a contributing factor to the rise of the troubadour ideal of courtly love. Certainly, to them is attributed the rise of popular devotion to Christ as Lover. In concert with Richard of St Victor’s description of the ‘wound of love’ (Songs 2:4), devotion to the Song of Songs meets with Eucharistic devotion to focus conceptually on the visual source of the gift of love: the body of Christ on the Cross (see Winkworth 1993:138n28 for Richard of St Victor). More specifically, contemplatives begin to contemplate the meaning of the ‘wound of love’.

Commentary on Song of Songs in the Latin church focused on a quest for narration, though not without also searching for personalised experience (more exemplified by LeClerq than Bernard). “Latin interpretation of Song of Songs strives for narrative: the primary objective of breaking the [allegorical] code was to turn the text into a narrative plot.” The narrative plot, naturally enough, cast Christ in the role of Solomon or Bridegroom, and the soul in the role of Bride. This quest for narrative is not unlike the prosopographic exercises in late Antqiue Byzantium which gave rise to types of hymns like the Stavrotheotokia used in the liturgies of Holy Week. (Cf. Symeon’s Hymn to Eros for a Byzantine divine lover image; also his Ethical Discourses cast Christ as Emperor taking his (male) favourite to bed.)

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of this sort of interpretation in the thirteenth century were groups of lay women called Beguines (lay men who gathered in similar associations were called Beghards). As an example of the sort of emotive devotion characteristic of Beguine spirituality, flowing out of the Latin narrative interpretation of Songs, Bowie (Beguine Spirituality 1989:55:(I.4) provides a typical prayer: ‘Lord, you are my lover, my longing, my flowing stream, my sun, and I am your reflection.’ The key theme here, aside from a heavenly beloved, is of reflection: the Beguine devotee’s goal is to reflect the love and virtue of Christ, imitating in her own life the love Christ offered in his own.

Devotion to Christ comes to supersede fealty to Christ as the motivating force of the Christian life, for those who followed the more mystical paths laid out by the authors I mentioned above. The shift can be seen in a set of Anglo-Saxon devotional poems and prayers as one moves form the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. Beer (1992, Women and Mystical experience in the Middle Ages) juxtaposes a particular prayer-poem in the Katherine group with an older Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood, and links it to a chain which fully flowers in later Beguine spirituality. (Cf. The wohunge of ure Lauerd. Olde English poems.) Beer argues the Katherine poem illustrates the shift from an earlier conception in the Dream of the Rood of the nun as a martial warrior owing fealty to her Lord (as also in Hildegard of Bingen’s works), to the values of being a courtly lover, with Christ as a chivalrous knight as well as bridegroom. In part, this reflects an overall shift in literary topoi during the period in question, as the Res Gestorum of an earlier age give way to the Romances of the High Middle Ages. Likewise, Dr. Catherine Innes-Parker, a professor at UPEI, comments on her newly edited Middle English-Modern English edition of the Wooing Group, a group of texts related to the Katherine group. Dr Innes-Parker describes the Wooing Group as “a 13th century collection of prayers written in English for women. It turns Christ into a figure from romance—the Christ Knight, the ideal bridegroom” ( …For additional academic resources see: The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group. Edited by Susannah M. Chewning Distributed for University of Wales Press.).

The two positions of martial fealty and courtly love, of course, are not as antithetical as it may seem: the societal shift may have been from a warrior ethos to a chivalric ethos, but the principle difference was the latter’s incorporation of courtly ideals and devotion to love into the pre-existing warrior ethos of glory, honour, and fealty to a feudal lord. Nevertheless, in the Katherine Group of texts, particularly in its later works, Christ is loved “for who he is, and what he has done [more] than for what he has to offer” (Beer 1992:75). In one particular poem, The Wooing of Our Lord (The wohunge of ure Lauerd), “the woman does not have to be convinced to choose Christ [as in earlier works in the Katherine group]: she fully recognises his desirability, and addresses him as his committed lover. Her sensitivity [is] to the degree of sacrifice made for her…” (Beer 1992:75).

As Innes-Parker elaborates, “These prayers refer to a romantic, even erotic meditation based on the Song of Songs. They are deeply rooted in the image of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul.” The commentaries and narrative-interpretation of the Songs, as we mentioned above, cast Christ as the bridegroom and the soul as his bride. Th Song of Songs is thus a scriptural account of Christ wooing the soul. “These poems were written to be read aloud,” says Innes-Parker. “The speaker had to look on the passion of Christ with the eyes of her soul and ask herself why her heart wasn’t breaking. Christ showed great love on the cross, and the response from these women was impassioned love.”

Beer (1992:67) also highlights that “a powerful element in the Wooing is the intense pathos surrounding the image of the Crucified Christ, the aching compassion expressed by a woman for the agony of her lover” (Beer 1992:77). The lover, of course, is the Bridegroom of the soul, Christ; and although the tomb in which he will be placed is not described as a bridal chamber — later prayers would ask Christ to hide the devotee in his wounds — as it is in the Byzantine liturgy, the focus of the poem is an interactive dialogue, not a monologue. (One wonders if the ‘pathos’ expressed in the poem is part of a general female experience of husbands and brothers as they left for Crusades, or when they heard that their men were wounded in battle? I would like to see if any female (secular) narratives attesting to such a relationship have survived, or is the poem a case of romanticising — in the sense of reading Romances and Courtly love onto everyday experience?)
In these groups of texts, we have a focus which moves from the Cross to the person on the Cross, who is loved as a Bridegroom who sacrifices himself out of love for his bride, personalised in the individual anchoress. Focus then moves from the incarnate man on the Cross to the actual wounds he suffered, and the motivating factor which led him to accept such marks: love.

The Wound of Love: Transformation of Lover and Beloved

Imagery of Christ as lover continued on the Continent during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Two strands of devotion, to the Eucharist and to the Crucified Bridegroom, are tied together in a vision recorded by Mechtilde of Magdeburg. In Mechtilde of Magdeburg’s Second Book, she describes a vision of transubstantiation, in which an image of a white lamb with red wounds wavers back and forth with the image of a white wafer: “As he [John the Baptist/ the priest] took the white wafer in his hands, the Lamb which was on the altar stood up and was changed into the wafer and the wafer into the Lamb, so that I saw the wafer no more but instead a bleeding lamb which hung on a red cross. He looked on us with such sweet eyes that never can I forget it. … John the Baptist took the white lamb with the red wounds and laid it on the mouth of the maid. Thus the pure lamb laid itself on its own image in the stall of her body and sucked her heart with its tender lips” (Beer 1992:86). In this vision, the Eucharist is the Crucified but Living Christ, symbolised in the wounded Lamb who stands up. The two images are brought together in one event, and the saint’s mind is able to hold both truths of her faith at once, without committing to one at the exclusion of the other. In addition, contemplation of the human person as image of God is alluded to: in the Eucharist, we who are the Body of Christ receive the Body of Christ. The transformation of the beloved one into her Lover is again alluded to later in the vision, which describes a “wreath of gleaming gold with the words: ‘His eyes in my eyes, His heart in my heart, His soul in my soul, Embraced and unwearied (and her face seemed the face of an angel).'” (Beer 1992:86)

Despite polemic that the Latin devotion to the Passion excludes contemplation of the mystery of the Resurrection, in Magdeburg’s vision although the imagery in that particular example is focused on the Crucified Christ, it is not divorced from Resurrection, or even apocalyptic-end time, images. In the vision of the wounded lamb, the lamb is alive as the resurrected Christ, who still bears his wounds (as we attest on Thomas Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter). The sister who receives communion is identified as an image of Christ, referencing Genesis in which humanity is made in the image of God, while the Lamb of God intimates not only John the Baptist’s preaching, but the imagery employed in the book of Revelation. The vision, in a sense, sums up the cosmological cycle of Christian time, and roots itself in the here and now through the mystery of the Eucharist.

Identification with the image of Christ also alludes to an underlying emphasis in the conventual life, of imitating Christ. That identification is brought out explicitly by Magdeburg in the third and seventh books,p where she “describes the passion and crucifixion of the individual soul, revealing that her spiritual ordeal, insofar as it mirrors that of Christ, is a way of regaining the divine likeness and achieving union” (Beer 1992:105). Later, in book seven, written at Helfta, Magdeburg broadens this imagery to embrace the entire community. The bride of Christ is the Church, and the Church is the Body of Christ, as much as is the individual Christian, who as a member of the Church, is also a member of the Body of the Crucified One. No contradiction between the individual sister as bride and the Church as a whole as bride is evinced.

Magdeburg’s disciple Gertrude also references the substantial identity humans have with God through the Incarnation. In one passage, she writes that Christ is he who has become ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;’ the incarnation is paralleled in the Eucharist, reception of which allows the recipient to incorporate Christ so that his flesh becomes a part of her own (Winkworth 1993:103). The resulting association then draws together love imitating love, the wounds of the Cross, and a union of flesh through Eucharist and Incarnation as God becomes human and humans, through the mystery of the altar, receive a God made flesh.

Gertrude is perhaps the most interesting example for illustrating the idea of stigmata and devotion to the wounds of Christ. For Gertrude, the stigmata are both medicinal draught and intoxicating liquor; the intoxicating liquor,as the Blood of Christ, is also the Eucharistic cup. In her writings, she records in a dialogue with Christ that she received “the stigmata of your adorable and venerable wounds interiorly in my heart, just as though they had been made on the natural places of the body [i.e. physically, not psychologically]. By these wounds you not only healed my soul, but you gave me to drink of the inebriating cup of love’s nectar” (Winkworth 1993:100). Gertrude describes the wounds of Christ impressed on her heart as a transformation or healing though love.

In a passage immediately preceding the description of Gertrude’s own reception of interior stigmata, Gertrude quotes a prayer to Jesus which reads in part, ‘Inscribe with your most precious blood, most merciful Lord, your wounds on my heart, that I may read in them both your sufferings and your love. May the memory of your wounds ever remain in the hidden places of my heart, to stir up within me your compassionate sorrow, so that the flame of your love may be enkindled in me’ (Winkworth 1993:99). The Eucharist, as the immediately accessible Blood of Christ, is the means by which Christ’s love is written in the Gertrude’s heart. Through the Eucharist, which was made possible by the Passion and Crucifixion, particularly the wound in Christ’s side from which flowed blood and water, Gertrude read not simply suffering, but also love. The goal of meditating upon the connexions between crucifixion, eucharistic blood, and love, was to rouse within herself a reciprocal love and devotion to Christ.

In a passage where Gertrude advised her readers to meditate on the love of Christ’s heart as he hung on the cross, she makes the intention of reciprocal love quite clear. She meditates on the love of Christ’s heart, she writes, ‘so that from the fountains of charity flowing from the fervour of such inexpressible love I might draw the waters of devotion that wash away all offences…’ (Winkworth 1993:101; cf. Bernard, Songs 18.5). The association of love with Christ’s heart would later help shift devotion from the Wounds of Love to the Sacred Heart specifically; but that development occurred over the course of centuries.

As a concrete example of the sort of meditation Gertrude means, in Bk II, Ch 5, she relates how she asked someone to pray a particular prayer for her before the crucifix: “By your wounded Heart, most loving Lord, pierce her heart with the arrow of your love, so that it may become unable to hold anything earthly, but may be held fast solely by the power of your divinity.” Gertrude then relates that after receiving the Eucharist, she saw a vision: a ray of sunlight came out from the side wound of the Crucifixion image painted in a book. The ray had a point like an arrow, spread itself out, then drew back into the page (Winkworth 1993:101). Here again, Gertrude connects Eucharist, Passion-Crucifixion, and love. Interestingly enough, this vision is clearly associated with an icon, or at least a manuscript miniature, contained in the prayerbook.

In another passage, Gertrude writes that one “regarding [the] crucifix is to contemplate Jesus saying, ‘See how I hung upon the cross for love of you, naked and despised, my body covered with wounds and every limb out of joint” (Winkworth 1993:210). In this passage, Gertrude clearly expresses her belief that the crucifixion wasn’t a mere means to death for Christ; it was a death accepted out of love for humanity. Likewise, humans must express compassion towards Christ. Getrude points out that the wounds of Christ, like those of any man wounded in battle, need bathing, anointing, and bandaging; prayer, contemplation, and works of mercy, along with right intent, are the means by which that is accomplished. Meditation was not simply emotive, but served to remind the Christian of his or her practical duty.

From meditation on the person of the lover hung on the Cross, the mystic then moves her attention to the wounds suffered out of that love. Those wounds are then personalised and given agency all their own. (The relationship of these wounds to the Body of Christ imagery in which each member is given a role within the Church does not seem to have been drawn, either in Latin rite or Byzantine rite countries.) From here, it is a small step to meditate simply on the wounds themselves (without an initial meditation on the Cross of the Body on the Cross), as the bodily heralds of divine love. Thus, along with meditation on the love of Christ represented by the Cross, Gertrude describes how she recited Ps 102 (Bless the Lord O my soul), vv1-5 while meditating on five wounds: The first verse referred to the feet, where, she said, ‘I was granted to lay down upon the wounds of your sacred feet the scouring rust of sin and all attachments to the worthless pleasures of the world.’ The second verse moved to the wound in the side, where were washed ‘all the stains of fleshly and ephemeral pleasure in the fountain of your cleansing love, whence blood and water flowed for me.’ The third verse belonged to the left hand, imagined as a dove’s nest, while the fourth, right hand, was a treasury of virtue. Finally, by the fifth verse, she was purged of the infamy of sin by Christ’s ‘sweetest and most longed for presence.’ (Winkworth 1993)

Gertrude’s meditation on the Five Wounds was the means by which she felt her soul could bless God, as the Psalmist asked. Through the meditation, she moves from a washing away of sin and attachment, to a deeper cleansing through love. Realising love, she found a place in which to repose, and a means by which she could find a path to bring forth the virtuous fruits of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the meditation, purged of all other attachments and longing only for her Beloved, she finds him.

Ideas relating the love and wounds of Christ continued to play out into the fourteenth century. The Anima Christi prayer, composed no later than 1370 and allegedly by Pope John XXII (who was decidedly not a staunch ally of Franciscan zeal), exemplifies how the Latin devotions to the Passion, Wounds, and Eucharist as Body and Blood of Jesus, become securely fused by the time the Renaissance period was beginning. Devotion to the wounds of Christ culminates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly in French devotion to the Sacred Heart; it has recently resurfaced , associated with the Polish devotion to Divine Mercy, popularised by Bl Faustina and the late Pope John Paul II (who died on the feast day associated with Divine Mercy, corresponding to the Orthodox Thomas Sunday). The difference in devotion to the Divine mercy is its lack of physicality, though it contains the very visual depiction of red and white rays associated with the blood and water which flowed from Jesus’ side at the close of the crucifixion. The movement from blood to light is a movement towards abstraction, and mirrors the historical pendulum from abstract Cross to personalised devotion to the Crucified Bridegroom, back to an abstraction in the Blood of Christ and again to a personalised Sacred Heart, which then becomes abstracted into devotion to Divine Mercy, never quite losing its association with Eucharistic devotion.

The Crusading Ideal: Take up the Cross and Follow Me

Devotion to the wounds of Christ did not develop in a vacuum. I already alluded to the troubadour tradition of songs, and the courtly romances being produced during the period. That literature, too, functioned in the context of an internationally focused military recruitment history has called the Crusades. The Crusades were so named because a ‘Crusader’ is one who takes up the Cross; the link is even more obvious in French and Spanish (croix, cross; croisade, crusade; cruz, cross; cruzado, crusader). Through a linking of the Cross, Crusades, and devotion to Christ, Francis became central to both popular devotion and elite Latin theology of the period. This network was all the more resilient once friars began to supplant monks as the preachers for the Crusading ideal. I will therefore briefly examine how the themes of the legend of the Cross and Devotion to the Crucified Christ were used in some Crusading sermons which have survived in manuscript collections, and how devotion to the Cross comes back to Francis, as the human who perfectly took up the Cross in imitation of Christ. Maier’s 1994 work, Preaching the Crusades: Mendicant friars and the cross in the Thirteenth Century offers the most sustained account of this theme, and the next section relies almost exclusively on his research.

The first crusade relied on monks as the preachers, but the initial effervescence of idealism spread to the monastic orders themselves. The period saw the emergence of several monastic reforming orders, among which the Cistercians, with Bernard of Clairvaux as their spokesperson, were the most successful. In the succeeding century, however, as the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders grew, friars were more often used to preach crusade. Friars had several advantages over monastics as international preachers. Not only were mendicants generally not bound to one particular house and its rule of devotions, friaries were more often located in urban areas (where the friars could minister to the urban poor), whereas monks were more often found in the countryside. Like the Cistercians before them, friars were able to extend the papal centralisation programme as a corollary of their preaching; preachers chosen because of familiarity to both cardinals and curia and to the crusaders, their lands, and customs (Maier 1994:34). (The friars may also have inadvertantly spread the university programme throughout Europe as well, but that is another topic.) If the friar-preachers were familiar with the curia, then they also had a potential investment in elite and scholarly theological programme, among which were cosmologies which placed Francis at the apogee of the human capacity for transformation, through love, in God, by the economy of Christ’s passion and blood.

Ironically, most crusader sermons which have been preserved are from secular clerics, not friars. Textual content for these sermons exists in several model crusade summons, and sermons on this theme begin to appear in sermon collections at start of thirteenth century, especially at the University of Paris (Maier 1994:111). Maier points out that recruitment sermons for the Crusades often coincided, in theme at least, with the two feast days of the Cross in the Latin-rite Calendar, May 2/3 and September 14. As Maier writes, “the connexion between preaching the cross and preaching on the feast days of the cross is obvious. Sermons for the feast days of the cross usually concentrate on the properties and the symbolism of the cross and the devotion on the crucified Christ. In such sermons the theme of crusading is often used as a metaphor for the journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. Model sermons for the feast days of the Cross might thus have provided crusade preachers with themes or illustrate material for crusade recruitment sermons” (Maier 1994:113).

Among the preachers whose sermons or sermon collections have come down to us, Gilbert of Tournai’s sermons 132 – 137 refer to the Cross or recruit for the Crusades; Humbert of Romans has a sermon on the Cross from the latter thirteenth century (no 90, De predicatione S. Crucis, ca. 1266 – 1268); while both Roger of Salisbury (for more on him, See Cole, Preaching 227 -31) and Frederick Visconti were other Crusade preachers whose works have survived. (Maier 1994:112. For more on medieval preaching, Maier refers to D’Avray; Cole; Powell.) John Russel’s Crusade recruitment sermon is followed by a de cruce sermon in the MS fragment (in Bodleian: Digby 154 (1755)), which “seems that it was meant to provide material for a distinctio on signum crucis.” (Maier cites Smalley 1956. ‘John Russel OFM’ in Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Mediévale 23:277-320, esp 280f) Likewise, Eudes Châteauroux’s sermon on the Invention of Cross includes recruiting passages. The influence, though, went both ways. Crusading themes, for example, appear in Alain Lille’s Sermo de Cruce Domini.

Crusader sermons, or at least the models which were copied into collections, generally relied on two tactics to move their audience to take up the Cross. One obvious tactic was to arouse aggression and anger towards the enemy of faith. These enemies were by no means confined to ‘Saracens’ or Saljuk Turks; after all, ‘crusades’ were preached for the Levant (to free the Holy Sites and in theory return them to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople), the Baltics (which were pagan at the time, wedged between Catholic Poland and Mongol-occupied Russia), North Africa (formerly part of Justinian’s empire, and thus a part of Christendom), Spain, and S France (against the so-called Cathars) (Maier 1994:116).

The other tactic is more interesting for tracing how Francis becomes a node in a network of symbols. This second tactic was to arouse penitential and devotional sentiments among the listeners. This could easily have been done by focusing on the wounds and violence suffered by Christ, inflicted by his enemies and who prevented Christ’s loved ones from approaching him. In support of this theme, the narrative movement from the symbolic nature of taking up the cross in Crusade, to devotion to Christ Crucified, miracles and visions are not infrequently reported. Maier recounts the case of Oliver of Cologne, who preached the Cross/ crusade in Frisia in 1214: “Several times Oliver’s preaching was said to have evoked visions of the Crucified Christ in the sky which caused a multitude of people to take up the Cross” (Maier 1994:120).

Although I have not read an account of Francis appearing during such sermons, he, of course, is one who took up the cross into his own body, as evidenced by the stigmata, and could hardly have been far from the minds of either the sermon composers, or those who listened to Franciscan preachers. On the other hand, in the Scripta Leonis, a work about Francis by his close companion Brother Leo, a Crusader sermon delivered by Francis himself is mentioned in which Francis praises Charlemagne for his victory over enemies of the faith, alluding to a history his audience shared and admired (Maier 1994:16), but the usual themes of taking up the Cross do not seem to have been repeated there, in the East, to the Crusaders who had already responded to such calls.

Papal legates were not always successful in winning over peasants, however. A thirteenth century Dominican MS near Bern (Bern Burgherbibliotek 679ff, 68v-69r) contains the story of an unlearned cleric who was tasked to do what several papal legates could not: convince the village to take up cross. He began his sermon to the wary villagers (wary because they were encountering yet another cleric preaching to them about taking up the cross) with an image which would be quite familiar to them. ‘Which is more difficult,’ he began, ‘threshing or winnowing?’ ‘Threshing takes 10 people, winnowing only 1, so threshing,’ replied the villagers. The cleric then said he was there to winnow the grain which the legates had threshed. He continued the metaphor with a short sermon. “He reminded the people of the opportunity to be absolved from their sins which Christ had offered them through his passion on the cross, his death, and the shedding of his blood. He said they had the choice of either taking cross and ‘become grains taken to the barn of paradise’ or chaff for the fire “(Maier 1994:121). In that short sermon, taking up the cross is seen as a way to demonstrate gratitude for the wounds suffered by Christ. The sermon ends by reminding the villagers that their souls could be fruitful, and stored up, or they could be meaningless and blow away in the wind. The theme of Crusade as a journey to Paradise or salvation, evoked in the imagery of being stored up, rather than dispersed is invoked. But a shift has occurred in this short sermon: it relies on guilt, rather than on love, as a motivating factor, at least in the snippet which survives.

The idea of Crusading as a means to salvation was not foreign to Francis. Francis himself is recorded to have gone East, to the Crusader stronghold of Damietta, burning with zeal for martyrdom during the fifth crusade, in 1219. Francis’ companion during his time in Damietta seems to have been Friar Illuminatus, whom Bonaventure places with Francis during his meeting with the Sultan, and implies that Friar Illuminatus may have been the source of that account. (Bonaventure is the author who later introduces the ordeal by fire during Francis’ visit with the Sultan.) The story in Julian of Speyer and Thomas of Celano follows a typical topos, Maier points out, so he turns to another contemporary source, James of Vitry. Maier quotes James of Vitry’s eye-witness account of Francis’ presence among the crusaders: ‘He [Francis] was not afraid to go into the camp of our enemy, burning with zeal for the faith; for several days he preached the word of God to the Saracens, but with little success’ (Maier 1994:9). The Vita Secunda records that Francis preached in front of Crusaders on Eve of battle not to go into battle on that day, for it would not go well , and not because of peace loving platform (Maier 1994:12). Francis is likewise quoted as using the scriptural advice to ‘tear out your eye’ to justify crusades, which, Maier asserts, “merely portrays him as a strict adherent of the contemporary doctrine commonly used to justify the crusades” (Maier 1994:15).

The Cross was of particular importance during the Fifth Crusade negotiations in summer of 1219. In addition to the return of the Holy City, the sultan offered to return a relic of Holy Cross lost to Saladin in 1187. Maier notes that the relic may actually have been lost permanently, for the Crusaders brought pieces of the True Cross with them to Damietta from Rome (Maier 1994:13). A specific event during that visit links Francis with the Cross, and specifically with his own theology of the Cross, which he delivers in a speech to the Sultan. An account dating from around 1256 – 1273 relates that before he granted audience to Francis, the Sultan placed on the ground a cloth with crosses embroidered on it to see if Francis would tread on the cross. Francis did, in fact, do so. When asked how he could do so without offending God, Francis replied: “You must know that along with our Lord thieves were crucified. We in fact have the cross of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and it is this cross which we worship and embrace with all our devotion. The holy cross of God has been given to us, whereas the crosses of the thieves were left as your share; this is why I was not afraid to walk over the signs of the thieves. Nothing of the sacred cross of the Saviour belongs to you or is amongst you” (Maier 1994:14). Interestingly, devotion to the wounds of Christ, a belief which is not shared in Islam, was not mentioned in Francis’ sermon to the Sultan. Of course, Francis preached in front of the sultan before his reception of stigmata; one wonders what, if any, impression a stigmatist would have made in such a situation.

The Cross makes its way into the Francis story again, but this time, the evidence comes from art historical sources. The Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, and Santa Croce in Florence, both in Italy, offer two examples of the convergence of the two theological themes. Although named after St Francis, the Basilica of San Francesco is more famous for its frescoes depicting Jacob of Voraigne’s History of the True Cross than it is for any portrayal of St Francis. Santa Croce, on the other hand, offers the opposite case: a church dedicated to, and housing, relics of the True Cross, is nevertheless enmeshed in cycles depicting St Francis’ life, in addition to frescoes about the Cross. (For a full treatment on this theme see also Baert 2004. A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image, esp 384ff.)

In her article on Sta Croce, Franciscans, and the True Cross, Thompson (2004) indicates that “Francis’ reception of the stigmata gave his followers a unique claim on Christ’s wounds, and images commissioned by the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century and early fourteenth centuries consistently emphasized Francis’ dedication to Christ’s Passion.” (see Thompson 2004. “The Franciscans and the True Cross: The Decoration of the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Croce in Florence”. Gesta, vol 43, No 1:61 – 79.) In particular, she notes that “while the early apse program [of the history of the True Cross, painted by Cimabue and Ugolino da Siena] proclaims the centrality of the cross and of Christ’s Passion to Franciscan worship, Francis’ role as the Alter Christus, and Francis’ place in the history of human salvation, Gaddi’s frescoes of the True Cross celebrate the potency of the relic.” In other words, the positioning and narrative discourse conveyed by the frescoes to the viewer gathers together several associations at once: Christ, the Holy Cross, Christ’s passion, Francis’ sharing in that Passion, and the prophetic-eschataological role of Elijah the Prophet (which I will not discuss here). Thompson further argues that “The relic of the True Cross that rested on the Franciscan altar in Santa Croce was not just a symbol of Christ’s suffering. Within a Bonaventuran frame, it referred to the stigmata with which God marked Francis at La Verna,” and, as she argues, with the eschatological view in which all people will be marked by the Cross in Paradise.

Among the Franciscan saints portrayed in Sta Croce, two are particularly associated with the Crusades: Gerardo of Villamagna, who was first a Knight of Jerusalem and later a hermit of the third order of Franciscans; and Pietro da Siena. Both of whom “took on Francis’ charge in the rule of 1221 to go and preach among and, with luck, convert the Saracens in order to attain martyrdom. While Pietro died for his beliefs in the style of an early Christian martyr like Minias, Gerardo … lived [his life] in imitation of Francis and Christ; they were made like Christ not through physical martyrdom, but through the enkindling of their souls” {Thompson 2004:73). The association of Francis’ vision is thus further tied to Crusading and missionary work, as well as to the simple devotion of hermits who remained at home, devoted to poverty and ministering to those in need locally.

As already mentioned, the earlier churches of Arrezo and montegiorgio contain scenes from Jacob of Voraigne’s History of the True Cross. Baert notes that the fresco cycles in both Montegiorgio and Arrezo take care to highlight the presence of Constantine I, or both Constantine I and Heraclius, in their associations with the cross. Baert suggests this was due to Franciscan concerns about the unity of Christendom. The fate of Constantinople (if it fell to the Seljuks, for example) was of interest to them.

Especially noteworthy in the Montegiorgio cycle of frescoes on the Cross is the Judas Cyriacos/ Kyriakos legend. While that legend as a whole includes the conversion of the Jew as one trope, it is another aspect of the written (not frescoed) story which may be the origin of Francis’ Seraph of the Stigmata. In particular, the Judas Kyriakos narrative contained in the devotional text The Invention of the Cross, a text which survives in several languages, offers not only a narrative which circulated in both the Byzantine Commonwealth and the Latin Kingdoms of East and West, but it also contains a small detail which easily elides with the particulars of Francis’ reception of stigmata around Sept 14 on Mt Alverno. (The narrative was eventually codified in the West in Jacob de Voraigne’s Golden Legend; ‘Invention’ in this case means something like ‘Finding’ or ‘Discovery’ by St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.)

Unlike other accounts of the finding of the Cross, in the Judas Kyriakos legend, the focus is on the Cross, more than on St Helena. However, it is the presence of a Seraph in the Judas Kyriakos legend and in the account of Francis’ stigmata contained in Thomas of Celano which seems curious. In the Judas Kyriakos legend, Judas capitulates to Helena’s request to show her the hiding place of the True Cross. “On the eight day Judas gives in and shows Helena the place where Christ was crucified. Praying in Hebrew he asks God for a sign. He calls God a creator, the maker of the Cherubim, who serve Him, and the Seraphim who guard the Tree of Life at the centre of Paradise” (Baert 2004:44). The Tree of Life is not just at the centre of the garden; it is also the Cross. The Seraphim thus are also guardians of the Cross. Together with icons of ministering angels holding the instruments of the Passion (as appear in the Virgin Eleousa icons, or Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the West), angels come to be associated with Christ’s crucifixion. It seems a curious coincidence to then have a Seraph, specifically, a crucified man with six wings, appear to Francis during the vision after which he developed stigmata. To my knowledge, none of the medieval writers, and no frescoes make this parallel; my conclusion, then, is that to the Christians of the time, the vision was more important for other reasons — its association with Seraphim burning with love, for example — than with any specific attempt to identify the Seraph of the Passion with the Seraphim who guard the Tree of Life in the Judas Kyriakos legend.

Summary of Section

In this section, I asked the principal question, ‘Why were Francis’ stigmata understood as proof of his conformation to Christ — in the West — and why were such marks absent in Byzantium’s holy men and women? Taking as a starting point the association of Francis’ stigmata with the Cross (his stigmata were received on or around Sept 14), and the idea that they confirmed conformation to Christ, I examined devotion to the Passion in the Byzantine Commonwealth and the Latin Kingdoms, with an eye to also looking at how evidence of conformation to Christ was evidenced in both geopolitical worldviews.

I argued that Byzantium had a devotion to the Passion, and like the devotion to the Passion in the West, was associated with the Eucharist, or specifically, the Eucharistic liturgy. I concluded that while both Byzantium and the Latin Kingdoms of East and West had a common devotion to the Cross, Passion, and Eucharist, these three elements had different associated ideas in each rite. For the Byzantines, the Passion and Eucharist are associated with icons, so necessary for the public liturgy and accessible to private devotion; emotive liturgical hymns focused on the relationship of Mary and Christ. The Passion is also associated with relics. Both relics and icons are associated with sainthood. In the Latin Rite(s), The Passion and Eucharist are associated with the wounds of Christ, and the motivating impulse of the Word towards humanity, namely, Love. Both the wounds and Love are tied together with commentaries on the Song of Songs, which is itself associated with the Troubadour tradition of literature at the time. Finally, the Cross is associated with fealty and the Crusades, as well as with the Body which hung on it and is received in the Eucharist. Crusaders, as I showed in sermon extracts, could be aroused to fight through devotion to Christ’s love.

Clearly, when how Francis was portrayed in both the popular art and elite hagiography of the Latin West in the century after his death is taken into account, Francis ‘fits’ into the Latin network of associations much more easily than he does the Byzantine. Francis’s love and devotion to Christ, Francis’ association with the Crusades, Francis’ own poetical compositions, and Francis’ stigmata all combine to draw together those previously constructed associations of ‘nodes’ in the Latin spiritual tradition(s). Writers and speculative theologians expanded upon those associations, forming a cosmology into which Francis could fit, and including the choirs of angels and transformation in Christ. Francis does not fit into a rite whose liturgical foci centred around Stavrotheotokia hymns, iconoclasm, and material relics of the historical Passion. This does not mean that Francis could not fit into such a scheme today; merely that it disrupts the ‘symmetry’ in place at the time.

Francis’ stigmata would not have been understood in Byzantium unless framed in terms of post-iconoclastic rhetoric. For Byzantines, the understanding of transformation was couched in social terms related to becoming an icon, either in the sense of leaving behind relics, or in the sense of having an icon painted afterwards. Francis could potentially have been understood in Byzantium as a ‘living icon’, had commentators framed their presentation in terms of iconographia rather than imitatio, conformatio, or participatio. Yet one could argue that the presence of theological positions rooted in opposition to written icons (i.e. ongoing iconoclasm in Anatolia) would mitigate against any orthodox argument that humans could be or become living or true icons as well. That is, if a person could become a living icon, of what use are written icons? It is because a person has become a divinised being that the icon takes its purpose and ‘power’ (if we are to use such terms), not the other way around.

Additionally, later Byzantine theological rhetoric (rhetoric in the sense of literary or textual evidence using particular lines of argumentation and imagery) regarding transformation into Christ focused on Tabor or post-Resurrection events. This emphasis, traceable in origin to the eleventh century, lead not only to the later Hesychast emphasis on the uncreated light, but more immediately for determining holiness, on the presence of post-mortem relics. Living persons were too ‘unstable’ to be certain of their holiness. The age of living saints, as present in the Isaurian and Heraclian dyansties, was giving way to a different conception of ‘the Holy Man’ during the Comnenian and subsequent periods. (For people unfamiliar with Orthodox spirituality and relics, I would refer to the nineteenth century correlate of what I am describing in Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov, particularly the chapters surrounding the death of Father Zosima).

I don’t think a strong argument could be made that perhaps Byzantine spirituality was not as bodily-centred as Latin-rite spirituality. Symeon the New Theologian and his life certainly present evidence against that view, as do the later very physical descriptions of Hesychastic meditation and meditative techniques.

Both Byzantium and the Latin kingdoms faced a loss in their access to the materiality of the Passion. For Byzantium, the loss came through theft of the relics gathered by the Imperial family during the Latin occupation of Constantinople in the thirteenth century. Devotion to these relics continued in the subsequent Paliaologan and Romanov dynasties, but through the medium of icons which made those relics present to the devout. For the Latin countries, the loss of their Eastern kingdoms cut off access to the sites of the Passion, and solace was taken in devotions which had already begun to make their appearance during the Crusading period for people who could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during that time. Although relics of the Passion were housed in locations as various as Saint-Chapelle in Paris, various churches in Rome and Venice, and chapels in the Holy Roman Empire, it was the private devotion afforded by the Stations of the Cross, the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Wounds of Christ Crucified which kept the sites and events of the Passion in the hearts of the devout. Those reminders stirred the devout to remember the power of love, without thereby detracting from the experience of the Resurrected Christ, who was present in the Eucharistic elements as both Love-wounded and Love-stronger-than-death.

Keeping in mind these two sets of comparison, the larger Latin tradition of naming something ‘stigmata’ and the liturgically influenced Byzantine spirituality of the Cross, a comparison of the Latin ‘ecology’ of religious symbols in the twelfth and early thirteenth century with roughly contemporary Byzantine devotional forms (themselves undergoing changes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries) has demonstrated how they symbolic associations of Francis stigmata ‘fit’ a Latin context, but would not have been clearly understood in the Byzantine Commonwealth under the Comneni.

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

Discussion of Allied Questions:  Why Stigmata?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation Techniques: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 3)

Analysis of the Various Accounts

This post continues from where two previous ones left off. In the first part, I described the problem, namely, that misinformation and polemic based on a lack of scholarship is polluting Orthodox publications in the United States, and I specifically mentioned the example of a question in the Orthodox Word regarding the stigmatist Padre Pio. In the second post, I presented two much earlier accounts of the Life of St Francis, both of which had official sanction by the Latin Church and the Franciscan Order, in contrast to the late source which the author of the Orthodox Word article used. The earlier accounts were written by Thomas of Celano and St Bonaventure; the other early account, by Julien of Speyer, was not treated. The version referenced by the Orthodox Word author was the Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St Francis. In this post, I hope to explore some issues raised in the differing presentations by Thomas and Bonaventure. Those issues include the varying purposes with which the various hagiographies were written; an exploration on holiness in context;the allied questions of why a seraph? and why stigmata? I also hope to note how Francis became a node uniting several medieval devotions, and allowed the presentation of an alternative masculinity or way of imitating Christ’s life, in counterpoint to the masculinities promoted during the era of knights and Crusaders.


A comparison of the different accounts is really a discussion about how Bonaventure and later sources use the earlier vitae by Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. What changes did they make, or more specifically, what changes in interpretation of the events did they make? Why did they make those changes? What are the implications for or about medieval Italian spirituality, both ecclesial and popular, that such changes point out? Ideally, one might look at the dissemination of various vitae throughout Europe and from that distribution deduce which were most influential in ‘Catholic’ Europe — or which versions were most attractive to copyists.

As noted in the second post, Thomas’ account was requested by the Pope, and acted for a time as the ‘official’ account. Thomas’ version of events came to be superseded by Bonaventure’s work, written both with an eye to tying Francis’ life to a systematic exposition of theology, including contemplative theology, and to wresting away what were considered distortions of Francis’ example among the various factions within the Franciscan order. The Fioretti, on which the author of the Orthodox Word article based his argument, was a popular work, written with a different audience in mind than either Thomas’ or Bonaventure’s accounts. As works written for a lay audience, the stories contained in the Fioretti were by nature more colourful and memorable versions of the official biographical and hagiographical treatments commissioned by the heads of the Franciscan order and the Pope. The goal of popular accounts was to influence the affect of the listener (these works would have been recited to illiterate audiences, rather than read by private readers, in many cases). That is, the work was designed to heighten feelings of devotion and wonder, usually towards the person in question, but occasionally to imitation of those actions. The official works by Thomas and Bonaventure, on the other hand, were written for study and theological elaboration. Bonaventure’s Life of Francis is clearly a theologically contemplative account; the Fioretti much more a ‘best-selling’ and ‘fashionable’ one. Both are literary, in their way; but their audiences differ and the reliability of each as reflective of historical accuracy, to say nothing of a theological position adopted and approved by the Church, differs and must be acknowledged.

While this may seem to raise the question of the relation and disjunctions between ‘official’ hagiography and ‘popular’ religious devotion, with its attendant implication that the ‘people’ may not be entirely orthodox, or in some other cases even entirely Christian, misses the point: Thomas and Bonaventure’s accounts are to be preferred in Orthodox discussions about Francis’ life, the former for the earliness of his account; the second for the theological use to which Francis was put — it is the ‘official’ account acceptable to Latin theologians for the purpose of theological argument. The Fioretti can be called upon for evidence of popular devotion, for examples of how Francis was remembered — or constructed — in popular imagination, or as an example of how the literary tradition was passed and shaped by many different hands. How elite and popular theology intersect in the making of saints is a question that would take all these accounts and examine them in the context of social and liturgical-devotional history. Religion may well yoke together both elite theology and popular spirituality (or popular theology and elite spirituality) and strive to reign them in like a charioteer pulled by two very spirited and often competitive horses; in our case, the yoke was provided by the person of Francis. Some intersections between popular and elite religion may be mentioned below, but the issue as such deserves its own post.

All the texts do agree that Francis was marked with the stigmata sometime between August 15 and September 30, during the Fast of St Michael which Francis celebrated, as was his custom, on Mt Alverna in 1224 although Bonaventure links the vision more specifically to the Feast of the Cross on September 14. Bonaventure and Thomas disagree, however, in how the Seraph came to appear to Francis. For Thomas, Francis simply sees a vision of a Seraph standing over him. The vision provokes wonder, which fits the overall contemplative context of Francis retreat on Mt Alverna. Later, Francis exerts his faculty of reason (Thomas uses the words understanding, and mentions the heart, which is often the seat of understanding in Medieval texts) to penetrate the meaning of the vision. Thomas is actually quite clear that the goal of Francis’ meditation was the meaning of the vision. As Thomas writes in chapter three, “he could not understand what this vision might mean… He pondered at what this vision might portend… his spirit laboured sore to come at the understanding… and while he continued without any clear perception of its meaning.” It was as he meditated — using the faculty of reason — that marks of the stigmata began to appear.

In Bonaventure’s text (chapter thirteen), the contemplative context is even more explicitly mentioned, Francis experiencing more fully the gifts of divine grace and desire for heavenly things. As Bonaventure states, “[Francis] experienced more abundantly than usual an overflow of the sweetness of heavenly contemplation.” In his account, the seraph appears and descends, and Francis experiences wonder. As the vision continues, Francis contemplates its meaning. Whether this search for the meaning of the vision could be termed contemplation or meditation is open to debate. Bonaventure specifically refers to the vision, however, as a ‘revelation from the Lord’, which in thirteenth century parlance would indicate a matter of contemplation. (A good teacher, Bonaventure offers an interpretation; whether this interpretation was told by the Seraph to Francis, or by Francis to his companions is not noted by Bonaventure.) Interestingly, the combination of wonder and understanding by revelation, both seem to have occurred before the vision faded. Nothing in the vision recorded in Bonaventure’s text implies that Francis would experience Christ crucified in his body; rather, the text previously mentions Francis’ desire for martyrdom (perhaps through preaching in the Muslim world, as was his desire earlier in life). In the sentence at hand, when the fact that Francis would not achieve this transformation through martyrdom is clarified, the implication for Francis’ transformation is associated directly with Francis’ incendium mentis, his ‘noetic fire’, indicating a more clearly spiritual transformation, even if Bonaventure avowed a ‘total’ transformation into the likeness of Christ. The appearance of the stigmata happened as the vision disappeared, after it spoke with Francis and the revelation of transformation was made clear to Francis.

The differences in the two accounts are important. While in neither case was Francis visualising and working himself up into delusional hysterics before the vision of the Seraph appeared, as the version in the Fioretti might (and in the case of the Orthodox Word author, did) lead one to believe, Thomas does clearly indicate Francis was working to understand the meaning of the vision. Francis clearly believed, in Thomas’ account, that the vision was meant to foreshadow something as yet hidden, and the faculty of reason thus needed to be called upon to untangle that meaning. While Francis’ focused thought on the vision might seem to support the argument of the Orthodox Word article in that Francis dwelt excessively on the vision and that mental excess therefore gave rise to the bodily sign of stigmata, two observations mitigate against this support. First, we have no indication that Francis believed he was to embody the vision. Second, we must understand what the authors (and Bonaventure also notes mean when they refer to meditation, contemplation, and mere cogitation. To tease apart what was going on in Francis’ meditation and contemplation, we should digress a moment to look at the varieties of mind-exercises (and prayer) common in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, among trained theologians the terms ‘contemplation’, ‘meditation’, and ‘thinking’ had specific and shared meanings. While the specifics of each term might carry different nuances depending on the author and the author’s purposes, all agreed the three differed. I would hesitate to call them collectively ‘modes of thought’, ‘modes of consciousness’, or ‘methods of (directed) attention’ for reasons sketched below. Regardless, all require perception by consciousness.

While a full exposition of the techniques used in mediation and contemplation will have to await another post, we can nonetheless turn to one representative theologian of the late twelfth century whose influence was widespread in both Northern and Southern Europe, and particularly palpable in St Bonaventure’s writings. That theologian is Richard of St Victor, so called after the abbey in Paris of which he was Prior from about 1162 until his death in 1173. (The abbey of St Victor was one of the cathedral schools which ultimately gave rise to the University of Paris.) While one cannot say the Victorine ‘school’ of spirituality necessarily influenced Francis, it will be useful to keep the definitions used by them, and their particular manner of life, in mind as illustrative of the general currents of spirituality during Francis’ life. As already alluded to, Richard is also an important figure to examine because of the clear debt several of Bonaventure’s writings owe to him. This debt can be seen in Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ life and even more so in his use Journey of the Mind to God, which makes use of the Seraph who appeared to Francis as a meditative device, the meditation ultimately leading to Christ on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant. (The theme of the Ark mirrors Richard’s use of the same furnishings in his Benjamin Major, also called the De Arca Mystica.)

While it is true that the Franciscans were invested in promoting certain forms of spirituality over others, particularly vis-a-vis the Dominicans, they nonetheless maintained much of the conceptual framework, if not also the methods, the Victorines had established. As one Victorine scholar as commented, Richard “defined the forms and categories which in respect of the highest mystical states were accepted by the writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. His fifth and sixth degrees and modes correspond roughly to what later was called ‘infused contemplation and full union’.” [Kirchberger 1957:64] Thus, at the very least, we can argue that the ideas regarding meditation and contemplation as developed by the School of St Victor furnish the context in which Francis’ method of prayer was understood and expounded upon by Francis’ contemporaries and by his successors.

In the Benjamin Major, Richarddivides conscious perception into categories of thinking, meditation, and contemplation. Briefly, contemplation associated with wonder; meditation with discursive reasoning. As Richard writes, thinking is ‘the careless glance of the soul prone to restless wandering.’ [Ben Major I.iv]. The faculty of thought ‘arises from the imagination.’ [ibid I.iii]

Meditation, on the other hand, is ‘an industrious attention of the mind concentrated diligently upon the investigation of some object’ or ‘the careful look of the soul zealously occupied in the search of truth.’ It is ‘always intent, however laborious the effort and notwithstanding difficulties of the mind, to grasp hard things, to break through obstacles and penetrate hidden things.’ Meditation ‘always tends to its final object, proceeding deliberately.’ Once the mind becomes occupied with teasing out the knowledge of something in particular, and concentrates its energies on that, then ‘thought passes over into meditation.’ [Ben Major I.iv] Meditation arises not from the imagination, but from reason [ibid I.iii].

Contemplation, however, is ‘a free and clear vision of the mind fixed upon the manifestation of wisdom in suspended wonder’ and ‘the clear and free glance of the soul bearing intently upon objects of perception, to its furtherest limits.’ Meditation passes into contemplation ‘when a truth has been long sought, and is at last discovered, [and] the mind … receives it greedily, wonders at it with exultation and for a long time rests therein in wonder… For it is the property of contemplation to adhere with wonder to the object which brings it joy.’ [Ben Maj I.iv] In contrast to the imaginative wellsprings of thinking, or the reasoning faculty of meditation, contemplation arises ‘from the intelligence’ [ibid I.iii]. Nevertheless, Richard notes, contemplation can embrace the use of the powers of imagination or reason, because it uses the highest of the three faculties, intelligence. ‘But in a special and strict sense, contemplation is so called when it treats of sublime things where the soul makes use of the pure intelligence.’

Richard goes on to say that contemplation does not operate in one way uniformly, and the rest of his work treats the varieties of contemplation discussed by the theologians of twelfth century Paris. In Book V of the Benjamin Major, Richard goes on to stress that contemplation can occur by divine grace, by effort added to by grace, and also through the teaching of others. Later, Richard associates various types of contemplation with the wings of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. [See Benjamin Major IV.1, V.3; Of the Four Degrees of Passionate Charity; and De Exterminatione Mali II.xv and III.xviii.] A detailed examination of his analysis, as well as the relation of meditation and contemplation to prayer, cannot be presented here, but it is important to note that Richard also associates contemplation with transfiguration and transformation in the Beloved, a theme which will be taken up again when we look at the death of Francis.

“St Bonaventure appreciated and used [Richard’s] whole scheme of the relationship between the imagination, the reason and the intelligence in the work of contemplation.” [Kirchberger 1957:74] As such, Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ vision is clearly tailored to an understanding of these three divisions. We can either treat Bonaventure’s narrative as an authentic presentation of Francis’ manner of attention, or we can dismiss it as mere assumption. If we dismiss it, then we are left with Thomas of Celano’s version of events, which may or may not have been shaped by Richard’s categories of thought. Reading Thomas in light of Richard, however, it seems clear how Bonaventure could interpret Thomas’ use of the words ‘understanding’ and the emphasis on directed attention as a description of meditation; likewise, the use of the word ‘wonder’ would point to moments of contemplation.

If we accept both accounts as valid, and if, in a word, thinking regards, meditation examines, and contemplation wonders, what was Francis doing? By the evidence of both accounts, Francis was engaged in contemplation first; what heights were reached are a matter of interpretation. (Even if the Fioretti‘s account were acceptable, Francis is portrayed before the vision as focused on one thought, namely, how to imitate Christ best, which is meditation by definition: attention on the investigation of one object.) Following the appearance of the Seraph — and the type of Angel is significant in the Medieval context — Francis can be interpreted as either meditating, or using the faculty of reason in the midst of contemplation, since contemplation can encompass the lower degrees. (Richard says nothing about the mutual exclusivity of meditation and contemplation.) The topic of meditation in the midst of the vision was specified in our sources: what did the Seraph of the Crucifixion portend? Why was the Seraph both immaterial and passible (i.e. suffering)?

Having looked at the similarities and differences in Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure, we then turned to a brief examination of how thinking, meditation, and contemplation were understood by Francis’ contemporaries. Although we did not on how methods of prayer intersected with methods of meditation, we did demonstrate that the source texts suggest Francis was engaged specifically in meditation or contemplation. Meditation, as we mentioned earlier, is associated with deliberate reasoning, while contemplation hovers and rests in wonder, taking in swaths of intelligible things with its vision. Neither are characteristic of hysterical delusional activity, however much the description of a meditative topic might be elaborated in very sensorily-oriented terminology. The actual topic of the vision itself — the Seraph — and the manifestation of Francis’ transformation as a result of his contemplative activity — the Stigmata — have yet to be contextualised, both in terms of Francis’ own time as well as in terms of questions an Orthodox Christian might raise about these two images. An examination of how Francis’ vision was interpreted and its meaning integrated into the theological world vision of his hagiographers will therefore be taken up in the next section.

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.


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.

Hell and All Hallows

I actually wrote this in 1999, and thought it was worth a posting. It was prompted by a sermon delivered in an Orthodox church the Sunday before Hallowe’en — which is not celebrated among the Orthodox since the Byzantine liturgical calendar places All Saint’s Day within Whitsuntide.

Originally, among the Nordic countries, the underworld was ruled by a goddess (who I think later changed genders and became a god) named Hel. The place she ruled was called Hell. It is much the same concept as Hades (the god) and Hades (the underworld). While it can be argued that hell was not Valhalla, where the heroes who died in battle went, neither can this original ‘hell’ be compared to gehenna, the place of torment most modern English speakers think of when they say “hell.”

With regard to Hallowe’en, it is a much more ancient feast than all saint’s day. For this, I will mention two pieces of information.

First, Hallowe’en had its origin, really, in the Celtic countries, although a version of this festival was celebrated in both Teutonic and Slavic places. Initially, Hallowe’en, or Samhain, was a celebration of the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter, and the end of summer (in that only two seasons existed: summer and winter). In addition, this festival marks the halfway point between the equinox and the solstice. it was a fire festival and the cornstalks (i.e. wheat chaff, dead vines, etc) would be burned in the fields, which of course, added nitrogen to the soil and aided in the next year’s growth.

Of course, the Celts weren’t simply a people who celebrated the very mundane acts of harvest, and so this festival also had several religious connotations, which are analogously found in Slavic and Teutonic myth, although in this regard i am more familiar with the Slavic tradition. in this North European mythology, time was governed by a god of light and a god of dark — *not* good and evil but simply a god who ruled the dark half of the year, represented by the Celts as the Holly King, and one (the Oak King) to rule the light half of the year, which lasted from May 1 to Oct 31. Yule, or December 21, was the birth of the light god; February 2 was the first manifestation of the light god’s power; May 1 celebrated the victory of the Oak King over the god of dark, and June 23 celebrated the rebirth of the god of dark, as the days began to shorten once again. October 31 marks the victory of the dark god over the light god. thus the people of northern Europe also celebrated a religious holiday on this day.

The dark god and light god took different names and forms over the centuries, and even characters found in Arthurian legend still bear traces of the gods they once represented. In time, as Christianity took root, the light god was identified with the Christ, and the dark god with Satan or the devil (or, at time, with St John the Baptist). Traces, however, remain which indicate that some Christians realised the dark god was not a god of evil (since “evil” gods generally don’t exist in pantheon’s which are strictly based on the natural world, where “good” and “evil” don’t exist, only a circle of life, death, and rebirth). Such instances are rare. When they occur, St John the Baptist is identified with the god of darkness; they Holy Spirit might have made a better identification, strictly speaking, if we are going to identify one god with another god. Today, paganism is being revived and Hallowe’en is considered a religious celebration again, as a result of a number of north European neo-pagans marking it with celebrations of their own.

Because of the victory of the god of darkness that occurred at this time of the year, and because the god of the dark was identified with the dead, the unknown, the sea, the forests, and the otherworld of the fairies etc, it was believed that the forces or minions of the dark god’s realm were free to run wild over the earth. (In Slavic countries, and among western Mediterranean countries, this date is June 23, St John’s eve.)

As everyone knows, Christianity had its origin in the Roman Empire. Rome celebrated a month of the dead in November. The Romans would feast in the necropoleis (which were always located outside the city, and in the case of Rome, across the Tiber, where the Vatican stands today). Marriages were not performed in November because it was the month of the dead, and thus inauspicious for marriage and offspring.

when missionaries reached Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornall, and northern Gaul, they desired to substitute a Christian festival for this pagan one, and aware of the two traditions (or not), and knowing that holy people did precede the advent of Christianity, and knowing that it is honourable to pray for those who have died, they established the feast of all Saints on November 1, and the feast of all souls on November 2. all hallow’s Eve, of course, was the night of Oct 31 – Nov 1. In certain times and places, people would dress up as their favourite saints on this night.

Superstition (or prior spiritualities) naturally lingered, with the belief that the spirits of the departed would come to visit, and turnips (at least in the German and Polish countries) were carved with scary faces and lit form inside by candles to warn away the dead, or protect the living. In Germany and several other European countries today, the fire festival aspect is still kept on November 11, St Martin’s Day, when the children will parade through the streets with lanterns, to mark the end of the vendage (pruning the vines), and the beginning of Carnival.

The people of Latin America, being traditionally Latin Catholic, still honour their dead on these three days, and the first three days of November are especially dedicated to commemorating the deceased (as is the entire month of November, still). In addition, November 1 is a holy day of obligation in most Latin Catholic dioceses throughout the world, which means Catholics are strongly encouraged (or told) to attend Divine Liturgy on this day.

Actually, I think both November 1/2 and the first Sunday after Pentecost are quite appropriate for commemorating All Saints. The saints are such because they were transformed, deified in love the by the remarkable and new manner of outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the next commemoration of Christ’s resurrection (i.e. Sunday) following the feast of the Holy Spirit is an ideal time to commemorate those who have been perfected, completed, divinised and transformed by union with the divine energia.

November is, in northern climates, a month of dying vegetation and so it is only natural to think of the dead and the fact that Christ rose from the dead and we are not bound by the old cycle of death and rebirth. Also occurring at this time of the year in Latin tradition (although fairly recent), is the feast of Christ the King, which makes a perfect culmination of meditating on death, judgement, heaven, and hell during November — since Christ will one day return and the dead will be raised on that awesome and glorious day. It is said that St Michael will announce Christ’s coming at this time, and his Byzantine feast falling a week after All Saints and about ten days before the Feast of Christus Rex makes a perfect progression in this season. (St Michael’s Latin feast falls on September 29, when the harvest season really picks up its pace at mid-autumn, a sort of early announcement of the harvest of judgement to come liturgically in November).

The emphasis on sainthood and holiness is different in May and in November. In the former, the action of the the Holy Spirit is emphasised; in the latter, the glory and the necessity of death for the transformation to be effected is the more prominent feature. Both are fruitful for contemplation.

The Lost Sacraments: The Washing of the Feet

Throughout the middle ages, Latin and Byzantine theologians debated the number of sacraments which should be acknowledged.  While the Byzantine East never formally limited their number, preferring to adopt the position that the mysteries by which God makes us holy and by which we enter into the Divine life are innumerable, nevertheless, a certain number of liturgical rites were considered pre-eminent.  During the Counter-Reformation, the Latin West fixed seven sacraments  to be canonical (at least, seven for men, the ordination of female deacons having fallen into disuse even in Milan after Innocent III’s pontificate).

The West did not rid itself of those other, less central rituals, however.  Rather, the Latins christened them as sacramentals (“little sacraments”).  Eventually, their celebration fell into general disuse.

Among the sacraments which did not make the Counter-Reformation cut, the Washing of the Feet (or Pedelavium) is among my favourite.  It remained a part of the Mozarabic Rite among the monasteries of Northern Spain until at least the eleventh century.  There, it was used to greet visitors to the monastery.

I first encountered reference to this ritual in the book, A Saint under Moslem Rule, by Justo Perez de Urbel when I was an undergraduate.  It helped spark an interest in the Mozarabic Rite which has continued until today.

I was recently able to access a copy of the ritual as referenced in that book, and below is my attempt at a translation. The Latin Text is drawn from Gilson’s edition of the Mozarabic Psalter (British Ms 30,851), which is now in the public domain and accessible via Google books.  This manuscript was kept in the monastery of Sto Domingo de Silos, in northern Spain, until the dissolution of its library in the nineteenth century.

In the MS, this rite is preceded by a prayer the cellarer of the monastery is to recite upon receiving guests.  The ritual is followed by the “Order of the Saints” which seems to have usually been recited after Vespers (according to Woolfenden, Daily Prayer in Christian Spain).  Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume with Urbel that this rite was inserted at the end of the Vesperal service when newly arrived guests were present, and before the procession to the reliquary (where the Ordo Sanctis was recited).  The cellerar’s prayer which precedes the Pedelavium bears similarities to the benediction recited at the end of the Mozarabic Vespers service, as does the use of the verse “Deus Deorum Dominus locutus est… a solus ortu usque ad occasum”.

A note on the translation:  The Latin of the text shows the evidence of early medieval pronunciation.  The diphthong ae is often written as e (“eternum”  “prophete”);  “v” and “b” are interchanged, as they still are by Spanish speakers today.  Prepositions are followed by accusatives where in classical Latin ablatives would be used.  Although I have stuck to a perhaps overly-literal translation, the lack of clear grammatical markers has sometimes made exact translation difficult.

In two sections I have completed the text using references from the Mozarabic Sanctorale and Missale Mixtum as contained in Patrologia Latina under the works of Isidore.  These additions or explanations are placed in italics.  It is my hope that this service might once again be practiced more frequently than the annual Holy Thursday ritual (which, incidentally, uses different texts and prayers, even in the Mozarabic Rite, than what is presented here).

Verses for Washing the Feet, according to the Mozarabic Rite

V/: Let us love one another because love is from God and all who love his brother is born from God (is a child of God) and knows God. V/: Hear this all of you, so that we may love. The Lord God of gods has spoken and has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting:  from Zion the appearance of his beauty. (Cf.  Ps. 50 or 84) So that we may love.

R:/ In those days a sinful woman who was in the city who had heard that Jesus was dining in the house of Simon the Leper took an alabaster jar of perfume, standing behind took hold of the feet of the Lord Jesus to moisten his feet with tears and with the hair of her head dried them and kissed them and anointed them with perfume.

Hymn during which the feet are washed (and presumably dried, anointed, and kissed)

As far as the Pharisee
When indignantly he sees
the Author of life
he refuted God saying

To himself, if he had
The spirit of a prophet
He would know instantly
The woman when he is touched!

The knower of hearts
And Lord of heaven
Thus rebuked the Pharisee
with these words

Telling a parable:
To two were
Forgiven their debts
By a creditor

And which of them
Loved him more?
I suppose, he himself says,
the one to whom the greater was given?

The Lord, now, [replied]
You have declared rightly
Thus the sinful woman
That was absolved she will love (the more)

He has loved much
To him who is given much
This much, even more
Any who be freed from evil.

With tears therefore
Let us moisten the footsteps of Christ
with the woman
So that he may wash us

Christ descended
To redeem the world
That he might free
Souls from death

The example has taken hold
Of his disciples
So that they wash the feet
Of one another in turn.

And while surrounded
He drew near Peter
Unfamiliar with this work
He answered the Lord thus:

Never in eternity will you
The teacher of good things
Wash my feet for me!
Not faulting, on the contrary

The teacher said, In fact,
If I do not wash you
You will not arrive at
the eternal kingdom with me.

Peter, remorseful
Thus said to the Master
Not only the feet
But the hands as well and the head.

Only be not deprived
Of your company
Because you have promised
Love to the beloved ones.

Where there is love
And delight
There is the congregation
Of the saints (or holy ones).

There exult
The throng of angels
Singing Alleluia
To the ethereal king

There Seraphim
Pronounce the three “Holies”
The choir of virtues at the same time
Rings with our song.

There be the elect
Constellation of the confessors
The resounding songs caressing
softly their ears.

There exult
the flock of virgins
whose spouse
Christ rejoices in their midst.

There be neither anger
nor indignation
but love established

The landowner spoke to his workers who had stood idly the whole day. But they said to him answering, “It is because no one has hired us.” “Get you into my vineyard and as much as the full measure will have been I will give to you in eternity.”

God is Love and who remains in love remains in God and God in him, Alleluia.

V/: Blessed are they whose way is innocent…
who walk in the law of the Lord.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees, who seek him with all their heart.
And do no wrong but walk in his ways.
You have commanded that your commands be diligently kept.
Oh that I might be firm in the ways of keeping your statutes.
Then should I not be put to shame when I beheld all your commands.
I will give you thanks with an upright heart, when I have learned your just ordinances.
I will keep your statues; do not utterly forsake me.

Prayer: O Lord, just as we seek the blessedness of the innocent, so with our whole heart may we observe your decrees.

Scriptural References:

Ps 50; (Psalm 84 might also make an interesting use, if the dwelling place of God is interpreted as the body; v8 also has the “deus deorum” versicle of the Latin text.)

Lk 7:36-48 (primary); Mt 26:1-13; Mk 14:3-9

John 13:5-20. (Note v.20 for association of this rite with monastic hospitality: “Whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”)

Ps 119, “aleph”

Item Versi Pro Pedes Labandos

V/: Diligamus nos invicem quia karitas ex deo est et omnes qui diligit fratrem suum ex deo natus est et nobit deum. V/: Audite hec omnes. ut diligamus. Deus deorum dominum locutus est:  et vocavit terram, a solis ortu usque ad occasum:  ex Sion species decoris ejus. P: ut diligamus.

R/: In diebus illis mulier qui erat in civitate peccatrix quum audisset quod Ihesus discubuit in domum simonis leprosi obtulit alabastrum ungenti stans retro secus pedes domini Ihesu lacrimis cepit rigare pedes eius et capillis capiti sui tergebat eos et osculabatur et unguebat ungento.


Quod fariseus
ut vidit indignans
auctorem vite
deum redarguit dicens.

Huic si esset
prophete spiritus
protinus sciret
mulierem qua tangitur.

Cognitor cordis
eceli [et caeli?] dominus
sic fariseus [pharisaeum?]
his convicit sermonibus.

parabolum dicens
duobus sibi
devitoribus laxantem.

Et quis eorum
plus eum amaret
quin ipse ayt
cui magis donaberat.

/Dominus autem
vere profiteris
ita peccatrix
quod solveretur amabit.

Multum dilexit
Multum datur ei
tantum ne ultra
aliquod libeat mali.

Lacrimis ergo
Christi vestigia
cum mulierem
rigemus ut nos abluat.

Christus descendit
mundum redimere
ut liberaret
a morte animas.

Exemplum prebuit
suis disciplulis
ut sibi inuicem
pedes abluerent.

Dumque precinctus
pervenit ad Petrum
ignarus facti
ita respondit domino.

Numquid tu mici
pedes in eternum
preceptor bone
lavabis ymmo inmerito.

Revera inquid
si te non labero
eternum regnum
tu non consequeris mecum.

Conpunctus Petrus
sic ayt magistro
non tantum pedes
sed manus simul et capud.

Tantum ne frauder
tui consortio
quod promisisti
karitatem amantibus.

Ubi est karitas
et dilectio
ibi sanctorum
est congregatio.

Ibi exultat
turma angelorum
regi cantantes
alleluia ethereos.

Ybi ter sanctus
serafin depromit
virtutes/ simul
resonant canticum nobum.

Ibi electus
Cetus confessorum
aures demulcent
suabes resonantes melos.

Ybi exultat
agmina virginum
quarum sponsus
gaudet in medio Christus.

Ibi nec ira
nec indignatio
sed firma karitas
in perpetuum.

Dixit paterfamilias operariis suis quid hic statis tota die otiosi. at illi respondentes dixerunt quia nemo nos conduxit. ite et vos in vinea mea et quot iustus fuerit dabo vobis in eternum.

Deus karitas est et qui manet in karitate in deo manet et deus in eo alleluia.

V/: Beati inmaculati.

[Antiphona: Tu mandasti mandata tua domine custodire nimis.

Beati inmaculati in via, qui ambulant in lege domini.
Beati qui prescrutantur testimonia ejus in tota corde suo exquirunt eum.
Non enim qui operantur iniquitatem inuiis eius ambulaberunt.
Tu mandasti mandata tua domine, custodire nimis.
Utinam dirigantur vie mee ad custodiendas iustificationes tuas.
Tunc non confundar dum respicio in omnia mandata tua.
Confitebor tibi domine in directione cordis mei in eo quod didici iudicia iustitie tue.
/Iustificationes tuas custodiam, non me derelinquas usquequaque.

Oratio: Domine ut beatitudinem inmaculatorum consequamur, tribue ut in toto corde mandata tua prescrutemur.  Amen ]

Intro to North African Patristics

The North African Church gave Latin Christianity some of its most influential writers during the late antique period.  The most famous of these writers is Augustine of Hippo.  After his death in 432, the North African church falls into obscurity, harassed by Vandal overlords.

This at least, is the perspective of modern writers.  For the early medieval Christian, however, North Africa continued to produce prolific and influential writers such as  Fulgentius of Ruspe and Victor of Vite.  Eventually, the province was reincorporated into the Roman Empire by Justinian’s general Belisarius, and its bishops were able to participate in the great debates shaping theology in the East during the three chapters controversy.  It is from this province that the Heraclian dynasty, which recaptured Syria and Palestine from Persia, originated.  During their rule, several writers later revered by Byzantine Christianity were exiled to North Africa for a time, among them Maximos the Confessor and Sophronios of Jerusalem.  Sophronios eventually gave the keys of Jerusalem over to Muslim conquerors, and in a few short years, the Muslim empire encompassed North Africa to the Atlantic ocean.  After this time, our information on North African Christianity becomes scant.  Those who were able emigrated to Sicily and Sardinia, Southern Gaul, and Spain.

Spain, in fact, becomes the primary heir of the spirit of North African Christianity.  Although writers in Southern Gaul fought over the merits of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinian predestination, it was Spanish writers who refused to be drawn into such particularised debates.  They managed to keep the theology of the province in a more or less balanced fashion.

Because my interest lays in the theology of the Visigothic and Mozarabic Spaniards, a passing knowledge of the themes taken up by the North African fathers is helpful.  One current of thought which may have passed to Toledo from Carthage concerns the matter of the Filioque clause (although this is more likely to have come from Africa via Southern Gaul); another concerns the unity of the Body of Christ with the Word.  With this in mind, then, we can focus our chronological examination of North African writers, and survey their positions regarding the relationship of individual, church and Trinity, particularly as this relates to communion or the achievement of unity between them.  How is the individual incorporated into the Church?  How are the individual churches of Africa, Rome, Asia to be considered one?  What secures their unity?  How are the persons of the Trinity One God?

Although i do not attempt a synthesis of a single North African school of thought on these issues, I can point to certain recurring themes.  The role of the Holy Spirit in effecting the communion of the individual with God and in vivifying the Church is paramount.  The Holy Spirit is also responsible for providing god’s gift of grace to the individual through the Church, and in so doing incorporates the believer into the Church.  Chief among these gifts is charity, and it is charity, safeguarded by the bond of peace, which allows the various local Churches to enter into communion with one another.  The Holy Spirit is also allowed to act in the world as a result of the charity manifested by the church in her individual members.  On these topics, a broad consensus exists between all North African Fathers, and through them these ideas percolate to the rest of the Latin speaking Christian world.

This is not to say these ideas are uniquely North African.  Because the writers constantly refer to writings which tradition had handed down to them, most of which became Scripture to us, the themes and images they take up are shared by other Christians both inside the Empire and outside it (in Persia, Armenia, and Ethiopia, for example).  However, their manner of synthesis remained influential on Western writers until the Central Middle Ages.

The place of the Holy Spirit within Trinitarian life, however, is more complex.  It is this vexing question which still occupies theologians concerned with the divergence between Eastern and Western approaches to Trinitarian theology.  In some times, all blame has come down on Augustine for misleading Latins into their Filioquian ideology.  Yet we must keep in mind that Augustine was not novel in his claims, and he partook of a tradition which existed already, both in his province of Africa, and in Southern Gaul.

In taking up the question, we must confront a certain ambiguity.  The term “Spirit” can refer either to the entire Godhead, or to the third person of that Godhead.  This is especially true in the case of earlier writers.  By the time of Augustine, it seems an analogy is drawn between the mission which the Holy Spirit fulfills in the Church and in the individual soul on the one hand, with the function of the Paraclete within the Divine Life itself.

Subsequent to Augustine, the implications of this analogy are traced out into a unified movement from God the Father to the individual:  The Holy Spirit, as the gift of the Father to the Son, is sent by Jesus to the Church, in order to enliven the Church by the provision of grace, which is itself a divine thing, and by which that love with which we love God is poured into the heart of the individual Christian.  The Spanish Church Fathers will take up the question of the movement of the Holy Spirit from the Word to the Body of Christ more fully.

Finally, as the twilight of Christian North Africa approaches, Maximos the Confessor relates this development to the image of the Church as the body of Christ, who is now defined as possessing two energia, human and divine.  This contrasts with the Spanish approach of the Church as body of Christ because she is the bride of Christ, and a bride bonded by a bond of love, manifested by peace within the Church.  The two approaches are not irreconcilable, as the later Eastern development and incorporation of Maximos’ thought into the doctrine of theosis reveals.

Such then, are the broad outlines I have been able to distill from the writers we will present in subsequent posts.  The manner in which the Church Fathers “did” theology was holisitic.  theology was one indivisible whole, oriented towards the communion of God and humanity via the medium of Divine revelation.  (Peter Brown makes a nice case of this shift in emphasis from philosophical dialectic to revelation in his essay on The World of Late Antiquity, Chapter 2, section iv).  The theologians of the ancient world were aware of this, so that even in works which would appear to fall into a neat category (e.g. “On the Holy Spirit”), we find very clear connexions to other fields of (modern) theology, such as ecclesiology.

I have tried to parse out these themes into the three broad topics I mentioned at the outset, namely Trinity, Church, and Individual, without doing too much violence to the integrity or coherence of the author’s thought.  the order in which I examine these topics, however, varies from author to author, depending on the priorities which concern him during his tenure or lifetime.