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 Thomas’ version of events came to be superseded by Bonaventure’s work, written both with an eye to tying Francis’ life to a systematic exposition of theology, including contemplative theology, and to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.