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

Discussion of Allied Questions


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

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

Why a Seraph?

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

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

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

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

The problem of the Seraph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.