A Seraph with six fiery and shining wings are the key words that
St. Bonaventure used in describing the scene on Mount La Verna where St. Francis received
the stigmata. (See
part I.) Seraphs, you may recall, are those angels we think of as closest to God, who
burn with love as they bow before the most high God, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy!” Their
fiery wings, as depicted by Bonaventure, suggest the flaming intensity of God’s love,
which the Crucified Christ transmits into the heart and body of Francis. It is this burning
love of God that sets Francis’ own heart on fire. Then, Francis, in return, generously
gives back to Christ a similar kind of burning love.
It all starts with the fiery love of God, who “did not spare his
only Son,” as St. Paul put it, “but handed him over for us all” (Rom
8:32). And Christ embodied that same kind of fiery love found in God the Father, which
Christ poured out upon Francis on Mount La Verna. We know, as John the Evangelist knew,
that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s
friends” (Jn 15:13). The word seraphic is often used to describe Francis’ passionate
style of relating to God, and this style of love is often applied to the whole Franciscan
Order, which is also called the Seraphic Order. The whole process, however, begins with
the fiery seraph that symbolizes God’s passionate (burning) style of love for Francis,
which Francis himself imitates.
St. Bonaventure is sometimes referred to as the seraphic doctor because
in his writing he often describes the love relationship between God and Francis with images
of fire and flames. In his Life of St. Francis, Bonaventure turns to these kinds
of fiery images when he describes Francis’ style of prayer in those days before he
received the stigmata. Bonaventure writes that “[Francis] was led apart by divine
providence to a high place, which is called Mount La Verna.” And once Francis was
at La Verna he “burned with a stronger flame of heavenly desires…. His unquenchable
fire of love for the good Jesus had been fanned into such a blaze of flames that many
waters could not quench so powerful a love” (Song of Songs 8:6-7).
Not long before St. Bonaventure wrote his Life of St. Francis,
he had written The Soul’s Journey Into God, a spiritual treatise on the human
being’s journey into the heart of God. In this mystical work, Bonaventure shows that
deepening one’s union with God is more a matter of burning affection than of intelligence
alone. Bonaventure wrote this book while he was Minister General of the Franciscan Order
and while making a retreat on Mount La Verna some 33 years after the death of St. Francis.
In the prologue of The Soul’s Journey Into God, Bonaventure called to mind “the
miracle which had occurred to Francis in this very place: the vision of a winged Seraph
in the form of the Crucified.” Let’s look again at the painting of Francis
receiving the stigmata that we used in Part I.
|This painting is located at Mount La Verna near
the Stigmata Chapel. (Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
Although the painting lacks the fiery quality of Bonaventure’s
actual words, the other details are quite accurate. To be fair to Bonaventure’s actual
words, however, we need to use our imagination and put a little more fire into the seraph’s
“There is no other path,” writes Bonaventure, “but
through the burning love of the Crucified, a love which so transformed St. Paul into Christ
when he was carried up to the Third Heaven (2 Cor 12:2) that he could say: ‘With
Christ I am nailed to the Cross. I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 20). This
love also so absorbed the soul of Francis that his Spirit shown through his flesh when
two years before his death he carried in his body the sacred stigmata of the passion.” Bonaventure
stresses that Francis style of prayer is marked more by “unction,” “devotion” and “affection” of
the heart than by any greatness of the “intellect.”
“But if you wish to know how these things come about,” concludes
Bonaventure, “ask [from Christ] grace, not instruction, desire not understanding,
the groaning of prayer not diligent reading, the Spouse not the teacher…not light
but the fire that totally inflames and carries us into God, whose furnace is in Jerusalem (Is
31:9), and Christ enkindles it in the heat of his burning passion….”
St. Padre Pio (born in 1887) was a Capuchin priest and a mystic who bore
the stigmata from 1910 until his death in 1968. Like St. Francis, he was a native of Italy.
Though many believed Padre Pio was a living saint, he was much maligned during a large
part of his life by envious priests, by certain members of his own community and by top
officials of the Roman Catholic Church. He suffered greatly but complained little. In the
end, he was vindicated by history and by the canonization process which ultimately declared
him a saint in 2002. His feast day is September 23.
His experience in some ways was quite different from that of Francis
of Assisi. But Padre Pios spiritual writing is often filled with images and expressions
of burning love, fire and flames that tie him intimately to the spiritual tradition of
Francis and Bonaventure and their followers. Consider these passages from letters that
Padre Pio wrote to his spiritual directors: “I feel my heart and my inmost being
completely absorbed by the mounting flames of an immense fire….While my soul experiences
an atrocious agony caused by the flames that I have described, it is filled at the same
time by an exceeding sweetness which calls forth immense love of God….
“Sometimes at the altar my whole body burns in an indescribable
manner. My face, in particular, seems to go on fire.” Padre Pio speaks further of “this
ever active volcano, which burns me up and which Jesus has placed in this very small heart.
It can all be summed up as follows: I am consumed by love for God and love for my neighbor” (quotes
are from Meet
Padre Pio by Patricia Treece, Servant Books, 2001).
We end our reflection by quoting St. Paul’s famous lines from Galatians: “May
I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has
been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). Where St. Paul uses the word cross of
Christ, we could substitute words like stigmata or wounds or the suffering
and death of Christ (or similar words). The point is: We are saved by Christ’s total
gift of himself to us. Words like stigmata, wounds, suffering, or death
and Resurrection of Christ are shorthand for the total gift of Christ to
usand a fiery kind of love, indeed!
A few lines later in Galatians, St. Paul asserts: “From now on, let no one make troubles
for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (6:17). Most students of the Scriptures,
I believe, would say that Paul was speaking symbolically here about bearing the marks (or
stigmata) of Jesus on his body. He was not visibly or literally bearing the stigmata of
Jesus by which we are saved. The great Apostle Paul did believe, however, that it was by
these marks or wounds, whether visible or not, that he was saved and brought to glory.
And I believe that this is the bottom-line meaning of the stigmata of Jesus for all of
Gracious and loving God, set us on fire with the fire of your love!
(For your information, the worldwide Franciscan family celebrates the
feast of the Stigmata of Our Holy Father Francis each year on September 17. It might interest
you to know that the first reading of the Mass is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to
the Galatians (6:14-18), which includes the passages discussed above.)
Also, you are invited to join Friar Jack on a 12-day
pilgrimage to southern Italy, with stops in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis,
as well as in San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio is buried and where he spent much
of his life. (See ad on right)
respond to Friar Jims Catechism
Quiz: Reflections on Prayer.
Dear Friar Jim: I too say a thank you
when I slip under a red light and dont get a traffic ticket, or when a close call
has a happy ending. When I was in elementary school, the school was on a main street in
the city. There were always sirens going up and down the street. The nuns would stop class
and the entire class would recite an Our Father. Still to this day, when I hear a siren,
I do the same. When traveling and see a stranded motorist on the side, I say a Hail Mary
that some little thing might happen to help them. I guess Ive been praying all along
and never realized it. Susan
Dear Susan: Isnt it a wonderful way to continually bring
the Lord into consciousness? The events around us and within us are the little reminders
of the presence of God and of our concern for others. Friar Jim
Dear Friar Jim: I was so pleased when you pointed out that prayer
need not be long or formal. Sometimes two or three words do suffice. I often only pray
two or three words, but I do it several times a day. I find it keeps me focused on the
idea that I exist to serve God, not for God to serve me. Richard
Dear Richard: You are exactly right. Three little words ( I
love you) tell the Lord in words whats in your heart. He knows that, of course.
But it is you who needs to say them as a reminder for yourself. God bless you. Friar
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