August 29, 2007
 

Reflections on the Stigmata (Part II)

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

 

Q U I C K S C A N

 

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.

The seraphic doctor and his fiery images

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 wings.

“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….”

A note on Padre Pio

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 Pio’s 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).

Bearing the marks of Jesus

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 us—and 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 us.

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)


Friar Jim’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jim’s “Catechism Quiz: Reflections on Prayer.”

Dear Friar Jim: I too say a “thank you” when I slip under a red light and don’t 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 I’ve been praying all along and never realized it. Susan

Dear Susan: Isn’t 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 what’s 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 Jim

Send your feedback to friarjack@franciscanmedia.org.

 
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