Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi

I am sure that Pope Francis experiences a dilemma every September 17.  In the General Roman Calendar and in the particular calendar of the Jesuits, September 17 is the memorial (feast) of St. Robert Bellarmine.  For Franciscans September 17 is the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi.  The incident is reported in most of the major biographies of St. Francis.  The very first biography, written within a year of his death by Thomas of Celano, reports the vision in this way:

While he dwelt in the hermitage which, from the place in which it is situated, is called Alverna, two years before he gave back his 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 out for flight, and two veiled the whole body. Now, when the blessed servant of the Most High saw this, he was filled with exceeding great wonder, but he could not understand what this vision might mean. Yet he rejoiced greatly and was filled with vehement delight at the benign and gracious look wherewith he saw that he was regarded by the seraph, whose beauty far exceeded, all estimation; but the crucifixion, and the bitterness of the seraph's suffering smote him altogether with fear. 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 labored 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.

His hands and feet seemed pierced in the midst by nails, the heads of the nails appearing in the inner part of the hands and in the upper part of the feet, and their points over against them. Now those marks were round in the inner side of the hands and elongated on the outer side, and certain small pieces of flesh were seen like the ends of nails bent and driven back, projecting from the rest of the flesh.  So also the marks of nails were imprinted in his feet, and raised above the rest of the flesh. Moreover his right side, as it had been pierced by a lance, was overlaid with a scar, and often shed forth blood, so that his tunic and drawers were many times sprinkled with the sacred blood.  Alas! how few were found worthy to see the sacred wound in his side while the crucified servant of the crucified Lord was yet alive!  But happy was Elias who was found worthy to see it somehow while the Saint was living; not less happy Rufino who touched it with his own hands.  For once, when brother Rufino had put his hand into the most holy man's bosom that he might scratch him, his hand (as it often chances) slipped down to Francis' right side, and he happened to touch that precious scar, at which touch the Saint of God was not a little distressed, and, pushing the hand away, he cried to the Lord that he might forgive him (Rufino). For he concealed the stigmata most diligently from strangers, and from those about him he hid them so carefully that even the brethren at his side and his most devoted followers were for a long time unaware of them.  (Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis of Assisi, Part II, Chapter 3)

This vision took place while St. Francis was keeping a “Lenten” fast to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  (Not content to keep but one fast of forty days per year, Francis was known to keep as many as five “Lenten” fasts throughout the year.)  While contemplating the passion of Jesus, Francis prayed that he would experience some of the pain which Jesus experienced on the cross.  The stigmata was the answer to that prayer.  He is the first person to be so blessed and one of only two men to experience this grace. 

Though a few of his contemporaries knew of the stigmata before he died two years later, it was only after his death while he lay naked on the ground that this wonder became generally and publically known.  For Francis it was a sign that God had indeed forgiven him the sins of his youth. 

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