Fifth Article In The Series
St. Francis of Assisi, Part V
by Ashley McFadden
Man is born according to the desires of his heart, and he is absorbed in the same way. Adi Granth (Sikhism)
It is said that few people suffered to the extent Francis did. His health continued to decline, and he constantly afflicted his body with fasting, vigils and the mortifications of the time. He also was going blind. The cause of his failing eyesight is not known, but some biographers have said it was due to his constant weeping.
The most horrendous ordeal for him, however, was the changing of his Brotherhood: the materialism and selfishness he saw entering into it, modifications of his rule, the continuous compromises and cuts, the entry of learned men into the order and the constant bickering of its future. He went into a deep despair and doubt, wondering if he has only been chasing shadows all this time and been wrong throughout. This was his worst temptation, thinking that he was in charge of the Order and not God, and he almost abandoned his faith entirely. His joy became mute, and he soon realized his days as a founder of an order were over. He had to let go.
Then a voice came to him and said, "Why are you so sad? Is not your Order my Order? Cease to be afflicted then and take care of your own salvation." With this, light was brought back to Francis and calm returned to his soul, as well as his humor. He danced down the mountainside, pick up two sticks and played an imaginary violin for all the chipmunks in the woods.
Henceforth, when Friars would come to him with this and that, Francis would tell them do what they wanted, but he was no longer obligated to do anything but pray. And this he did even more intensely than before. Previously, I wrote that Francis' identification with Christ was essential in understanding him and his life which was lived in the imitation of Christ. If need be, perceive this from a theocentric viewpoint. Regardless of how one interprets God or achieves an intimate relationship with the Absolute, to the mystic there must be that burning desire, total identification with the object of love for the unity to be achieved.
If ever Francis were to be one with his Beloved, he must imitate and assume all aspects of the object of his love. Francis had imitated the virtues of Christ's life by living the Gospels. Now, in his final days of purification, his imitation, or assumption, must be complete.
Francis now sought more solitude and took a few Friars to La Verna. Englebert feels that it was at this time Francis received the stigmata. Some rationalistic historians say the Stigmata is only a myth calling it the hardest part of his life to believe. Julian Green accepts the story because it is the hardest to believe. He questions why mystical phenomena should be so dismissed, or why it is incomprehensible that the physical body is readjusted in proportion to illumination.
Englebert recounts the story mentioned previously of the hundreds of birds that descended upon Francis as he rested beneath a tree and this foretold the impression of the Stigmata soon to complete his resemblance to Christ. People around Francis at this time were aware of his countenance changing and the increasing resemblance to his divine model. (Englebert, 237).
They reached the top of Mt. La Verna (or Alvernia) in the late afternoon and Francis instructed the Friars that they were to keep any people from him and the only person he wished to see was Brother Leo. He knew death was near and he wanted to pray in solitude. He then withdrew to his hut made of branches. Br. Leo would bring him bread and water twice a day and at midnight recite the Matins with him. A falcon also kept Francis company through his painful purification, and each midnight before Matins it would beat its wings against the hut.
One evening Brother Leo could not find Francis in his hut and went to look for him. Leo found him in the woods, in a great ecstacy and talking to someone invisible. "Who are you?" the saint was saying. Then Leo saw a great ball of fire descend from the sky, swoop down to Francis and return immediately. Frightened, Brother Leo tried to sneak away, but Francis heard his steps. "What did you see?" Francis asked. Leo told him. To this Francis admitted it was the Lord who had appeared to him and that something wonderful was soon to happen on the mountain.
Wanting to know what this wonder would be, Francis took his missile and opened it three times at random and each time it opened to the Passion. This Francis understood to mean, according to St. Bonaventure that, "having imitated Christ in his life, he was also to imitate Him in the sufferings that preceded his death." (Englebert, 242)
The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross had arrived and according to Englebert it was this day September 14, 1224 that the miracle of the Stigmata took place.
In the hour before sunrise, Francis knelt and faced the east, "O Lord," he pleaded, "I beg of you two graces before I die--to experience in myself in all possible fullness the pains of your cruel Passion and to feel for you the same love that made you sacrifice yourself for us." (Englebert, 242)
To this writes St. Bonaventure, "from the heights of Heaven a seraphim with six wings of flame flew swiftly down." He bore the likeness of a man nailed to a cross. Two of his wings covered his face, with two others he flew, and the last two covered his body. "It was Christ Himself who had assumed this form to manifest Himself to the Saint. He fixed his gaze upon Francis, then left him, after imprinting the miraculous Stigmata."
From that time on Francis was marked with the wounds. His hands and feet pierced, bent points of nails protruding the back of his hands, and wounds were at his right side from which blood constantly flowed. Francis tried to keep this a secret and bound his body in cloth and hid his hands in his sleeves. The wounds were like mouths that said too much and he tried to keep them from sight. (Green, 252)
Most accounts of the Stigmata are from Brother Leo who washed and bathed his wounds every day. And later others witnessed them including Pope Alexander IV. Francis was filled with serenity and peace for he had never received such proof of God's love and assurance as this.
Francis wrote poems and sang songs of joy over this occurrence and sign of love. Meanwhile, Brother Leo became very depressed, thinking himself as unworthy and never to know such peace, and he begged Francis for a few words of encouragement. Francis feeling his brother's deep despair wrote a few words with his Laudes, words which today are very well known.
"May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord show His face to you and be merciful to you! May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace! God Bless you, Brother Leo!" Francis then drew a large round head depicting Leo and over that drew the letter TAU. This priceless autograph is worn and dim today but preserved in a Convent in Assisi. It is a wonder that it can be read at all because for the remaining forty years of his life, Brother Leo kept the paper on his person, close to him at all times, near his heart.
The Friars returned to Portiuncula and in spite of the special shoes Clare had made, Francis had to ride a donkey due to his wounded feet. Word had spread of his Stigmata and their journey was filled with miraculous healings by the mere touch of his wounded hands. Francis wanted to continue his Apostolic journeys, but his body, ravaged by numerous disorders, near blindness and constant bleeding, was soon reduced to bone covered by a thin flesh. His friars sought medical help elsewhere, and the treatment, which failed to bring any relief, was to cauterize Francis' face. Even amongst all this pain, it was at this time that Francis wrote Canticle of the Sun.
From this time on, his life was a series of agony to the point one of the brothers suggested euthanasia, but Francis refused. He wanted to return home to die. Knights were sent from Assisi to ensure safe passage as they feared the zealous might steal his body which was too weak now to even ride an ass. Francis who once dreamed of shining armor and Crusades was now carried tenderly in the arms of the Knights, quietly across the mountains.
Once in his cell, Francis thought about what he would wear for Sister Death. He wrote to a brother, Lady Jacqueline, (referred by some as the Guardian,) and asked her to bring an ash colored cloth, and if she would, a piece of that honey cake he used to eat in Rome. But before he could have the message sent, there was a knock at the door and there stood Jacqueline holding the gray cloth and the honey cake. Too weak to eat the cake and indulge in one last piece of gluttony, he shared the cake with this brothers whom he blessed.
Knowing the day of his death, Francis instructed that his body be placed on the ground naked, and left there for the time it takes to walk a mile. He gave his last will and instructions to his brothers to love one another and Lady Poverty. Finally at twilight, she entered and Francis graciously greeted her, "Welcome Sister Death."
The brothers sang as Francis surveyed their blurred faces. Then he asked Brother Elias to strip him of his habit so that he could die totally poor. But Elias would not do so, saying it was not his garment to give away. Francis was pleased with the retort, knowing he had kept faithful to his desire to die with nothing of his own. Lying flat on his back and gripping the floor, Francis waited for his Beloved to gather him. He sang the 46th Psalm, his body slightly arching as though to melt into his Divine Lover, limb to limb, wound to wound, his journey over, assumption complete, forever Francis yet eternally one.
At this instance in the evening, a flock of singing larks descended on the hut and a flaming star carried on a white cloud ascended straight to heaven. He was buried in the morning, October 4, 1226.
Armstrong, Brady, Francis and Clare, Paulist Press, 1982.
St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis, Tan Books, 1988.
Bodo, M. Francis, the Journey and the Dream, St. Anthony Press, 1972
Bodo, M. Through the Year with Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony Press, 1993
Englebert, O. St. Francis of Assisi, Servant Books, 1965
Flinders, C. Enduring Grace, Harpers, 1993
Green, J. God's Fool, Harper and Row, 1983
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