In September, Franciscans throughout the world commemorate the day Francis received the Sacred Stigmata of Christ. One can say that this was God’s way of answering the prayer of Francis. He asked God for two things. One, to let him experience the suffering Christ endured on the Holy Cross and two, for him to experience the love in which He did it. Receiving the Sacred Stigmata was an experience that led Francis to be totally transformed, leaving in his heart a marvelous fire in the remaining years of his life.
According to the writings of Saint Bonaventure, Saint Francis was “led by divine providence to a high place apart called Mount La Verna.” (FAED II, Ch. 12) Two years before his death, in what was his usual custom of fasting for 40 days in honor of Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint Francis would “experience more abundantly than usual an overflow of the sweetness of heavenly contemplations.” (FAED II, Ch. 12)
In the days of the Exaltation of the Cross, Saint Francis was praying on the mountainside of Mt. La Verna and he saw a six-winged seraph, fiery as well as brilliant, descend from the grandeur of Heaven. Bonaventure writes, as the vision was disappearing, it left in his heart [Francis] a marvelous fire and imprinted in his flesh a likeness of signs no less marvelous. The Sacred Stigmata of the Crucified Christ were now embroidered into St. Francis and the mark of Christ’s love were now visible to him and all who were around him. Here are some lessons from Francis’ experience that can help us in our own journey towards holiness.
Be Marked by the love of the Beloved. Bonaventure tells us that it was a custom of St. Francis to never rest from lifting himself up in prayer. He was always found in prayer, seeking the solitude of the quiet he would frequently go off to pray. He made himself available to God by his own desire to be transformed by God. He prayed out of perfect joy and perfect love, because of this, the very marks of Christ’s wounds were engraved in him. The beauty is that God wants to make His mark in us, He wants to trace us with His love and respond to our reaching hearts. The mark may not be a physical mark but an indelible, unfading and enduring mark of love and unity. The challenge, is allowing God to transform our lives just like He did for St. Francis. If you haven’t yet, allow God to make his Mark within you, and trust that through that mark, your life will be a fulfillment of His love, and a mark of discipleship. By this mark of love, we can enter into a relationship of prayer with Jesus Christ.
Gaze on the Crucified Christ.
When Francis witnessed the six-winged seraph, he immediately recognized the likeness of a man crucified. His hands and feet both extended in the form of a cross. At this, he eventually would learn that he would be transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified not by death but by the enkindling of his soul. Francis gazed on the Crucified Christ and it allowed him to be transformed. We can look on Christ crucified and recognize a poor, humble God who is the ultimate example of humility. The gaze for us is having an openness to God through the embrace of our hearts so that we too, can be transformed by the very seraphic spirit of God. It is a call to encounter God not only in the cross, but also in the suffering of our own humanity. By this gaze, we can have a real connection with those who are poor, those who are suffering, and those who are in fact, wounded in our own societies. It can also be a connection with ourselves who are often dead and broken from the effects of sin. In either one, the gaze on the Crucified Christ can guide us into a complete transformation out of ourselves and into the realm of the other, regarding their poverty, woundedness, suffering and lowliness with love. This is what St. Francis did. And it’s what Jesus did!
“In my deepest wound, I saw your glory and it dazzled me.” -St. Augustine
Look to the Cross
In Francis’ experience of the six-wing seraph, not only did he see a man who had been crucified, but he saw a man who has fastened to a cross. In Francis’s life, and even in today’s Franciscan spirituality, the cross is a constant source of prayer. Francis had a deep love for the Cross and for him it was a reminder of when Christ first spoke to him at Damiano. The cross for us is where we can encounter God’s love, it points us to the Resurrection and the truth that even in the most horrific and excruciating of deaths, God can still triumph. That example of the cross teaches us that despite death, chaos and violence there is in fact, glory, grace and peace. It reminds us that God is always near to us! Lastly, Bonaventure writes that the cross is a place where we can meet God and where the embrace of life with the cross can bring us to the happiness of our desires.
As we remember the Stigmata of St. Francis, may we always remember that Christ is present within us, wanting us to enter into His eternal glory. He places his mark within us and asks that we reach out to Him with a loving embrace in order that we be transformed just like St. Francis.
“Christ on the cross bows his head, waiting for you, that he may kiss you; His arms are outstretched, that he may embrace you, his hands are open, that he may enrich you; his body spread out, that he may give himself totally; his feet nailed, that he may stay there, his side open for you, that he may let you enter there.” -St. Bonaventure