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Friar’s E-Spirations: The Franciscan Coat of Arms

If you go into any of our Franciscan friaries, churches or convents, you will almost always find somewhere painted, hanging on a wall or over a doorway the Franciscan coat of arms. This holds true around the world as well as through the centuries. With the worldwide Franciscan family about to mark the 800th anniversary of its founding (see end of this E-spiration), it may be a good time to reflect on this important Franciscan image.

The Franciscan coat of arms often consists of a cross with two arms crossing each other and nailed to the cross—or at least with a cross in the background. One arm is that of Jesus Christ; the other is of St. Francis of Assisi. This image is a key identity badge for those who call themselves Franciscans. Even though I grew up with this familiar emblem, I didn’t always consciously reflect about it a lot. Very likely, my thoughts went something like this: “Oh, yes, Francis received the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ) near the end of his life, revealing Francis’ amazing identity with Christ and his suffering.” Or perhaps my thoughts went in this direction: “Yes, Lord, suffering is a part of life, and like you and Francis, I must be ready to suffer.” These are both meaningful responses to the centuries-old image.

Enter St. Bonaventure

In recent years, however, thanks especially to the writings of St. Bonaventure, I have come to a perspective that has an even richer meaning for me. A brief sketch of this great Franciscan friar might be helpful here. St. Bonaventure was born in Italy in 1218. He was about eight years old when St. Francis died in 1226. Bonaventure studied at the University of Paris and joined the Franciscans there. He went on to become a distinguished teacher at that famous university. His university career was cut short, however, when he was elected minister general of the Franciscan Order in 1257. Many consider him the second founder of the order because he helped save it from division and disintegration at a difficult period of its history.

Bonaventure was also a great spiritual writer who helped shape Franciscan spirituality down the centuries. Of course, the basis for his spirituality was St. Francis’ own way of imitating Christ. One of the great books written by Bonaventure was his Life of St. Francis. In that book, Bonaventure highlights a mystical experience or vision Francis had in the early years of his conversion. The incident happened after he had found God by embracing a leper he met along the road.

Bonaventure tells us that, shortly after his encounter with the leper, Francis “began to seek out solitary places [where] he prayed incessantly with unutterable groanings…. One day while Francis was praying in a secluded spot and became totally absorbed in God through his extreme fervor, Jesus Christ appeared to him fastened to a cross. Francis’ soul melted at the sight,” writes Bonaventure, “and the memory of Christ’s passion was so impressed on the innermost recesses of his heart that from that hour, whenever Christ’s crucifixion came to his mind, he could scarcely contain his tears and sighs….”

This vision of God’s all-out love for him—even to the point of dying on the cross—made a vivid impression on Francis. Other writers tell us that Francis was so overwhelmed by Christ’s great love for him that the saint, overcome with emotion, ran about the countryside weeping and proclaiming: “Love is not loved! Love is not loved!” With these words, Francis was trying to tell everyone he met that God is madly in love with us, but we fail to respond with the same kind of burning love!

Francis Has a Repeat Experience of the Vision

Interestingly, Bonaventure notes that Francis, near the end of his life, had another experience of his earlier vision. This took place as he was praying intensely at Mount La Verna and about to receive the stigmata. Although earlier biographers had already recorded this Mount La Verna experience, Bonaventure, when he wrote about it, took care to set the dramatic scene in the context of Francis’ intense and fervent style of prayer. Bonaventure writes that Francis, at this time, “burned with a stronger flame of heavenly desires” than usual. Bonaventure adds that “[Francis’] 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.”

Here is Bonaventure’s description of what then happened: “While Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a seraph with six fiery and shining wings descend from the height of heaven. And when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross…. When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed and his heart was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because of the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance of the seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow.” Bonaventure writes that when the vision ended it left in Francis’ heart “a marvelous ardor and imprinted on his body markings that were no less marvelous.” These markings, of course, were the stigmata.

Surely, the “fiery wings of the seraph” symbolize the flaming intensity of God’s love communicated to Francis by the crucified Christ, and which, in turn, set Francis’ heart on fire. As some of you may already know, the Franciscan Order is sometimes referred to as the seraphic order, because of the fiery style of love shared by both the seraph and St. Francis himself. To follow Francis is to imitate his seraphic way of relating to God.

And this brings us back to the image of the Franciscan coat of arms. The image is a true expression of both Jesus’ and Francis’ ardent style of love. We see in Jesus’ crucified hand, first of all, God’s incredible overflowing love for us. In Francis’ wounded hand, in turn, we see the incredibly loving response of St. Francis to the burning love of God, who first loved us. All in all, the Franciscan coat of arms is a wonderful expression of the Franciscan ideal of love. Though we seldom live up to this ideal, it calls us to something most rare and splendid!

Franciscans Celebrate 800 Years of Their Founding

Next month, April 2009, the worldwide Franciscan Order is marking its 800th birthday in a special way. In the year 1209, St. Francis and his small group of followers—12 in all—journeyed from Assisi to Rome to seek approval for their way of life from Pope Innocent III. In response, the Holy Father gave them oral approval for their form of life. He also granted them permission to go about preaching popular sermons of an inspiring nature.

During Easter Week, April 15-18, Franciscan representatives from all over the world have been invited to Assisi and Castelgandolfo, the pope’s villa outside Rome, to celebrate
the 8th centenary of their beginning (1209-2009). A culmination of these events will take place on April 18 during an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at Castelgandolfo. During this special audience, Franciscan leaders will renew their profession in the hands of the Holy Father. Various branches of the worldwide Franciscan family have been invited to participate in this celebration with the Holy Father.

The Franciscan coat of arms is, indeed, a very inspiring image for us to ponder as we observe the 800th anniversary of our founding!

Dear Friar Jim: When I was in high school, one of my instructors in my foreign-language class spoke to us on the value of giving something during Lent. Instead, he said, of giving something up, like candy or your favorite thing to do, you should do something extra that you would not do in ordinary times. In so doing—and it should not be a one-time thing—you will appreciate Easter because of the sacrifice you made to help someone else. He suggested that maybe you could visit one of the homes for the elderly and read to someone who could not otherwise do so. As there are numerous things like this, surely we can find something. Will

A: Dear Will: That is a beautiful idea for Lent. I was chaplain at a nursing home for 11 years and know how much people enjoy a little visit. God bless you. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: …As a post Vatican II, pre-RCIA convert to the Catholic faith, I have long thought that the sacrament of reconciliation is one of the best-kept secrets of the Church. My most profound experiences of God have arisen through forgiveness and reconciliation, if not immediately from the sacrament then from the awareness and life-changing growth that the encounter invites. While the conversations are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable, in the end, I am always renewed and encouraged. Jane

A: Dear Jane: Thanks for your personal sharing. I think you echo the thoughts of many who have written. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: I have been feeling guilty lately because I have let this very important sacrament slip away from me. It has been over two years since I’ve received the sacrament of reconciliation, and your words were like a breath of fresh air. As good Catholics, we cannot choose whether or not a sacrament is important, because they all are. What we can do is choose to respect their sanctity and healing power in our lives. Thank you for reminding me of that! Ellie

A: Dear Ellie: You are very welcome. Friar Jim