The Chapel of the Stigmata is perched on the edge of the same sheer precipice where St. Francis stood two years before his death and was swept up into the mystery of God’s overwhelming love for him and for humanity. St. Bonaventure, in his Life of St. Francis, describes Francis as being more inflamed than usual with the love of God as he began a special time of prayer at La Verna in September of 1224.
“His unquenchable fire of love for the good Jesus,” Bonaventure writes, “was fanned into such a blaze of flames that so many waters; could not quench so powerful a love” (see Song of Songs 8:6–7).
The Vision of a Seraph
Bonaventure goes on: “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 a 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. Two of the wings were lifted above his head, two were extended for flight and two covered his whole body.
“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 form of a Seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow.”
When the vision disappeared, writes Bonaventure, Francis was left with a “marvelous ardor” in his heart. At the same time, there “was imprinted on his body markings that were no less marvelous.”
These markings were the stigmata, the wounds of Christ crucified.
More about the Seraph
There are two things to dwell on here. First is the Seraph. Seraphs are angels closest to God, burning with love as they bow before God, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy!” Their fiery wings suggest the flaming intensity of God’s love that Christ communicated to Francis, which, in turn, set Francis’ heart afire. The word seraphic is often used to describe Francis’ passionate style of relating to God and is often applied to the Franciscan Order, which is sometimes called the Seraphic Order.
Second, we focus on “the gracious way that Christ looked upon him.” This is something of a repeat of the vision Francis had in the beginning of his spiritual life in which “Jesus appeared to him fastened on a cross. Francis’ soul melted at the sight, 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 mind, Francis could scarcely contain his sighs . . .” (Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis).
Suffering for Christ
In themselves, sickness and suffering are tragic and senseless. But Christ has sanctified even the wounds of human nature. This terrible scourge can be changed into a blessing by being united to the sufferings of Christ. Many people feel that this sublime privilege does not count for them. They are not good enough. Their sickness is not that important. They believe it is a punishment. But Christ wants to take your individual suffering and unite it to his.
Of all the statements about our continuing Christ’s life, none is more astounding that this: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in
Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). Francis received the highest proof of Christ’s love and need of him when his body was literally put on a cross with Christ by the reality of the five wounds of the stigmata.
Lord, you promise to make all things new.
That includes me.
As I begin this journey
to discover St. Francis’ way to you,
I ask you to begin to renew
my faith, my hope, and my love.