St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1220) 1642 (oil on canvas) by Ribera, Jusepe de (lo Spagnoletto) Public domain.
This feast of Francis receiving the wounds of Christ has been presented in countless ways. One idea that seems strange to me is the notion that Francis received these signs as “merit badges” for living a meritorious life. He certainly did live with integrity and grace, of course! But this makes God into a reward giver, a little like our first grade teacher — and what a strange reward! Although some of the early Franciscan movement saw the Stigmata as God’s Seal upon our brother and this new fledgling Order, it can lead into Pelagian thoughts about God, where only those who earn it will be rewarded with outward signs. Or worse, the idea that my Order is better than yours, cause we’ve got the Stigmata!
There are three ways that I like to think about the Stigmata. The first is that as Francis grew in his friendship with Christ, he wanted to know, from the inside, what his friend went through in His own suffering. This seems much more human, like a mother wanting to “take on” the suffering of her sick child at night. In many friendships, we long to be present with the person when they are suffering. When friends go through chemo, are fired from a job, grieving a lost spouse, showing up may be all we can do. In those times, we’d like to relieve the burden of the suffering of our friend, even to the point of wanting to experience ourself what the other feels. I believe this is the motivation of Francis that’s unwrapped in Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis. Francis wanted to know the suffering of his friend, Jesus, from inside of His Passion. He asked for a share in it. St. Ignatius, later in his Exercises, encourages the retreatant during the contemplation of the cross to possibly “compassionate” Jesus in His suffering.
The Stigmata also reminds us that as brothers of the Crucified One, we know what to do with our pain. We don’t waste it. Or as Richard Rohr (and Sigmund Freud) would say, “we transform our pain, rather than transmit it.” If I just transmitted my pain it might go something like this: I yell at Vince Delorenzo for something that’s happening at Mt Airy, and when he goes home, he yells at the cook, and she goes home and kicks the dog (which Patty would never do!). That’s a lot of transmitting of violence and suffering! Our own suffering can become an opportunity for intimacy with the Crucified when we allow Christ to walk with us in it, when we discover Him already in our private Gethsemane. Or, as Bonaventure suggests, we hang naked with the naked Crucified Christ, nudus cum nudum. Later Cardinal Newman will say we speak “cor ad cor” or “heart to heart.” We take the situations where we are suffering in our lives, our nailed hands, and touch them to His. And we are comforted, encouraged, transformed. This means that rather than projecting it outward, blaming society, our parents, our early childhood for our pain, we allow it to become a doorway into intimacy with God. Like the old Morning Offering used to say, “I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day.”
Finally, Francis wearing the wounds of Christ, remind all of us that it’s okay to be vulnerable, appropriately, with our brothers. The word vulnus means wound. We worship a Wounded Savior, who, even when resurrected, shows us His hands and His side. Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet this line: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” Without our wounding from life, we may never feel compassion, we could just laugh at other people’s misfortune. It tells us that God is wounded in some way as well and knows our suffering from the inside. Francis encouraged the preaching of Jesus and His vulnerability when he had the wealthy Ruffino preach in his underwear to the townspeople of Assisi. Marshall McCluhan famously said that the Medium is the Message. We preach best when, aware of our own woundedness, we approach others humbly.
My encouragement: get to know Jesus, wounded, in a heart to heart way as the Friend; don’t waste the sufferings (or joys) of the day, but share them with Christ — allow their meaning to lead us, and develop an acceptance of our own wounds so that we can share this good news with humility.