“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2: 19-20)
The year was 1224. Francis was tired and sad, his youthful vigor now gone. A lot had happened since the early days at Rivotorto when they were young, few, and free. He felt nostalgia for those first few years when they were free to be poor and to simply love the Lord. But now things were different. The movement had grown into more than 5,000 men. The friars were splitting into two camps – one zealously dedicated to poverty, the other committed to relaxing the Rule. This had caused Francis great distress. Additionally, the many women following Clare and the countless thousands of laity in the penitential third order were all seeking guidance from him. The difficulties had proved too much for Francis whose gifts were charismatic, not administrative. Thus, he had recently relinquished leadership of his order.
Years earlier in 1213, while on a mission through the Marches of Ancona, Francis had been invited to preach at a banquet hosted by a count named Orlando of Chiusi. Francis’s words had so moved the nobleman that he offered Francis the mountain towering over his castle in Chiusi as a place of prayer and contemplation. It was called La Verna. Francis had found its harsh nature, biting cold, whipping winds, and twisted, craggy peaks perfect for penance and secluded prayer. So he set out with his closest companions to the hermitage as the ideal place to pray and fast during the feasts of the Exaltation of the Cross and St. Michael the Archangel.
Once there, Francis would pray alone. He was feeling deeply connected to Jesus on the cross. Francis had always felt close to the crucifix, since his conversion many years earlier in the church of San Damiano. He had spent so much of his life with his gaze fixed on his Beloved who hung on the cross. Like Peter, Francis had once felt tempted to take Jesus’s place on the cross – to somehow take away his Lord’s pain. But he understood, as Peter eventually did, that Jesus had to suffer. Christ had embraced his Passion for the salvation of humanity, but he did so out of love. Francis desired in his heart to stay with Jesus on the cross in suffering, but also to remain connected to the great love that Jesus had for all humanity. Since San Damiano, Francis had offered himself to God to use him as an instrument through a life of penance and suffering. Now he desired to fully connect with Jesus on the cross.
The details of the San Damiano crucifix had always remained etched in his consciousness. On that cross Francis recalled a man who had suffered just as he was suffering now. Christ’s wounds in his hands, feet, and side were marked very clearly with large black holes, from which blood was flowing. Francis felt as if he, too, were attached to a cross that had bloodied his own hands, feet, and side. Yet Francis knew that the cross did not have the final say. His life dedicated to penance and corporal asceticism, intense prayer in the hermitages, service to the lowly lepers, his commitment to poverty and lesserness, had transformed his soul. Though his flesh felt sadness for worldly things, now his faith was mature.
In his last fast on La Verna, Francis’s focus was now on God’s total love for humanity through Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and glory. Francis knew that the crucified Lord was still alive and burning in his heart. He had never been abandoned. In fact, he rejoiced that he could share in his Lord’s suffering. Only the saints ever understood that connection. And so Francis understood that he must become like Christ in the distress and agony of his passion before he left the world.
Francis knew what his prayer was to be. He asked the Lord for two gifts: to feel in his body the pain which Jesus felt during his Passion and to know in his heart the love which Jesus felt for all humanity. As he made this prayer, a six-winged seraph appeared. Then Francis felt the excruciating pain in his hands, feet, and side as his members were pierced with the wounds of Christ. At the same time, his soul was rapt with all the ecstasy of love, charity, and sacrifice that could be contained in the heart of a created being. The marks in his hands and feet consisted of flesh forming on the palms of his hands and tops of his feet as black heads of nails. On the opposite sides, flesh formed as the twisted ends of nails. The side was like a lance wound and it bled for the rest of his life. Francis now contained in his heart, soul, and body the connection between true charity and true sacrifice. “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.” (Psalm 85: 11)
Francis never spoke of what he experienced on the mountain; in fact, he commanded those brothers who noticed the marks not to tell anyone as long as he remained alive. Despite the sadness Francis had felt earlier, he now had great peace. While praying in San Damiano some twenty years earlier, the crucifix that had been imprinted internally on his soul and remained in his heart all these years, was now manifested externally on Francis’ body. The stigmata had become the visible seal stamped into his flesh by God himself. It was God’s approval of his life.
Bret Thoman, SFO