Friar Bob Hutmacher, ofm
We Franciscans remember the Stigmata of St. Francis on September 17. The mystery of the stigmata has perplexed people for centuries since Paul first wrote in his missive to the Galatians 6: for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body. Paul likely referred to scarring from beatings and such that he suffered for Christ, but some have interpreted it to mean the stigmata, that fascinating phenomenon when a person bears the physical wounds of Christ crucified in his or her body.
One of my favorite theology profs once told me “life is one big interpretation.” And so it is, especially through the eyes of faith. I’d like to share some of my own spiritual journey this month to perhaps spur your own reflections on how you’ve changed your interpretation of God’s action in your life over the years.
Sr. Miriam Francis, SSND, gave me a 6” statue of Francis when I left home after 8th grade for the seminary. That statue has been with me every day of my life, even as I travel around Mother Earth. Every day since 1962! It reminds me of the first days I realized I was somehow in love with this man, Francis of Assisi, truly enamored with his story I first learned in 6th grade from a kind of comic book. I couldn’t learn enough about this guy who lived in the woods, loved animals and spoke about God that somehow touched my heart when I was 10. This was just the beginning of a very romantic stage of knowing this man.
In our [long gone] high school seminary in Oak Brook, IL there was a particular statue of Francis outside the chapel that captivated me. He had both arms extended to the heavens; a reliquary of the saint was always near and that made his presence even more real. I wanted to know Francis, I wanted to be Francis. I also remember lying in bed in the dorm with my arms open wide, asking God for the Stigmata. Brazen 13 year old boy to make such a request? I don’t think so; it was just my young heart trying to touch God through the example of Francis. My favorite window in the chapel was that of the Stigmata [shown here]. Flaming reds, orange and gold, it was right at the choir loft so I spent four years inflamed with love for our Seraphic Saint, always wanting to learn about the Stigmata. Little did I know that forty years later a seraph would visit me on more than one occasion!
The very first mention of the Stigmata in the body of Francis was the letter of Br. Elias that announced the saint’s death in October of 1226. From there the earliest biographers incorporated Elias’ account into their works, the most renowned being Thomas of Celano and the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure. It all happened in the autumn of 1224.
In September Francis, Leo, Illuminato, Masseo and Angelo went to Mt. La Verna in Tuscany for a period of fast and prayer; the mountain was given to him by Count Orlando of Chiusi in 1213 as a retreat for the friars. Shortly before this it was recorded that Francis wanted to know as much as possible the intense pain and exhilarating joy that Christ experienced in his body and his heart during his ministry. While on Mt. La Verna near the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross Francis had some kind of mystical experience in which a seraph imposed on a cross appeared to him in a dream or ecstasy or prayer. A seraph is a six-winged creature mentioned in Isaiah 6 around the throne of God. Seraphim are also the highest of the nine choirs of angels revered in Christian literature and art. [From Greek iconography here.]
That experience left his body emblazoned with wounds in his hands, feet and side. He kept them secret and very few friars knew of them until his death when they prepared his body for burial in 1226. Why the secrecy? No one really knows.
What is clear, though, is that Francis allowed the image of the Crucified Christ to permeate every aspect of his life. A journey begun in the chapel of San Damiano around 1205 transformed Francis through aging, suffering, days of joy, wisdom, travel, prayer and being leader of a new movement in the Church. 1224 brought this autumnal apex of mystical union with God. He had become a living crucifix, a mirror image of his Beloved.
Our Provincial Minister, Bill Spencer, gave me a San Damiano crucifix when I made solemn profession in 1977. It, like that small statue, has remained always present in my room and always carries the story of conversion in our founder. That 11th century Crucifix has helped me understand the fullness of the Christ Mystery ever since my solemn vows. How we interpret images depends on who we are, our circumstances in life and other factors. My little statue depicts an older looking Francesco holding two doves. Another white porcelain work of art by an Umbrian artist I have portrays a much younger, sensitive Francis who smiles. A third contemporary painting given me shows a wild and weathered Francis who knows pain yet can still smile at life with God. I cherish the three of them because they hold my understanding, my own interpretation of the Poor Man of Assisi and my life experiences. I am 10 or 30 or 67 years old within three works of art.
The nave of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is adorned with 28 massive frescoes attributed for centuries to Giotto, though now some art historians believe they were done by Pietro Cavellini. The scenes of The Cycle of St. Francis are based on the first biographies of Francis by Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure. The fresco artist’s interpretations of these stories from the life of Francis are based on the interpretations and memories of a few people who knew Francis personally or who had contact with his first followers. Our interpretations of these artworks are then based on the stories passed on to us by writers and painters, colored by their and our own life experiences.
In his article “Of Snakes and Angels: the Mystical Experience Behind the Stigmatization Narrative of 1 Celano”, friar Michael Cusato, OFM, offers two questions for us when talking about artistic interpretation of the Stigmata: 1) how did an artist understand the literary accounts of the Stigmata and then render them visually? and 2) how did Celano and Bonaventure read and understand the event of the Stigmata themselves? Speaking as an artist, I know that once a work is created and given form it is “out there” and wide open to interpretation. That’s why it’s a joy to hear a new work played for the first time as I mean it to be performed. It can also be painful to hear someone play a piece in a way I never intended. But that’s the thing about art – once created, a work is no longer just the artist’s. It belongs to whomever experiences it through the senses. So what of all this talk about interpretation and the Stigmata? Welcome into my psyche.
Life has presented me with maladies that are challenging in many ways on many levels. I’ll spare you the details but I must tell you how grateful I am for our Franciscan spirituality of the Cross. Little Bobby in 1960 could never have understood what true suffering is; however, Bob in 2015 certainly does! So that comic book Francis was sufficient for me to love certain aspects of the Poverello’s life as a child. As I grew in years, wisdom and God’s grace, though, the Stigmata became a lived reality. I’ve never seen a seraph but I know pain and consternation. All of us do! In the spiritual life we must contextualize the realities around us into the faith given us by God. The Cross of Christ and the Stigmata of carrying his wounds is a daily reality in our lives that becomes bearable when we surrender everything to God. The examples of Jesus and Francis of Assisi help me, help all believers, to amalgamate suffering and hardship into the total goodness of life. When a person of faith is rooted firmly in Jesus then that mutual love can overcome any disease, any of life’s difficulties.
How can people survive Auschwitz? How do millions of Syrians fleeing their country find the stamina to walk hundreds of miles with babies? How can cancer patients smile after another round of chemo? How do married people and vowed religious stay faithful for years? Why could Francis allow his brothers and sisters to branch off into their own interpretations of Gospel living before he died? There is POWER to be had when we root our lives in God’s heart. Yes, some people may scoff at that but unbelievers have to struggle for meaning too. Why scramble when Christ is already present to us and within us?
Francis lived two years after the Stigmata plus he bore unspeakable pain with an eye disease, probably tuberculosis and God knows what else from years of fasting and working with lepers. And it was in this period that I believe he reached the apex of his spiritual journey: complete union with God and all of creation. He wrote the Canticle of Creatures from 1225 when he was “on retreat” near San Damiano with St. Clare. Listen to my oratorio, Dialogue of Francis and Clare, to hear my interpretation of that period because it speaks volumes to the human condition. He arose above his suffering to see that all of life is united in the love of our God. So even when bad things happen to us we can still manage to hold our heads up and sing with joy in the face of adversity. If you think I’m spewing pious platitudes here, ask me what it’s like to live with cancer for 22 years. I can still dance, sing and laugh like a fool because God is with me, with all of us in the darkness and glories of life. How do you think a decrepit Francis Bernadone managed to write the pinnacle of his artistic/musical life, the Canticle, as he suffered unbearable physical and emotional problems?
The Stigmata is a lived reality, my friends. We may not bear the five wounds of Jesus like Francis but we certainly bear the burdens of being human in a world that often scoffs at our faith or rejects us because we love Christ. If you want to be my disciples, take up your Cross daily and follow me. You may want to pray like this: yes, Lord, I will carry my cross one more day with the hope that my ‘yes’ will bring me closer to you and to everlasting joy. I can walk with these old bones, accept the wrinkles, today’s flu, a messed up colon, cranky boss or kids out of control because I walk in your footsteps to that hill of Calvary and beyond to the Everlasting Banquet.
If you’re reading Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, you might want to augment your reading with my latest collection of orchestral music about the beauties of creation. We recorded it in Italy last year and it’s available at CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon and St. Peter’s Gift & Book Shop.
Join us for the feast of Francis
Saturday, Oct. 3, 7:00 pm ~ Transitus
Sunday, Oct. 4, 3:00 pm ~ Blessing of Animals
Monday, Oct. 5, 11:40 am ~ Solemn Mass for
The Feast of Francis. Reception follows.
5:40 pm ~ Solemn Vespers
Wednesday, Oct. 7 ~ Communal Penance Service, 12:15 pm
May our founder and friend, Francis, fill you with joy and courage on his feast and always. Thanks for your support of our ministry and may God give you peace and all good things. Fr. Bob Hutmacher, ofm