St. Francis Receives the Stigmata
St. Francis of Assisi was the first to receive the stigmata or wounds of Our Lord on his body. In 1224 he retired to La Verna with three companions and while praying on the mountainside beheld the vision of the seraph, as a sequel of which there appeared on his body the five wounds. Brother Leo, who was one of the companions and present at the time, left us an account of the incident. Timmermans thus retells the story in his well-known biography of the saint.
His whole soul yearned for God, and in his heart there was an intense longing for Mount Alverna. In August, when the corn was bending under the weight of the ears, Francis and Leo went up there to spend the fast before St. Michael's Day. On the way Angelo, Masseo, Silvester, Rufino, and Bonizio joined them. So all seven Brothers traveled across the country together.
When Francis could not walk any farther, they went and asked a peasant whether he would take Father Francis up to Mount Alvema on his donkey.
"Francis of Assisi?" asked the peasant.
"Yes," they replied.
And the peasant ran over to him. "Are you Francis of Assisi?" he asked.
"I am," said Francis.
And the fellow exclaimed: "Well then, take care to be as good as they say you are, because many people have put their trust in you. So I beg you never to do anything that will destroy our faith and hope!"
The Brothers were highly indignant, but Francis kneeled down and kissed the peasant's feet, saying: "Thank you for this warning!"
At last they reached the top of the mountain, three thousand feet high. They knocked on the door of the tiny hermitage, and it swung open all by itself: no one was there. But behind the trees someone was singing with a rich voice like a trombone. And then Brother Lamb came into view, tall and dark, bent under the weight of a leather sack filled with water. He looked somewhat like St. Christopher, with a long beard and hair so thick it almost got in his eyes. He burst into joyful laughter, dropped his sack, and kneeled in front of Francis. And when he heard that they had come to spend St. Michael's fast there, he laughed still louder, like a horse neighing. After kissing the tattered hem of Francis' habit, he suddenly sprang up and shouted: "Have a drink! And I'll wash your feet!'
They drank the fresh water which he had brought from the stream hundreds of feet below, and Brother Lamb washed their feet in a small wooden tub. That great big fellow who could knock all seven of them down with one blow, who killed bears with his club, and who lived on crows and raw fish, acted like a bashful servant boy, like a tame little pet dog. He was the guardian and caretaker of Mount Alverna. But he was only happy when from time to time a Brother came to say Mass and spoke to him about Francis. Then he would cry.
He lived all alone like a bear. And when there had been silence for too long, just to hear something he would begin to sing, and he would sing for hours on end as loudly as he could. Or he would imitate the howling of the wolves and the cries of wild animals. Or he would ring the little chapel bell for a half a day at a time. That was the way he was: powerful and good and proud--like a wolf with the heart of a child. If ever he had met someone who spoke against Francis or made fun of him, he would have smashed the man's head. He even wished he could meet a devil in order to beat him up--but he never had such luck.
Proudly he showed Francis how clean and neat he kept the little hermitage, and how well he had kept the small hut under the linden tree from rotting. Francis patted his long hair, and the big fellow groaned with pleasure.
The good peasant left his donkey with them and went home. They promised to bring it back to him later.
The tired Brothers enjoyed gazing at the distant horizon as the sun went down in a mass of gold and red clouds. Francis stood up and said: "Lord, stay with us. Night is coming on."
He stood there like a statue bathed in red light. Down below lay the towns, villages, and hamlets in which he had preached. Down there lived man beings with souls like stars in their bodies. How many stars had he made to flare up? While he thanked God for such results, he felt sorry for those who remained in the dark, wrapped in the fog of sin and confusion, and he thought of the Brothers who could not give themselves completely to God.
"Lord, have mercy on those who come after me!"
The golden light faded away. Only the Apennines still glowed a bit. Sonewhere in the distance a light appeared.
"Lord, stay with us. Night is coming on!"
He thought of his mother, and he held out his hands toward Assisi. Then he said, with a tremor in his voice: "Brothers, I am not going to live much longer. My song is ended. So I would like to be alone--in order to immerse myself in God and weep over my sins. Brother Leo can bring me some water from time to time, whenever he wants to. But he must let no one else come near me. And Brother Masseo will see to it that meanwhile you pray a lot here." Then he blessed them and went to his little hut under the linden tree.
The Brothers shuddered with fear and clustered together.
Each time Leo came back, after bringing him some food, they went and stood around him, questioning him with the look in their eyes.
"Beautiful--beautiful!" he would whisper. "He kneels there in a heavenly light and talks out loud, but I don't dare listen. I have to struggle not to listen. He is so absorbed in prayer that he does not even hear me."
The Brothers sighed with delight.
One night Brother Lamb got up very quietly and thrust his head out of the half-open door. He was not moved by curiosity. His joy and veneration and love made him long to see that light and hear that voice. But because of the rule of obedience, he did not dare leave the hut. He saw and heard nothing. The night wind was blowing through his beard. He felt his heart thumping in his chest with anticipation. And he stayed there all night, until the first light of dawn fell on the tops of the Apennines. Then he went back inside.
The very next day, the eve of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, when Brother Leo brought his food, Francis told him to go and stand at the door of the little chapel, and said: "Each time I shout, 'Lamb of God, do you hear me?' then you must answer as loud as you can, 'Yes, I hear you."'
Francis went deeper into the woods, turned around, and called: "Lamb of God, do you hear me?"
"Yes, Father, I hear you!" he heard from way off through the trees.
Francis went farther-up over piles of rocks. Then he called again. The answer came as softly as a sigh. Francis went still farther, though he had to struggle through the underbrush, until suddenly he stood before a precipice about ten feet wide and at least three hundred feet deep. No reply reached him there.
"I am going to live on the other side of this chasm," he decided.
When he told his companions, Brother Lamb was heartbroken. "It's my fault," he thought, "he knows that I tried to spy on him last night." And so he was ready to do anything in order to get back into Francis' favor.
He carried up the great beam all by himself--and what a beam it was!
He nearly collapsed under it. The veins on his forehead swelled up like cords. And he looked pleadingly at Francis as if to say: "Just see what I can do for you and how I love you."
They placed the plank over the chasm. There was not much room on the other side. A little farther on, the rocks again dropped right down, so that Francis was on a sort of island. They built him a tiny hut under some oak trees. And toward evening when it was finished, Francis said to the Brothers:
"Now go back. No one can come to visit me. Only Brother Leo must bring some bread and water once a day, very quietly, and also at night at the hour for Matins. Brother Leo, you must put the bread at the beginning of the bridge, and when you reach it, call out, 'Lord, open Thou my lips!' And if I answer, 'In order to sing Thy praises,' then come over the bridge and we will chant Matins together. But if I do not answer, then go back!"
When Francis was alone, he kneeled down and murmured: "Lord, I am ready."
But then the Devil appeared on the scene and injected fear into his prayers, saying: "Elias! Elias! The house in Bologna! Brothers at the University of Paris! Comfortable monasteries! Magnificent churches! That is what you have achieved with that phantom of yours, Lady Poverty! You have always tried to grasp phantoms: knight, poet, nobleman, troubadour, saint! Just between ourselves, admit that you were born crazy. But you certainly made those dupes believe your lies. And yet that is nothing. But how many of them have you driven into confusion or sin? You are going to pay for that! The Pope is going to condemn you, and your name will become a curse. Your Order is breaking up--it is already ruined! You persuade yourself that God is with it--what proof have you? Elias has the proofs. God has abandoned your Order. And He is right!"
Sweat dripped down Francis' face, and he kept crying: "Jesus is my only light! Jesus is my only light!"
Then physical suffering came over him in waves. His muscles cracked over his bones from pain and anguish. This lasted for many days. Once when he answered Leo's call and Leo went to him, Francis embraced him and sobbed: "If you only knew what I have been suffering from the Devil, how the Brothers would have pity on me!"
And while Leo reverently wiped the sweat from his brow, Francis added: "But when I think of the sufferings of our dear Lord, then my pains are but fleabites. And when the temptations have gone, thanks to patience and prayer, then I have such wonderful experiences, Brother Leo! Then Heaven comes down to me. Only the day before yesterday, a beautiful luminous figure suddenly stood before me, holding a violin.
And then he drew over the strings a bow that was as bright as a sun-beam, and filled the air with a sound that was so supernaturally lovely that all the beauty of Heaven seemed to have been fused into that one note. My soul vibrated with such intense joy that it nearly escaped from my intoxicated body. If the Angel had touched the strings once more, my soul would have broken loose and soared up to Heaven. When I had come back to myself, I cried out: 'Just let me suffer and renounce!' And I say it again: I can stand it now. If I can enjoy such bliss while I am still dust and flesh, what will it be like when my soul has left this miserable sack?"
And he caressed a falcon, a new friend that awakened him by its call every night for Matins. "Brother Falcon," he said, and the bird preened its powerful and handsome head.
"Listen, Brother Falcon," and Francis hummed: "Te Deum laude" mus . . ." Leo hummed the melody with him, and Brother Falcon reverently spread out his wings.
Leo called in the moonlight. As usual, there was no answer, but this time he had a strange foreboding. Suppose Francis was lying there dead! Then, after a moment's hesitation, motivated by a good intention, Leo carefully crossed over the plank. The moon was shining brightly, and not a leaf stirred.
He intended to look in the hut, but then he caught sight of Francis, kneeling, his face and his arms raised toward heaven, and Leo heard him say in a muffled voice: "Who are Thou, my dearest Lord-and who am I, a miserable worm and useless servant?" The moonlight fell directly on his features, and his cheeks seemed like two cavities. Leo was so deeply moved that he had to hold onto a tree.
Suddenly a great flame appeared and hovered above Francis' head And out of the flame came a Voice that Leo could not understand He trembled. He felt ashamed to be spying on such a holy event, and he silently retreated, without taking his eyes from Francis--until a branch cracked under his foot!
Francis sprang up and cried out sharply: "In the name of Jesus, who is there? Stand still! Don't move!"
Francis approached. Leo was so frightened that he crouched down and put his hands over his face. Francis stood right before him and said: "Who are you?"
Then Leo timidly arose, weeping, and begged forgiveness, explaining what he had done. Francis took his trembling hand. "Leo, I was absorbed in the light of contemplation, and in it I saw the infinite depth of God's beauty in contrast with my own miserable self." Francis took the Lamb of God into his arms. "I don't know what it will be." he exclaimed, "but God is going to do such great things to me on this mountain as have never happened to any living creature. And now go to the chapel and fetch the Book of the Gospels. That is where God will show me what I must do."
Later, in the bright moonlight, Leo came back, holding the book. Blindly, haphazardly, he opened it--to the Passion of Christ. The second time--again the Passion. The third time--again the same.
"Now I know," said Francis, and he turned as white as chalk, while cold sweat ran over his face. And with his eyes closed, he murmured: "To be like Him in His suffering and torment, before death comes! Lord, be merciful to me!"
Leo went away anxiously, with the Book of the Gospels under his arm.
"O my God, Jesus Christ! On this Feast of the Holy Cross, I ask for two things before I die: that during my short life I may feel Your sufferings and Your love in my soul and in my body!"
Francis was kneeling outside his hut. His prayer quivered in the silence of the night. Dawn was near. It was bitingly cold, and the stars were shining brightly in the sky. And then, as the first glimmer of light appeared in the dark, what he had lived for all his life happened.
All of a sudden there was a dazzling light. It was as though the heavens were exploding and splashing forth all their glory in millions of waterfalls of colors and stars. And in the center of that bright whirlpool was a core of blinding light that flashed down from the depths of the sky with terrifying speed until suddenly it stopped, motionless and sacred, above a pointed rock in front of Francis. It was a fiery figure with wings, nailed to a cross of fire. Two flaming wings rose straight upward, two others opened out horizontally, and two more covered the figure. And the wounds in the hands and feet and heart were blazing rays of blood. The sparkling features of the Being wore an expression of supernatural beauty and grief.
It was the face of Jesus, and Jesus spoke.
Then suddenly streams of fire and blood shot from His wounds and pierced the hands and feet of Francis with nails and his heart with the stab of a lance. As Francis uttered a mighty shout of joy and pain, the fiery image impressed itself into his body, as into a mirrored reflection of itself, with all its love, its beauty, and its grief. And it vanished within him. Another cry pierced the air. Then, with nails and wounds through his body, and with his soul and spirit aflame, Francis sank down, unconscious, in his blood.
from A Treasury of Catholic Reading, ed. John Chapin (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957)