Life of St. Francis of Assisi | 13


Chapter 13.

The sacred stigmata.

It was the manner of this angelic man, Francis, never to rest from good works, but rather, like the heavenly spirits on Jacob’s ladder, to be either ascending to God or descending to his neighbour.

And he so prudently divided the time allotted him here for merit, that he spent the one part of it in labours for the good of his neighbour, and devoted the other to tranquil contemplation.

Therefore, after descending to labour for the salvation of men, according to the exigency of time and place, he would leave behind him the tumult of the multitude,

and retiring into some secret place where he might wait freely upon God, he would endeavour to purify his spirit from any dust which might have adhered to it in his conversation with men.

Two years, therefore, before he gave up his spirit to God, he was led by Divine Providence, after manifold labours, into a mountainous place, which is called Mount Alvernia.

Having there begun his fast, according to his wonted custom of keeping a lent in honour of St. Michael, the Archangel,

being filled more abundantly than usual with Divine sweetness by the contemplation of heavenly things, and enkindled by a more fervent desire of the things of God,

he began to experience the gifts of the Divine visitation more perfectly and abundantly than ever before.

His spirit rose on high, not curiously to scrutinize the Divine Majesty, and so to be overwhelmed with its glory, but as a faithful and prudent servant seeking out the good pleasure of God, to which with the utmost ardour of love he desired to conform himself.

It was infused, therefore, into his mind by Divine inspiration that it should be revealed to him by Christ, on opening the Book of the Gospels, what in him or from him, should be most acceptable to God.

Having first prayed with great devotion, he therefore took the holy Book of the Gospels from the altar, and caused his companion, a devout and holy man, to open it thrice in the name of the Holy Trinity.

Seeing that the book opened each time at the Passion of the Lord, the man of God understood that, as he had imitated Christ in the actions of his life, so, before he should depart from this world, he was to be conformed to Him likewise in the sufferings and pains of his Passion.

And although, by the great austerity of his past life and his continual bearing of the cross of Christ, he had become very feeble in body, yet was he not terrified, but prepared himself with good courage to endure the martyrdom set before him.

For, there grew in him an invincible fire of the love of his good Jesus, even a flame of burning charity, which many waters could not quench.

Being thus raised to God by the ardour of seraphic love, and wholly transformed by the sweetness of compassion into Him, who, of His exceeding charity, was pleased to be crucified for us;

early in the morning of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, as he was praying in a secret and solitary place on the mountain, he beheld a Seraph, having six wings, all on fire, descending to him from the height of heaven.

And as he flew with great swiftness towards the man of God, there appeared between the wings the form of one crucified, having His hands and feet stretched out and fixed to the Cross. Two wings rose above the head, two were stretched forth in flight, and two veiled the whole body.

When he beheld this, he marvelled greatly, and his heart was filled with mingled joy and sorrow: For he rejoiced at the gracious aspect with which Christ, under the form of the Seraph, looked upon him;

yet to behold Him thus fastened to the Cross pierced his soul like a sword of compassion and grief He wondered greatly at the appearance of so new and marvellous a vision,

knowing that the infirmity of the Passion could in nowise agree with the immortality of the seraphic spirit.

Lastly, he understood, by the revelation of the Lord, that this vision had been presented to his eyes by Divine Providence, that the friend of Christ might know that he was to be transformed into Christ crucified, not by the martyrdom of the flesh, but by the fire of the spirit.

The vision disappearing, left behind it a marvellous fire in his heart, and a no less wonderful sign impressed on his flesh. For, there began immediately to appear in his hands and in his feet the appearance of nails, as he had now seen them in the vision of the Crucified.

His hands and his feet appeared pierced through the midst with nails, the heads of the nails being seen in the insides of the hands and the upper part of the feet, and the points on the reverse side.

The heads of the nails in the hands and feet were round and black, and the points somewhat long and bent, as if they had been turned back.

On the right side, as if it had been pierced by a lance, was the mark of a red wound, from which the sacred blood often flowed, and stained his tunic.

The servant of God, seeing the Stigmata thus deeply impressed on his flesh, so that he could not conceal them from his familiar companions, and yet fearing to discover the secret of the Lord, was in great trouble and perplexity whether he should declare or conceal what he had seen.

He therefore called some of the brethren, and in general terms proposed his doubt to them, and asked their counsel.

Then a certain friar, Illuminatus, both by grace and by name, knowing that the holy man had seen some marvellous vision, which had thus amazed him, answered:

“Brother, not only for thine own sake, but for the sake of others, thou knowest the Divine mysteries are made known to thee.

And therefore it seems to me that thou shouldst fear to conceal this which thou hast received for the benefit of many, lest thou shouldst be condemned for hiding the talent committed to thy care.”

At these words, the holy man was so greatly moved, that though he was accustomed to say on other occasions, “My secret is to myself”—he now related with great fear all the order of the aforesaid vision, adding that He who had appeared to him had said to him other things, which he must never, so long as he should live, reveal to any man.

And it is to be believed that these discourses were secret things spoken to him by that sacred Seraph, who so marvellously appeared to him on the Cross, and which, perhaps, it was not lawful to utter to men.

When the lover of Christ had been transformed by his true love into His own image, having fulfilled the forty days which he had thus spent in solitude before the feast of the Archangel Michael,

this angelical man, Francis, descended from the mount, bearing with him the image of the Crucified, engraven, not on tables of wood or stone by the hand of the artificer, but written on his members of flesh by the finger of the living God.

And because it is written that it is good to conceal the secret of the king, therefore this man, who was conscious of so royal a secret, endeavoured to conceal its sacred signs from the eyes of all men.

But inasmuch as God is wont for His own glory to reveal the great things which He works, the Lord Himself, who had secretly impressed these tokens, openly manifested many miracles by their power that the hidden and miraculous virtue of these Stigmata might be clearly made known by many signs.

In the country of Rieti, a grievous pestilence broke out, which cruelly consumed both sheep and cattle, and for which no remedy could be found.

But a certain man who feared God was warned by a vision at night, that he should go with all speed to the hermitage of the friars, and ask for the water in which Francis, the servant of God, who then abode there, had washed his hands and feet, and that he should sprinkle this water upon the animals.

He arose, therefore, in the morning, and came to the place, and having secretly obtained some of this water from the companions of the holy man, he sprinkled it over the diseased cattle and sheep.

Marvellous to relate, no sooner had a drop of this water touched the sick animals, as they lay on the ground, than they immediately recovered their strength, and, as if they had felt no sickness, they hastened to pasture.

Around the aforesaid mountain of Alvemia, before the holy man dwelt there, by reason, of the clouds which arose from the mountain,

a violent tempest of destructive hail was accustomed to destroy all the fruit; but after that blessed apparition the hail ceased, to the great amazement of the inhabitants of the place; the unwonted serenity of the sky thus manifesting the excellence of that celestial vision in which the Stigmata were impressed.

Once, on a winter’s day, by reason of the weakness of his body and the steep and difficult path, he was riding upon an ass belonging to a poor man,

and was compelled to take shelter for the night under a rock, to avoid the snow, which had fallen and was falling heavily in those parts. For, being delayed by these impediments, he could not reach the place of his destination.

Now the saint, hearing that the poor man to whom the ass belonged was lamenting himself bitterly and trembling with cold, changing now to one place, now to another, because, being lightly and poorly clothed, he could find no relief from the bitter cold,

Francis, all on fire with Divine love, stretched forth his hand and touched him, when, marvellous to say, the touch of that sacred hand which had received the fire of the seraphic sign, banished all sense of cold,

so that the poor man waxed warm both within and without, as if he had felt the power of a burning fiery furnace; so that, being comforted in body and mind, he lay down to rest, and slept sweetly amid the rocks and snow, as he himself afterwards affirmed.

Certain it is, therefore, by all these tokens, that these Sacred Stigmata were impressed by the power of Him who, by the agency of the Seraph, purified, illuminated, and inflamed;

inasmuch as the said Stigmata, purifying the air without from pestilence, delivered and healed the beasts, and with marvellous efficacy calmed the tempest and warmed frozen bodies, as came to pass also after his death, which we shall hereafter notice.

Therefore, although he sought with diligent care to conceal the treasure which he had found in the field, yet it could not be hid, nor could he prevent the Stigmata in his hands and feet from being seen, although he kept his hands almost always covered, and from that time forward always wore shoes on his feet.

During his lifetime many of his brethren saw these Stigmata clearly, who, although for their great sanctity they were men worthy of all credit, yet to remove all doubt they affirmed what they had seen on oath.

Several of the cardinals, who lived with great familiarity with the holy man, saw them also, and composed hymns and antiphons in honour of the Sacred Stigmata, thus by their words as well as by their writings giving testimony to this truth.

The Supreme Pontiff, Alexander, also, when preaching to the people, in the presence of many of the friars, of whom I was one, affirmed that, in the lifetime of the saint, he had seen the Sacred Stigmata with his own eyes.

At his death they were seen by more than fifty brethren together, and also by Clare, that virgin most devoted to God, with many of her sisters and an innumerable company of seculars,

who, as will be seen hereafter, kissed them with great devotion and touched them with their hands, to ascertain the truth of the miracle,

and the wound in the side also, which during his lifetime he concealed so carefully that no one ever saw, or could see it, except by stealth.

A brother who ministered to him with great care once induced him, with pious craft, to take off his tunic, that he might brush it,

and then, looking attentively, he saw the wound, which he contrived hastily to touch with his three fingers, and thus ascertained its figure and size, not only by sight, but also by touch.

By the same artifice another friar, who was his vicar at the time, also saw it.

Another friar, of great simplicity, who was his companion, was once rubbing his shoulders to relieve a pain which he suffered there, and accidentally touched the sacred wound, thereby causing him exceeding pain. From that time forward he wore his inner garment in such wise as to conceal the wound in the side.

But the brothers who washed it, and from time to time brushed his tunic, found them stained with blood,

and thus came to know with positive certainty the existence of the sacred wound, which after his death they plainly saw, contemplating and venerating it with many other witnesses.

Go forth, therefore, O valiant servant of Christ, for thus bearing the arms and insignia of thine invincible Leader Himself thou shalt overcome every adversity. Bear the standard of the Most High King, the sight of which animates every warrior of the Divine army.

Bear the seal of the Supreme Pontiff, Christ, stamped undeniably and authentically upon all thy words and deeds, so that they may be accepted duly by all men;

and even because of this Stigmata of the Lord Jesus which thou bearest in thy body, let no man dare to trouble thee, but rather let every servant of Christ bear thee tender and devoted affection.

For by these most certain signs, not by two or three witnesses only, but by a superabundance of proofs, that seal is made plain to all men (God having made it visible in thee and by thee, so as to take away every veil or shadow of excuse) that they may believe and be established in faith, and by faith may be raised to hope and enkindled with charity.

For now is truly fulfilled that first vision of thine, i.e., that, being chosen by the mercy of Christ to be His captain, thou wast to be armed with celestial weapons, and signed with the sign of the cross.

Now the vision which thou didst behold in the beginning of thy conversion, that vision of the Crucified which pierced thee as with a sword of compassion, and the voice which thou heardest from the cross as from the high throne and secret mercy- seat of Christ, bidding thee be conformed to the image of the Crucified, are shown to be undoubted truths.

Now may it be surely and firmly believed that what Sylvester beheld soon after thy conversion was no fantastical imagination but a celestial revelation,

for he beheld a cross marvellously issuing from thy mouth; and the holy B. Pacificus also beheld two blades crossing thy body in the form of a cross;

and, moreover (as has been said before), that angelic man, Monardos, when St. Anthony was preaching on the title of the cross, beheld thee raised in the air in the form of the cross.

Again, that which was shown to thee near the end of thy life, even the similitude of that lofty Seraph bearing the humble image of the Crucified which enkindled thee within and signed thee without, shows thee to be, as it were, another angel descending from the East, and having the sign of the living God.

This, I say, gives strength and credibility to all the things before said, and receives from them a testimony to its truth.

For behold these six apparitions of the cross of Christ, thus marvellously shown according to the order of various times, in thee and concerning thee, are, as it were, six steps to the seventh, to which thou hast now attained, and where thou dost now repose.

For the cross of Christ, which at the beginning of thy conversion was proposed to thee, which was received by thee, and ever throughout the whole course of thy life was faithfully carried by thee, both in thine own person and as an example to others,

has proved to the clearest demonstration that thou hast attained to the summit of evangelical perfection, so that no truly devout man can deny the wisdom of Christ, shown forth in thy body of dust,

and no truly faithful man may deny, no truly humble man may despise, that which has been impressed upon thee by the Divine power as most worthy to be received and accepted by all men.