far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world
Fr. Zuhlsdorf, known to Catholic trollers on the internet as Fr Z, says that are those who see Francis as a “bunny-hugging, pastel-toned image on a holy card or garden statuette, with little birdies sitting on his arms”. His most recent biographer, Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., puts it this way: “the plastic saint on the birdbath . . . the hippie eco-feminist in love with God’s creation”. There are many things about St. Francis, you may even say everything about him, which contradict the popular picture of Francis but probably nothing more than the stigmata.
Stigmata, in case you do not know, is a term used to describe body marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, wrists, and feet. ‘Stigmata’ is plural and the singular is ‘stigma’ which we might think aptly describes it: something which is sensational, maybe melodramatic and slightly embarrassing. It might be better if we stuck to bunny-hugging when it comes to Francis.
But the liturgy will not let us off so easy. The introit and the epistle are from Galatians 6:14-18:
Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world . . . for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
Interestingly enough St. Francis received the stigmata on or near to the Feast of the Holy Cross which has the very same introit: it behooves us to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But what was St. Paul saying, when he said far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ? The work that Paul had been doing at Galatia, his preaching and teaching were being undone. Some Jewish Christians at Galatia had been insisting that Gentile Christians cannot be saved unless they become sons of Abraham and they cannot become sons of Abraham unless they are circumcised. Paul’s response is that it is not circumcision which makes Gentile Christians sons of Abraham, which saves them, but the Cross of Jesus Christ. Otherwise there would have been no point in Paul or anyone else being converted. He could just rest assured in his circumcision and obedience to the law. That would be what he could brag about, glory in.
The Cross is “a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks but to those who are being saved the power and wisdom of God.” It is the Cross which has broken down “the wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile, which has brought peace. It is the only thing Christians can brag about: far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Francis situation in 1244 when he retired to Mount LaVerna to begin a forty day fast in preparation for the feast of St. Michael was not entirely unlike the situation of St. Paul when he wrote to the Galatians. The rule of the Order had been approved by Pope Honorius and the friars Minor had grown rapidly, too rapidly some might say. Francis had just attended his last General Chapter. His body, which he referred to as “Brother Ass,” was breaking under the cumulative burden of the many austerities he had imposed upon himself over the years. His mind and spirit were troubled as he saw his fraternity, now an Order of the Church, going in directions he never envisioned or desired. In a real sense, it was no longer his; and he struggled to let it go.
Francis experienced the Cross spiritually before it was marked on his body physically. The marks of the passion are real enough but the deeper pain is that of failure, of seeing what you have worked for, planned for, what you have wanted and hoped for crumble and fall. The paradox is this: the triumph of the Cross is ours only when we know we have failed: ave crux spes unica ‘hail O cross, our only hope’ – the words from Fortunatus’ passion hymn etched on the old tombstones.
Sometimes the Stigmata of St. Francis has been considered ‘a seal of approval’ or reward for holiness. So it was and is but only when all our enemies have been defeated, not just the opinion of the world, not just the lies of the devil but that more intractable and unmanageable and persistent enemy, the flesh, the self, our relentless egos determined to stay in control. These are the very enemies which we cannot defeat even with our goodness, enemies which only can be defeated by the Cross, our only boast and glory.
What follows the Stigmata is hardly romantic and appealing: Francis did not tell anyone about the stigmata, as you and I might have done. Only Brother Leo, who was him when it happened, knew , and everyone else only after Francis had died. Nearly blind and suffering possibly from tuberculosis and leprosy, he returned to San Damiano, where Clare and her sisters care for him; he writes The Canticle of Brother Sun. Staying at the Bishop's house in Assisi, Francis knows that he is dying, writes the Testament and asks to be brought down to the Portiuncula, the first priory of the friars and there composes a final verse about “Sister Death” for his Canticle and Oct. 3 he dies.
This is the message of St. Francis and also the problem with those more endearing pictures of him. His love of creation and the animals springs from the realization that they are only what God can do and not we ourselves. “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory”. Francis did not write that prayer but he could have: creation, preservation and all the blessings of this but above all by thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. The life and death of Francis and the life and death of all who would follow him is about that which is above all.
Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world