In the summer of 1988
I fulfilled a lifelong yearning to visit Mount La Verna in Italy,
where Francis of Assisi underwent the climactic mystical experience
of his life--a moment of ecstatic union with his crucified Savior.
The encounter left Francis branded on his hands, feet and side
with the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ.
La Verna is the holy mountain of the Franciscan tradition. This
wild and secluded height was given to Francis and his companions
as a place for solitary prayer by a certain Count Orlando who
had been inspired by Francis' preaching in 1213. Over the centuries,
many followers of Francis have sought to visit this place of holy
retreat sometime before their death. And so it was with me that
summer of '88, in which I was marking my 25th anniversary as a
Traveling by myself on a bus that was twisting along a mountain road, I looked
out of the window, still some 20 miles from La Verna. I had no clear idea
of what to look for at that distance, but suddenly on the horizon I saw
a rugged mountain that I knew in my soul had to be Mount La Verna. Jutting
upward from the mountain was a large outcropping of rock that, to my eye,
resembled a shark's fin. That mountain, I thought, could certainly appeal
to something valiant and mystical and fierce in the heart of Francis.
When I arrived there, I was surprised at the complex of buildings
spread out and half-hidden on its rocky precipices--a large friary, a basilica and various chapels,
lodging space and dining rooms for the many pilgrims and followers
of St. Francis who come to make retreats in this out-of-the-way
place. Staying here a day and a night with the friars, I thought,
would give me a chance to ponder the amazing event that took place
on these rocky heights near the end of Francis' life.
An Account of Francis' Vision
The Chapel of the Stigmata is perched on the edge of the same
sheer precipice where St. Francis stood two years before his death
and where he was swept up into the mystery of God's overwhelming
love for him and for humanity.
St. Bonaventure, in his Life of St. Francis, describes
Francis as being more inflamed than usual with the love of God
as he began a special time of solitary prayer at La Verna that
September of 1224. "His unquenchable fire of love for the
good Jesus," Bonaventure writes, "was fanned into such
a blaze of flames that many waters could not quench so powerful
a love" (see Song of Solomon 8:6-7).
Bonaventure goes on: "While Francis was praying on the mountainside,
he saw a Seraph with six fiery and shining wings descend from
the height of heaven. And when in swift flight the Seraph had
reached a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared
between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands
and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross.
Two of the wings were lifted above his head, two were extended
for flight and two covered his whole body.
"When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed and his heart
was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because
of the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance
of a Seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced
his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow (Luke 2:35)."
When the vision disappeared, writes Bonaventure, Francis was left
with a "marvelous ardor" in his heart. At the same time,
there were "imprinted on his body markings that were no less
marvelous." These markings were the stigmata.
There are two things to dwell on here. First is the Seraph. Seraphs
are those angels closest to God,
burning with love as they bow before the most high God, shouting,
"Holy, holy, holy!" Their fiery wings, as depicted here,
suggest the flaming intensity of God's love that Christ communicated
to Francis, which in turn set Francis' heart afire. The word seraphic
is often used to describe
Francis' passionate style of relating to God and is often applied
to the whole Franciscan Order, which is sometimes called the Seraphic
Second, we focus on "the gracious way Christ looked upon
him." This is something of a repeat of the vision Francis
had in the beginning of his spiritual life in which "Jesus
appeared to him fastened on a cross" and "Francis' soul
melted at the sight, and the memory of Christ's passion was so
impressed on the innermost recesses of his heart that from that
hour whenever Christ's crucifixion came to mind, he could scarcely
contain his tears
and sighs..." (Bonaventure's Life of St. Francis).
The God Who Gives All
Here at La Verna, Francis was set aflame all the more by the experience
of the unimaginable love of God, who holds nothing back, not even
the life of God's only Son. For Francis, to look at the intensity
of Jesus' love beaming toward him from the cross was like looking
into the sun. It was blinding--overwhelming.
Francis had seen this same kind of soul-blinding love revealed
in the Incarnation--in the Word's becoming flesh in Bethlehem in
the form of a vulnerable, naked baby. He saw the same brilliance
in that awesome central gesture of the Last Supper and of every
Eucharist: Jesus handing over his Body and Blood--his complete
self--to those he loved.
This experience of God's total self-emptying explains Francis'
love for poverty. If the God-man could be poor--not clutching anything
of his own, not even the divine nature, but accepting the poverty
and nakedness of a crude manger at Bethlehem and the cross at
Calvary--then Francis too could respond with self-giving and hold
nothing back in his love of Christ.
St. Anthony of Padua, an early follower of Francis, once proclaimed
in a sermon words that seem to be inspired by Francis' own style
of loving: "Love wholly and not partially," Anthony
encouraged the crowds. "God does not have parts but is present
totally everywhere." In the same way, Anthony adds, "God
does not want only a part of you....Give all of yourself and God
will give you all of himself."
This is a good description of the real meaning of poverty as taught
by St. Francis. For Francis, poverty was not a matter of pinching
pennies or scolding his friars for touching coins. That was not
the point at all. His horror was at the specter of a stingy spirit.
His poverty was a willingness to give away the whole store--always
to pour out generously all that he had, thus imitating the unbounded
goodness of God, who is never grasping and greedy about anything.
Francis' poverty was a readiness to hand everything over to God
and neighbor. Francis' receiving the stigmata at La Verna was
a confirmation that the holy man during his life had mirrored
the "poverty" of God. For Francis now bore in his own
flesh the five signs of God's total self-giving--the pierced hands, feet and side.
For Franciscans, the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, as revealed
in the cross, is the shining summit of God's revelation. The richest
revelation of God's word and goodness peaks in Jesus, especially
in his self-emptying death and resurrection. "No one has
greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends"
(John 15:13). This is why the cross has been central for Franciscans
and, of course, for Christianity itself.
Every day, all around the world, because Francis requested the
practice, Franciscans pray the Adoramus Te: "We adore
you, O Lord, here and in all the churches throughout the whole
world, and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed
the world." Their coat of arms, moreover, is a cross with
two arms crossing and nailed to it. One arm is that of Francis;
the other is Christ's. Both arms reveal a willingness to give
This article is an excerpt from Lights: Revelations of God's
Goodness, by Jack Wintz. This book is published by and available
from St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1615 Republic Street, Cincinnati,
OH 45210-1298, for $7.95. Phone 1-800-488-0488.
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest, ordained in 1963. He has
an M.A. in English from Xavier University, Cincinnati, and has taught
English in the United States and the Philippines. He is editor of this
publication and editor of Catholic Update.