If you go into any of our Franciscan churches, houses or convents,
you can almost always find painted on a wall somewhereor over
a doorwaythe Franciscan Coat of Arms. This holds true around
the world and through the centuries.
This coat of arms consists of a cross with two crossed arms nailed
to it. One arm is that of Francis; the other is Christ's. This image
is an identity badge for us Franciscans. Even though I grew up with
this familiar emblem, I didn't reflect much about it. Very likely
my thoughts went something like this: "Oh yes, Francis received
the stigmata near the end of his life, revealing Francis' amazing
identity with Christ and his suffering," or maybe,"Yes,
Lord, suffering is a part of life, and like you and Francis, I must
be ready to suffer, too."
These are both meaningful responses, I trust, to the centuries-old
image and could lead to further, fruitful meditation. In recent
years, however, thanks especially to St. Bonaventure, I have come
to a perspective that has even richer meaning for me.
To explain, let me say a little bit about St. Bonaventure. This
Franciscan friar was born in Italy in 1218. He was about eight years
old when St. Francis died in 1226. Bonaventure studied at the University
of Paris and joined the Franciscans there. He went on to become
a distinguished teacher at that famous university, but his university
career was cut short when he was elected the minister general of
the Franciscan Order in 1257. Many consider him the "Second
Founder of the Order" because he helped save it from falling
into irreconcilable factions.
Bonaventure was also a great spiritual writer who helped shape our
Franciscan spirituality. Of course, the basis for his spirituality
was St. Francis' own way of imitating Christ. One of the things
Bonaventure pondered rather intently was St. Francis' style of prayer.
He noticed, for example, that Francis prayed with great passion,
love and emotion. Francis' relationship to God, as revealed by his
style of prayer, was not a detached, intellectual one. Francis sought
not simply information about God but a love relationship marked
by intense feeling, even with the tears of a lover.
One of the great books written by Bonaventure was his Life of
St. Francis. In that book, Bonaventure highlights a mystical
experience Francis had in the beginning of his conversion. The experience
is an important key to Francis' style of prayera style filled
with burning affection and love. The incident happened after he
had found God by embracing a leper he met along the road.
Bonaventure tells us that, shortly after this episode, Francis "began
to seek out solitary places [where] he prayed incessantly with unutterable
groanings.... One day while Francis was praying in a secluded spot
and became totally absorbed in God through his extreme fervor, Jesus
Christ appeared to him fastened to a cross. Francis' soul melted
at the sight," writes Bonaventure, "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
his mind, he could scarcely contain his tears and sighs...."
This vision of God's all-out love for himeven to the point
of dying on the crossconveyed itself so vividly to Francis
that he began serving the lepers "with a feeling of intimate
devotion," often kissing them "with great compassion."
More than this, other writers tell us that Francis was so overwhelmed
by Christ's great love for him that the little saint ran about the
countryside weeping and proclaiming: "Love is not loved! Love
is not loved!" With these words, Francis was trying to tell
everyone he met that God is madly in love with us, but we fail to
respond with the same kind of burning love!
Interestingly, Bonaventure notes that Francis, near the end of his
life, had a kind of repeat experience of his earlier vision. This
took place as he was praying intensely at Mount La Verna and about
to receive the stigmata. Although earlier biographers had already
recorded this Mount La Verna experience, Bonaventure, when he wrote
about it, took care to set the dramatic scene in the context of
Francis' intense and fervent style of prayer. Bonaventure writes
that Francis, at this time, "burned with a stronger flame of
heavenly desires" than usual. Bonaventure adds that "[Francis']
unquenchable fire of love for the good Jesus had been fanned into
such a blaze of flames that many waters could not quench
so powerful a love" [the italicized words are references
to the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures (8:6-7)].
Here is Bonaventure's description of what then happened: "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....
"When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed and his heart was
flooded by a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because of the
gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance of the
Seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his
soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow."
Bonaventure writes that when the vision ended it left in Francis'
heart, "a marvelous ardor and imprinted on his body markings
that were no less marvelous." These markings, of course, were
the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ.
Surely, the "fiery wings of the Seraph" symbolize the
flaming intensity of God's love that Christ communicated to Francis,
and which in turn set Francis heart on fire. To follow Francis is
to imitate his seraphic way of relating to God. And this brings
us back to the Franciscan coat of arms. Are we not following the
spirit of St. Francis, as taught by Bonaventure, when we see in
the crucified hand of Christ God's incredible flaming love toward
us? And then when we look at Francis' wounded hand, are we not seeing
the incredibly loving response of Francis, which invites us to respond
with similar fervor?
As a final note, let's draw one more bit of advice from another
great book of St. Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey Into God.
It's a complex book, but we can take from it some simple thoughts
about St. Francis and prayer. Bonaventure stresses that Francis'
style of prayer is marked more by "devotion" and "affection"
than by "erudition of the intellect." Therefore when we
come before God in prayer, advises Bonaventure at the very end of
his book: "Ask grace not instruction, desire not understanding,
the groaning of prayer not diligent reading, the Spouse not the
In short, if we cling to God in prayer as a loving spouse rather
than as a mere provider of information, we will be praying in the
spirit of St. Francis. May Francis teach us to respond to God's
burning love with burning love of our own!