August 8, 2002
 

Our Franciscan Coat of Arms
by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

St. Bonaventure, the 'Second Founder'
Francis and the Seraphic Angel


If you go into any of our Franciscan churches, houses or convents, you can almost always find painted on a wall somewhere—or over a doorway—the 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.

St. Bonaventure, the 'Second Founder'

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 prayer—a 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 him—even to the point of dying on the cross—conveyed 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!

Francis and the Seraphic Angel

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 teacher...."

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!

 
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