October 4, 2011

Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

This was the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.

Who was St. Francis?

Who was St. Francis of Assisi, really? Was he just a sort of superficial “hippy” who preached to birds?

No. Quite the contrary…

(Giotto’s fresco of St. Francis preaching to the birds)

More than 700 years ago, on February 24, 1209, St. Francis, then 27 years old, heard a sermon that changed his life.

The sermon was on Matthew 10:9.

Christ there tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, taking no money with them, not even a walking stick or shoes for the road.

Inspired, Francis decided to devote himself to a life of poverty.

Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Gospel precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance.

(One of the earliest depictions of Francis)

This is why he became known as “il poverello,” the “little poor man,” and why it is said that he married no ordinary woman, but “Lady Poverty.”

But this was not the only remarkable thing about Francis.

Toward the end of his life, in a mystical vision, he became the first person in the Christian tradition to receive the “stigmata,” the wounds of Christ himself, making him, in a sense, a living copy of his crucified Lord.

And this is the reason Francis was called by his follower, St. Bonaventure, “the angel of the 6th seal.”

The “Root of All Good”

Francis would have agreed with the phrase of St. Paul: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (“Radix omnium malorum cupiditas est,” Letter to Timothy, 6:10)

If the love of money is the root of all evil, what then is the root of all good?

Francis proposed a seemingly outrageous answer: the love of poverty is the root of all good.

Why so? Because he saw that, for one who loves poverty, all the desires of this world fall away.

No longer is there a desire to gather gold and silver and nickel and copper coins, or dollars, euros, rubles and yen, all the paper currencies, or bonds and stocks, or interest rate swaps and options, or jewels, or the works of master artists.

No longer is there a desire to amass these “goods” at any cost, including trickery, deception and cheating — including the knowledge that some other men and women may be left destitute and miserable in the process.

Rather, there is a desire to preach repentance to all, and the common good for all the sons and daughters of God, for all men: the good of peace, and justice, and wisdom, and humility.

And Francis is an example that following this path does not mean a man or a woman must quiver and crawl, without the power and the trappings of power so well known in our world.

Being humble, loving poverty, does not have to mean being weak.

In fact, the way of Francis — the way of Christ — is the strongest way a man or a woman can live, and the most long-lasting, for it builds peace in this present time, and it leaves a testimony for all ages to come, as Francis’s life has, and it reaches even unto eternity.

It is a prophetic way to live…

The Sixth Seal

And this applies to St. Francis, because many in his time, and since, have believed that he was actually a type of prophet, a man who in himself spoke and fulfilled prophecy.

What prophecy?

In the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible — and arguably the most enigmatic — an aging John of Patmos describes a mystical vision granted to him concerning the future of human history, and of that history’s final end (to be brief, that end is a wedding; human history, in this vision, in the Bible as whole, ends in a marriage between the Lord and his spouse, who is mystically the Church, gathered from all nations, from the farthest ends of the earth).

John’s vision begins when he sees a scroll “sealed with seven seals” of wax so that unauthorized people cannot open the scroll and read it.

Then, each one of the “seven seals” is opened, revealing an apocalyptic event.

The opening of the first four seals release “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” each with their own specific mission (some identify these as the Antichrist, War, Famine and Death).

(The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an 1887 painting by Victor Vasnetsov. The Lamb, very small with a golden halo, is visible at the top.)

The opening of the fifth seal releases the cries of those martyred for the “word of God.”

The sixth and next to last seal initiates a time of cataclysmic events.

The seventh seal reveals seven angels with trumpets who sound the trumpets to end all time.

What does all this have to do with Francis?

Everything.

Because we know that St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who lived in the generation after Francis, believed that St. Francis was, in fact, “the angel of the sixth seal.

Bonaventure wrote this in his life of St. Francis, the Legenda Major, and told this to his brothers in conversation.

“Don’t Hurt the Earth!”

Here is what John in Revelation says about the 6th seal (I have bold-faced the passage which Bonaventure believed refers to St. Francis):

Revelation 6:12-17; 7:2-4

12 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

13 And the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

14 And the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;

16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:

17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

2 Then I saw another Angel rising from where the sun rose, carrying the seal of the Living God. He thundered to the Four Angels assigned the task of hurting earth and sea,

3 “Don’t hurt the earth! Don’t hurt the sea! Don’t so much as hurt a tree until I’ve sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads!”

4 I heard the count of those who were sealed: 144,000! They were sealed out of every Tribe of Israel…

The Seal — the Stigmata

On or about September 14, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, while he was praying on Mt. Alverna, and keeping a forty-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas (September 29), Francis had a vision as a result of which he received the stigmata.

(Giotto’s fresco of Francis receiving the stigmata; the Seraph, a six-winged angel, somehow mystically imprints the saving wounds of Christ’s passion into the body of the little poor man of Assisi)

Brother Leo, who was with Francis at the time, wrote:

“Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.”

From this moment on, St. Francis was in pain. He lived two more years.

Suffering from these stigmata and from an eye disease, he was brought back to a hut next to the Porziuncola where his religious journey had begun.

He died on the evening of October 3, 1226, singing Psalm 141. Hence his Feast Day today, Octiber 4.

Bonaventure and the Sixth Seal

About 30 years later, St. Bonaventure climbed Mt. Alverna.

Bonaventure sought to discover a mystical way to reach God: “as much as possible be restored, naked of knowledge, to union with the very One who is above all created essence and knowledge.”

In 1259, St. Bonaventure had a cell made at the sanctuary near the spot where St Francis experienced the stigmata. It is now the Chapel of St Bonaventure.

Not long after, Bonaventure wrote his Life of Francis, seeking to transpose Francis into a universal prophet sent to the entire Church.

Francis was, in fact, in a mystical way, Christ, Who had returned to restore the Gospel life.

Bonaventure saw Francis as the angel of the sixth seal, the third in the line of the great triad of prophets, after King David and the Apostle Peter; the Old Law (David), the New Law (Peter), and the New Law recovered (Francis) — the one who ushered in a final age of world history.

Pope Benedict, Francis, Bonaventure, and the Angel of the Sixth Seal

Pope Benedict XVI is very familiar with all this. He studied Bonaventure in depth for his dissertation in the 1950s.

And he is still making references to to these matters today.

During his General Audience on March 10, 2010, dedicated to Bonaventure, Benedict made the following comments about the stigmata of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure:

“Of his writings, I would like to mention only one, his masterwork, the Itinerarium mentis in Deum, a ‘manual’ of mystical contemplation,” Benedict said.

“This book was conceived in a place of profound spirituality: the hill of La Verna, where St. Francis had received the stigmata. In the introduction, Bonaventure illustrates the circumstances that gave origin to his writing:

“‘While I meditated on the possibility of the soul ascending to God, presented to me, among others, was that wondrous event that occurred in that place to Blessed Francis, namely, the vision of the winged seraphim in the form of a crucifix. And meditating on this, immediately I realized that such a vision offered me the contemplative ecstasy of Father Francis himself and at the same time the way that leads to it’ (Journey of the Mind in God, Prologue, 2, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici / 1, Rome, 1993, p. 499).

Benedict continued:

“The six wings of the seraphim thus became the symbol of six stages that lead man progressively to the knowledge of God through observation of the world and of creatures and through the exploration of the soul itself with its faculties, up to the satisfying union with the Trinity through Christ, in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi.

“The last words of St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium, which respond to the question of how one can reach this mystical communion with God, would make one descend to the depth of the heart:

“‘If you now yearn to know how that happens (mystical communion with God), ask grace, not doctrine; desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of the letter; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness not clarity; not light but the fire that inflames everything and transport to God with strong unctions and ardent affections. … We enter therefore into darkness, we silence worries, the passions and illusions; we pass with Christ Crucified from this world to the Father, so that, after having seen him, we say with Philip: that is enough for me’ (Ibid., VII, 6).

“Dear friends,” Benedict concluded, “let us take up the invitation addressed to us by St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, and let us enter the school of the divine Teacher: We listen to his Word of life and truth, which resounds in the depth of our soul. Let us purify our thoughts and actions, so that he can dwell in us, and we can hear his divine voice, which draws us toward true happiness.”

If we would seek God, then, and if we are to imitate Christ, and Francis, and pass through the apocalyptic events unfolding around us — always unfolding, until the end of the world — we must “ask grace, not doctrine, desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of the letter.”

This is the path of poverty which is indicated to us on this great feast day.

“Joy fall to thee, Father Francis…”

The British Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, mentioned St. Francis in his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland (1875).

The poem is about five German Franciscan nuns who had left Germany due to the conflict there between the state and the Church. All five drowned as their ship sank in a storm off Harwich, England. Witnesses said that before they died, they held hands and their leader called out, “O Christ, come quickly!”

In his poem, Hopkins connected the Franciscan nuns’ fate with the fate of Francis, marked with the wounds of the cross.

In Hopkins’ words, St Francis’ stigmatic body became a landscape of Christ’s love:

Five! the finding & sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd & priced —
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! & these thy daughters
And five-livèd leavèd favour pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire
glances

.
Erdo Re-elected Head of Europe’s Bishops

The Zenit news agency carried the following little note today:

Hungarian Cardinal Re-elected to Lead Europe Bishops

TIRANA, Albania, OCT. 4, 2011 (Zenit.org(http://www.zenit.org)).- Cardinal Péter Erdõ, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest (Hungary), was elected for a second mandate as president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences.

The CCEE concluded Sunday its plenary assembly, during which elections were held.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, and Archbishop Józef Michalik of Przemyl, Poland, were elected vice presidents.

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