After Francis’ withdrawal from active ministerial leadership of the friars, he witnessed an inevitable evolution of the religious order, which had grown to over 5,000 brothers in 1223 from the humble beginnings in 1209 of Francis and four companions. The evolution of the Order, necessary on a number of levels, also began to change the life of the fraternity. Francis worried that the Spirit of prayer was being compromised and that the necessities of ministry were leading the brothers to increasing ties to material possessions. He lived and suffered in a “Time of Doubt,” as described in the previous article.
It is in this troubled context that Francis and a few companions withdrew into solitude in a wilderness mountain area called La Verna. Although the events that would unfold on La Verna were extraordinary, there does not seem to be any premonition about such things, rather, the withdrawal was simply part of the pattern of Francis’ life. Francis often took extended time in prayer at the Carceri, a hermitage located near Assisi on the slopes of Mount Subasio. Francis wrote a document referred to as the “Rule of Hermitage” to teach the brothers how to enter into solitude in a fraternal way. So, in August 1224, Francis, Brother Leo, and several others set out for La Verna to celebrate the Lent of St. Michael the Archangel, a popular 40-day devotion of prayer and fasting leading up to the September 29th feast day.
It was during this time at La Verna, while in prayer, that Francis received in his body the stigmata, that is, the five wounds of Christ: two on his hands, two on his feet, and the wound on his right side. The historical records do not record the specific day when the wounds were received. By tradition, the Franciscans celebrate it on September 14th, the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, but that is a later tradition. We do not know the exact date because Francis did not mention it in his writings, he forbade his companions from speaking of it, and dressed so as to keep the marks hidden from sight. The wounds were only witnessed by those very close to him, those who cared for him in his illnesses over the last two years of his life, and the leader of the Order, Brother Elias. For a man that was already being proclaimed a living saint in his lifetime and who actively ignored or suppressed such talk, wanting to hide the marks of Christ was a consistent behavior.
At his death in October 1226, in his final moments, fulfilling the prayer of Job, Francis requested that he be laid naked upon the ground in order to leave the world as he had come into the world. It was then that the large number of brothers gathered there, witnessed the wounds. What was hidden was no longer secret. The next day, Brother Elias wrote an encyclical letter to the whole Order announcing the passing of Francis. In the letter he described the stigmata and affirmed their miraculous nature without providing any details of how they came to be received by Francis. Elias is clear as to the meaning of the stigmata: “Not long before his death, our brother and father appeared crucified, bearing in his body the five wounds, which are truly the marks of Christ. His hand and feet had, as it were, the openings of the nails and were pierced front and back revealing the scars and showing the nail’s blackness. His side, moreover, seemed opened by a lance often emitted blood.” (A Letter on the Passing of St. Francis, §5)
It was in 1229, when Brother Thomas of Celano was commissioned to write the first Life of Francis, that a detailed account is available. Thomas is more precise than Elias as he places the time “two years prior” to Francis’ death when Francis received a vision of God. The vision is described as a man with six wings – two gathered above the head, two extended out as in flight and two covering the torso of the body – who had the appearance of a seraph. The man is suspended from a cross. Upon seeing the vision, Francis fell to the ground in great joy, but he did not really understand the meaning of the vision. It is upon later reflection that the stigmata began to appear in his body.
Francis had begun his spiritual journey in prayer before the crucifix of San Damiano and had meditated on the Passion of Christ since those early days – even writing an Office of prayer on the Passion. He often wept while contemplating the suffering and mystery of the crucifixion and death of Jesus and that our Savior had endured such things for the salvation of the world. He had commented and wondered how he could join his own sufferings to those of Christ crucified.
For several years he had been plagued with increasingly poor health, worries about the future of the Order, and concerns that his evangelical vision would be lost. It was his own personal passion. As André Vauche notes, “It thus seems possible that he might have understood, once confronted with the strange supernatural apparition, that he could be united to Christ Crucified…that his suffering and disappointments had taken on a [new] meaning.” In that new meaning Francis found joy. In his remaining time at La Verna, Francis wrote The Praises of God on a parchment. On the other side of the parchment he wrote down a passage from Numbers 6:24-26: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He show His face to you and be merciful to you. May he turn His countenance to you and give you peace.” The choice of that passage evokes the image of Francis’ time of doubt being transformed by his encounter with the Crucified Christ, finding an inner peace once again. Renewed, Francis’ last two years of life he reconnected with the joy of the beginnings of his spiritual journey.