Friday Book Pick: The Five Wounds of Saint Francis by Solanus M. Benfatti, CFR
As I look forward to Sunday, when the friars and the sisters will be gathered in the South Bronx to celebrate Saint Francis of Assisi, I am recommending a book that could open a door for you into the communion of saints, and particularly to communion with St. Francis. Even though Fr. Solanus admits that this work is not primarily intended for a popular audience, for the serious devotee of Francis, reading this work, scholarly as it is, could be a worthwhile and rewarding adventure. While I do not recommend it as a starter book on our beloved saint, for those of you who have long loved the Poverello and know his life story like you know a familiar family tale, I do recommend you picking up Fr. Solanus Benfatti, CFR’s historical and spiritual investigation as a way to plunge deeper. (For those of you interested in a first introduction to St. Francis, you might try: The First Life of St. Francis, by Thomas of Celano or The Life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure or even an historical novel such as The Joyful Beggar: St. Francis of Assisi by Louis de Wohl.)
The Little Poor Man of Assisi is far and away among the best loved of our Catholic saints, and it’s not only Franciscans, or even just Catholics who are moved to devotion for him. Who can say what it is that attracts so many people to Saint Francis of Assisi? And who can judge if the worldwide devotees are drawn by the man himself or by the variety of caricatures that have come to represent him? Reading “primary sources,” or immediate, first-hand accounts from people who had a direct connection with Francis of Assisi is unquestionably an indispensable first step for getting to know any historical figure. But I think modern sources also hold a valuable place for us as we try to understand the life and experience of the Poverello and the meaning of his life for us today. As Father Solanus writes, “History, after all, is not piles of raw data dug up out of the past. No, for the Christian at least, it is what the events mean.”
The Five Wounds of Saint Francis is about the “stigmata” (physical wounds that resemble those inflicted upon Jesus Christ in the crucifixion), which St. Francis of Assisi received and bore the last two years of his life. The interesting questions for us are spiritual: What do the stigmata mean about Francis? What did it mean for Francis? And, what do they mean for us? These spiritual questions cannot be delved into with the looming shadow of doubt over the historicity of the event itself. If it didn’t happen, there is nothing to be learned from it. But if it did happen, there is much to learn. In this intriguing book, Fr. Solanus sets out like an investigative reporter to uncover with rigorous scholarship what happened on La Verna, the geographical site of the stigmatization of St. Francis, and how it has been understood, and perhaps misunderstood, through the ages. After a detailed analysis of sources and scholarly research on the question in the first half of the book, he ventures to propose a hypothetical reconstruction of the historical event on La Verna in September of 1224, two years before Francis’s death, and the saint’s own experience of it.
We can all think of saints over the centuries who have borne the five wounds (Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Padre Pio come to mind), and some of these have written of the phenomenon or given testimony, of which we have record. Significantly, St. Francis of Assisi was the first person to experience this spiritual phenomenon, and of it he wrote not a word; this was Francis’ well-guarded secret. The modesty and humble discretion of Francis, while in itself could be seen as evidence toward the authenticity of the event in question, also may have helped set the stage for centuries of controversy, among scholars of Franciscanism at least, regarding the nature and validity of the stigmata.
As a work of academic scholarship, Fr. Solanus analyzes the predominant critical positions regarding the stigmata and convincingly dismantles them. Putting forth his well-evidenced discoveries and conclusions about the stigmata based on the sources, in particular he attempts to surmise how Francis himself may have experienced it. With Father’s intended aims in mind, I fully expected to gain some insight and understanding into the phenomenon of the stigmata in reading The Five Wounds of Saint Francis, and indeed I did. But even more significantly for me, and why I recommend it to you, was that in the pages of this fascinating treatise, I met Francis himself as if for the first time.
As Fr. Solanus follows the historical trail, the reader follows him on a journey back through the last eight centuries of study and speculation on Francis, to the man Francis himself. His two-fold experience on La Verna—encountering the mysterious seraph and the marking of his flesh with wounds resembling Christ’s—cannot be understood outside of the context of Francis’ life, especially his post-conversion life and the particular spirituality that grew in him as a result. Suddenly, the reader finds himself face to face with a version of Francis perhaps not often seen by the average devotee, perhaps not even by the average Franciscan. What emerges through Father’s treatment of the saint is a man much more human and relatable than the caricature we might be accustomed to.
Through Father Solanus’ careful work to ensure an authentic, substantiated picture of the real man, we see Francis as a follower of Jesus, but not a slavish or simplistic imitator (see pages 187-201). We realize that Francis is following Jesus in doing the will of the Father, no matter how dark or painful the path, and further, that the path is no aimless labyrinth but rather a direct line into Trinitarian life. Father summarizes his point regarding what is central to understanding Francis’ approach to the Gospel: “[Following Christ]…will sometimes lead down paths of suffering and hardship, since Jesus’ earthly life did; and Francis believes that doing so will be an entryway into relationship with each of the Trinitarian persons.” With this foundation, Fr. Solanus goes on to expound other key aspects of Francis’ spirituality in the attempt to reconstruct how the saint might possibly have thought about and reacted to the stigmata he received, based on what we know about his spiritual viewpoint and disposition.
A notable aspect of Francis’ spiritual way of seeing reality was that he saw nothing as his own, certainly not material possessions, but not interior or spiritual possessions either. Therefore, Father Solanus surmises that Francis would not have seen the stigmata as “his own.” For Francis, the wounds were Christ’s, they belonged to Him, and for Francis they would have been a reminder of the goodness of God, especially the saving goodness of the cross. As Fr. Solanus writes, “Francis’s experience of his own wounds is one of non-possession, of seeing something good in them, which…cannot but lead him back to God, the source of all good.”
In addition to grounding the stigmata event in history and then viewing it through the lens of Francis’s spirituality, we also get to see the event nestled in the actual human experience of Francis at the time of the mysterious consolation on La Verna. We see, through the guidance of Fr. Solanus, that Francis was in the midst of an ongoing struggle, and he needed a rest and seemed to feel guilty about it. But after a sign from God in the form of singing birds who visited him there on the mountain where he was retreating, Francis was consoled and sensed that God was confirming him in his decision to take time away. “He was very grateful probably, because of how much he really did need the physical as well as emotional and spiritual rest; there were many things he was suffering, outwardly and inwardly.” And it was in the context of struggle, disappointment and, finally, of taking leave of his brothers that the awesome event of the stigmata takes place.
The Five Wounds of Saint Francis is a work of scholarship, but no less is it a work to captivate and inspire. Aside from the significant scholarly contribution Fr. Solanus makes to the ongoing debate about the stigmata, something of the real Francis of Assisi emerges from this text (precisely because it is a responsibly undertaken academic work), and Francis emerges as someone you want to know, and to follow. How relatable he is, this man Francis, yet how converted—perfectly converted. How humble he is, assiduously focused on God. How human he is, struggling with his brothers in the community he founded. And we can appreciate Father’s hypothesis that the stigmata were seen by Francis not as a stamp of approval on himself or his order, but a validation on this spiritual intuition to follow Jesus no matter what, no matter where He leads. Fr. Solanus writes, “Thus the wounds were indeed a seal of approval, as was claimed by Franciscan writers from almost the very beginning…. the wounds were the seal of approval on the basic propositum of Francis, to follow in the footsteps of Christ, wherever they may lead. …God broke through his melancholy and shattered the fetters of his joylessness, his attention was no longer on the affront that [the brothers ambition in place of simplicity] was to him as the founder, but only on the wounds of the Lord, whom he had promised to follow anywhere.”
On September 17, when Franciscans annually celebrate the stigmata of Our Holy Father St. Francis, and on October 4th when the whole Church celebrates him, thanks to Fr. Solanus’ magnificent treatment of, not only the stigmata but of the man Francis, we can see him as a mirror of Jesus, marked in the flesh with reminders of God’s goodness—His wonderful, saving goodness. And following Francis, we can learn to shift our gaze from self to our merciful Savior.
Mother Clare, CFR