On leaving Rome in 1223 Francis made for the Rieti Valley and back to the hermitage of Fonte Columbo where he had written his rule. It was here that he had an idea which was to stain the memories and the imaginations of everyone for centuries to come with the mystery of the Incarnation. As Christmas drew near the following year he approached John Vellita who owned land in the vicinity of Greccio, and asked him for permission to use a cave on his property to re-enact the birth of Brother Jesus at Bethlehem. There was an ass and an ox in the cave and a manger with a statue of the Christ-child lying in the straw. St Francis was deacon at the Mass and spoke with such love and tenderness that many believed that the statue came alive as he cradled it in his arms. Whether this was true or not one thing was for sure, Francis had brought back to life the humanity of Jesus Christ in the minds and in the imaginations of his contemporaries. This achievement was graphically symbolized by this event that took place in Greccio in the Christmas of 1224 and in its aftermath. Henceforth the practise of making cribs at Christmas spread all over the world and all down the centuries to the present day, to remind all of the world-shaking truth that is at the heart of Franciscan Spirituality.
After Christmas the health of St Francis seemed to get worse. The ascetical regime that he had imposed on himself had not helped. He had subjected ‘Brother Body’ to innumerable fasts and when he did eat it was his custom to spread ashes on his food so that he would not enjoy it. He slept little and when he did, he would use a stone or a piece of wood as a pillow. The haemorrhages from his stomach worsened and so did an eye infection that he had contracted in Egypt. It was time to prepare for the end, though it was two more years of daily martyrdom before it came. St Francis set out for La Verna, the mountain which had been given to him by Count Orlando dei Cattani as a place of retreat ten years before. It was here that he began to pray as never before for the two things that he believed would enable him to attain perfect identity with Brother Jesus before he died.
Firstly, he prayed that he would be given the privilege to experience the suffering that Christ had had to endure on the Cross. Secondly, that he would be given the privilege of experiencing the love that drove him to give his all for others. When he ordered Bro Leo to open the Gospel three times to find out God’s will for him, and three times it was opened at the account of the passion of Jesus he knew that his prayer would be answered. It was on the morning of the fourteenth of September 1224 that that prayer was answered in a way that he could never have expected. As he was once again praying for perfect union with Brother Jesus he felt a flame of love burning within him with ever increasing intensity. Then he looked up to see an angel that he was given to understand was a ‘Seraph’, but although it had six wings, two above its head, two to cover its body, and two with which to fly, it had a human body, the body of a crucified man. As he gazed upon the vision with fear and trembling he was simultaneously filled with joy. Then he was given to understand that it was not through physical martyrdom, that he had long since desire, that he would be transformed into Brother Jesus, but by the inner fire of love that had animated the whole of his life on earth.
When the vision finally disappeared he experienced that love as never before, while at the same time his body was transformed into the likeness of the crucified man, enfolded by the wings of the ‘Seraph.’ The sources are all in agreement that he was left not just with wounds, but with nails in those wounds. The heads of the nails were in his palms and on the top of his feet while the sharp ends curled round underneath in such a way that it was possible to put a finger through the ring that they made. Although he tried to hide them from his brothers the blood was such that it soaked his clothing, particularly the blood from the wound in his side. Despite this Francis was in a continual state of joy which he expressed in a hymn that he composed praising the God who had granted him everything for which he had prayed.
In contrast, his closest friend and follower Brother Leo was depressed and dejected. Shortly before Francis had received the stigmata he had rebuked Brother Leo for ‘spying’ on him whilst he was at prayer in the middle of the night. It was something of a misunderstanding and Brother Leo had been forgiven, but the memory of the rebuke came back to haunt him when, after receiving the stigmata, St Francis seemed distant. The truth of the matter was that he had been swept up into a sublime spiritual stratosphere, where he became all but oblivious of his brethren for a time, including Brother Leo. There was nothing personal, it was just that he had become so absorbed in the supernatural love that enveloped him, that it had made him neglect his dear friend. He was not purposely giving him the cold shoulder for his innocent mistake, but nevertheless that is how Brother Leo took it.
Once he was told about it, St Francis called Brother Leo to him and reassured and consoled him by writing a special blessing just for him on the other side of the hymn of praise that he had just composed. Then he signed it with his own special signature that took the form of a ‘Tau’. The ‘Tau’ looked like a stylised cross in the form of the letter ‘T’, and it was usually coloured red in remembrance of the blood that Christ had shed on his real cross. Innocent III had used it as a badge of the reform that he wanted to introduce into the Church and as a sign that the bearer had been designated as an instrument of that reform. That’s why Francis used to paint it upon his door and his walls and with which to sign his letters and now it was used to sign his special gift to console Brother Leo. It is still used by many Franciscans to this day as a sign of their calling. It changed Brother Leo’s darkness into light and he carried it with him at all times next to his heart until his dying day. Pilgrims can still see this blessing in the sacristy of the great Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi where it has been preserved for posterity.
David is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.