Recently, I had my students read about the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. Late in his life, while up on a mountain, he had a vision of Christ as a seraph. When the vision was over, Francis had the wounds of Christ. The biographers make a point to say he didn’t talk about it, he even took precautions to hide it from his followers. Having read a description of the event, one student raised his hand and asked : How do we know St. Francis wasn’t crazy? Isn’t it possible that he made the marks himself in an episode of self harm?
How we answer these questions goes a long way in revealing a person’s social imaginary. Are miracles like this possible? We love St. Francis because of his eco-theology and peaceful mojo – but you can’t have garden gnome Francis without the crazy stuff, and there’s a lot of crazy stuff. Talking crosses, conversations with wolves, etc. His back story suggests the possibility of what today we call PTSD. He was a prisoner of war and endured a sickness that broke him. He wanted nothing to do with war after he returned, and eventually wanted nothing to do with the family business. So, right there in front of the bishop—in front of the town—he stripped naked and declared his allegiance to God.
It’s strange how we determine normal. Endless hours pursuing money and power, sacrificing everything and everyone for status and prestige, most of it meaningless. What’s praised as leadership in today’s leadership obsessed world is quite comical. Deep down I think we sense the absurdity but are too afraid to say anything. Politicians, religious leaders, celebrities cast a vision of reality for mass consumption, but Paul says God uses the foolish of this world to undercut the wise; God uses the lowly, the humble, the slightly out of whack to reveal goodness and grace. This is the story of St. Francis. Was he nuts? Probably. Did God do powerful things through his life and ministry? Absolutely.
What’s beautiful about Francis is he refused to live in fear. That’s the malaise of our time—fear. People are afraid to do the right thing, to speak up for our neighbors, and to testify to the kingdom of God because they are afraid of the powers that be. Or, they are afraid they’ll lose their seat at the table. Francis didn’t just leave his seat at the table, he got up on the table and danced.
The stigmata signifies a cruciform life—a life dedicated to following Christ. It signifies a life dedicated to the poor, the lepers, the outcasts, the marginalized. Francis didn’t try to use the system for good, he stepped outside of the system and kissed it goodbye. A bit crazy? Sure. Seems like we could use a little bit of St. Francis crazy right now.