The Chapel of the Stigmata is perched on the edge of the same sheer precipice where Saint Francis stood two years before his death and where he was swept up into the mystery of God’s overwhelming love for him and for humanity.
Saint Bonaventure, in his Life of St. Francis, describes Francis as being more inflamed than usual with the love of God as he began a special time of prayer at Mount La Verna in September of 1224. “His unquenchable fire of love for the good Jesus,” Bonaventure writes, “was fanned into such a blaze of flames that so many waters could not quench so powerful a love” (see Song of Solomon 8:6-7).
The Vision of a Seraph
Bonaventure goes on: “While Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a Seraph with six fiery and shining wings descend from the height of heaven. And when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Two of the wings were lifted above his head, two were extended for flight and two covered his whole body.
“When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed and his heart was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because of the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the form of a Seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow” (See Luke).
When the vision disappeared, writes Bonaventure, Francis was left with a “marvelous ardor” in his heart. At the same time, there “was imprinted on his body markings that were no less marvelous.” These markings were the stigmata.
More about the Seraph
There are two things to dwell on here. First is the seraph. Seraphs are angels closest to God, burning with love as they bow before the most high God, shouting “Holy, holy, holy!” Their fiery wings suggest the flaming intensity of God’s love that Christ communicated to Francis, which, in turn, set Francis’ heart afire. The word seraphic is often used to describe Francis’ passionate style of relating to God and is often applied to the Franciscan Order, which is sometime called the Seraphic Order.
Second, we focus on “the gracious way that Christ looked upon him.” This is something of a repeat of the vision Francis had in the beginning of his spiritual life in which “Jesus appeared to him fastened on a cross” and Francis soul melted at the sight, and the memory of Christ’s passion was so impressed on the innermost recesses of his heart that from that hour whenever Christ’s crucifixion came to mind, Francis could scarcely contain his sighs…” (Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis).