The Life of St. Francis, as it is depicted in St. Bonaventure’s Legenda Maior, tells the story of one of the world’s most known and beloved saints, famous among many other things as being afflicted with the sacred stigmata. Though the he is only impressed with stigmata in the later part of his Life, the beginning of his Life hints at the stigmata as a spiritual theme, and I argue that Francis’s experience with the lepers is the moment that initiates the spiritual theme.
Bonaventure’s text is organized structurally into three parts, with the first and third being more or less chronological and the center section being presented thematically according to the virtues of St. Francis’s life. In other words, the bulk of the moral and theological work that the saint accomplishes is bookended on either side with biographical material that forms a framework for the life as a whole. The beginning section portrays Francis before he dedicates himself to a religious life, and the end deals with his stigmatization and death. Many scholars have discussed the stigmata that Francis receives at the end of the text, notably Ann Astell in her discussion of the saint’s wounds as adornments that function as “a gateway to paradise for others” (129). The climactic element of the stigmata from the last section is alluded to at the end of the opening chapters through prophetic foreshadowing, but closer examination of these chapters reveals that this stigmatization is also prefigured by Francis’s dealings with the lepers.
Sacred stigmata, as Astell points out, is a phenomenon that that “corresponds to the opening wide of the saint’s soul” (128) and allows Francis to act as the aforementioned gateway. The “sacred blood” (Bonaventure 164) that flows out of his side, however, reveals that the gateway itself is dialogic, and Francis is not only allowing the world to enter but simultaneously pouring himself and Christ into the world. This productive wound is in opposition to the lesions of leprosy that manifest as open sores on the skin but do not bleed profusely as stigmata seem to. Though Francis is not himself a leper at the beginning of the text, his first ministry, even before his conversion to the religious way of life, is to kiss and care for lepers. Miraculously, St. Francis does not physically contract leprosy, but through an understanding of his connection to spiritual senses we can posit that in a certain sense he has become a spiritual leper. This state carries all of the familiar connotations of biblical lepers and their affinity with Christ, as well as Francis’s desire to be socially ostracized. In addition, however, we can understand Francis’s spiritual body as having leprosy sores, or openings on himself to the world around him that do not yet issue forth sacred blood. This spiritual leprosy has made him open to conversion and attentive to being penetrated by the needs of the poor and his brothers around him, though he is not yet prepared for preaching until he has built up a pastoral persona.
By contrasting Francis’s state as a spiritual leper with his venerated stigmatic status at the end of his life, we can track a progression in his sainthood from inexperience to readiness. Bonaventure presents is with an example of the repetition with a different valence that characterizes much hagiography, and invites his readers to meditate on the openness of their own spirit.
Astell, Ann. Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. Print.
Bonaventure, Saint. Legenda Maior. London: R. Washbourne, 1868. Print.