14 September 2008

Sad yet happy

On this very day in the year of our Lord 1224, when he spent time in a hermitage on Mount La Verna, Saint Francis of Assisi received the sacred stigmata.

While he was in prayer he received a divine vision. His biographer, Brother Tomaso of Celano describes the event:

…he saw a man above him with six wings like a seraph whose hands were outstretched and whose feet were joined together, and who was nailed to the cross… When he saw this, the blessed servant of the Most High was filled with admiration, but he was unable to understand the meaning of the vision. He was inflamed with joy by the loving sweetness of the Seraph’s glance, which was immeasurably beautiful, yet he was terrified by the consideration of that cross to which he was nailed and the bitterness of his passion. He got up feeling sad yet happy at the same time, if this is what we call it, and joy and sorrow were intermingled in him…

His [Francis’] hands and feet were pierced right through the middle by nails and the heads of these nails could be seen in the palms of his hands and on the upper part of his feet, whereas the ends came out on the opposite side. The seals were round on his palms and long on the backs of his hands, and a bit of flesh, like a twisted and riveted end of a nail, stuck out from the rest of his skin… Moreover his right side looked as if it had been pierced by a lance and had a long scar that bled frequently so that his robe and his underpants would often get wet…

Although this servant and friend of the Most High found himself adorned with these pearls, like most precious gems, and was more wonderfully rich in honor and glory than any other man, he nevertheless did not become haughty about it deep within himself and never attempted to boast about it with anyone out of the desire for vainglory. Instead, in order to prevent the favor of men from stealing heavenly grace from him, he tried to hide it in every way possible (First Life, 94-95).
What perhaps strikes me most about Francis’ vision is that it left him “feeling sad yet happy” and that “joy and sorrow were intermingled in him.”

So very often we consider sadness and happiness and joy and sorrow as complete opposites, in such a way that one cannot be in the presence of the other. Francis was, of course, filled with sorrow at the Passion of our Lord and filled with joy at having seen the Lord in his glory upon the Cross; it is possible to experience both at the same time and it is good to do so.

It is only right that joy and sorrow, sadness and happiness, mark our lives, for with these seemingly contradictory emotions and characteristics are present within us we imitate the Poverello, and in imitating him we imitate the Lord himself.

My own life is marked with much sadness and yet much happiness, as well. The deaths of my parents, in particular, stand out as the saddest days of my life and have, quite naturally shaped my outlook on the world. And yet, it was through their deaths that I came to experience the joy of suffering with Christ. I am, as it were, a man of joy and sorrow.

It was through their deaths – and through other events of my life as well – the Lord offered his Cross to me. It is not easy to embrace the Cross, but there is also something very intriguing and inviting about it, almost even compelling. The Cross beckons to us and the more we attempt to resist its call, the more intently we hear this call. The more we run from the Cross the greater our sadness becomes, but if we embrace the Cross our sadness is accompanied by much happiness and joy.

It is because my life has been marked with such sadness, I think, that smiling does not come naturally to me. As I walk down the sidewalk or go shopping or what not, I only rarely have a smile on my face; most commonly I am straight-faced, and many – for one reason or another – interpret this as my being sad, when I am in reality quite content. The sorrows of my life daily accompany me; so, too, do the joys of my life. The sadness and joy of the Cross is always present.

For this reason, when I do smile it is a genuine smile and, I am told, it brightens a room. Perhaps it does; if it does, it is because it is authentic and sincere. But let us return now to Saint Francis.

If we look at what is said to be the most authentic and true life image of Saint Francis that we have, his face is one marked by sadness and happiness. Though he bears no smile, a smile is forming, as it were, in his eyes.

Let each of us, then, approach the Cross of Lord in humility of heart, that we, with Saint Francis, might be marked the sorrow and joy of the Cross.

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