18 May 2014

The Roman goddess of theives, a mountain, and Saint Francis of Assisi

For as long as I can remember I have been of lover of books and have always spent time reading. In grade school, I particularly remember devouring James Howe's Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery and his other mystery books; The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander; anything involving the tomb of King Tutankhamun; and the myths of the Greek gods, goddesses, and demigods. So greatly did I enjoy the Greek myths that I considered the myths of ancient Rome nothing more than poor copy-cat mythologies. This weekend I came to regret that attitude that kept me as a boy from reading a certain Roman goddess whose name would have shed a great light on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Have I peaked your interest yet?

Friday afternoon I returned to Assisi to join a group of alumni of Quincy University - my alma mater - for part of their Franciscan pilgrimage through Italy. Some weeks back a few them with whom I am friends asked if we could get together later this week when they are in Rome. Naturally, I was happy to agree and went one step further. "Aren't you going to Mount La Verna? I wonder if I might join you that day," I asked. They made a phone call I think that same day and the next morning I received an e-mail from their pilgrimage coordinator.

I first visited the Santuario Francescano La Verna on May 21, 1998 as part of a Franciscan Academic Pilgrimage. My fellow pilgrims and I spent a semester studying the life of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi and also the history of art, with a particular focus on medieval and renaissance art in Italy. At the end of the semester we set off on our pilgrimage and spent two nights in Florence (a city which I have never liked, though I cannot find the words to express why); a day at La Verna; five nights in Assisi; a day at Greccio; and three nights in Rome before returning home. It was a magnificent time of spiritual growth and to this day I deeply grateful for it. This past weekend, almost exactly sixteen years later (that's very hard to comprehend!) I finally returned to Monte La Verna, where Saint Francis of Assisi received the Stigmata on September 14, 1224.

One of the many views from the piazza in front of the Basilica.

On the way up the mountain, our tour guide explained that the name of the mountain - La Verna - comes from the Roman goddess of thieves, Laverna. Within the hierarchy of Roman deities, she occupied only a minor place (after all, you certainly don't want too many thieves running around) and this mountain, so far removed from signs of civilization, seems as good a place as most for thieves to gather.

As our bus continued zigging and zagging up the mountain, it occupied to me that a mountain named after the goddess of thieves, in the way of Providence, seemed a perfectly logical place for the Stigmata - the very wounds of Christ - to be given to Saint Francis of Assisi.

In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul reminded the first Christians that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night" (I Thessalonians 5:2). Saint Peter, too, taught that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief" (II Peter 2:10). Lest we begin to think this only a teaching of the two great Apostles, the angel of the Church in Sardis addressed these words to Saint John on behalf Jesus: "If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you" (Revelation 3:3). Towards the conclusion of his Revelation, Saint John records Jesus saying, "Behold, I am coming like a thief" (Revelation 16:15)!

It should also be remembered that in one of his parables, the Lord Jesus referred to himself as a thief when he said, "But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would have been awake and would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Luke 12:39-40). By his own words, we might rightly call Jesus the true Good Thief.

In his song "Why?", Michael Card asks, "Why did it have to be a heavy cross he was made to bear?" The answer, he sings, is because "Jesus had come into the world to steal every heart away:"

In the end, the only question that matters is this: Will we let ourselves be stolen (and here I don't mean in the sense of the singing vegetables at the beginning of The Muppet Christmas Carol [if you know the reference, treat yourself to a cookie; if you don't, you have homework tonight])? Will we allow the Good Thief to break into the home of our heart, the home of our soul?

Is this not what happened when Mary gave her, "Yes," in response to the message of the Archangel Gabriel? Did she not let her heart be stolen by Jesus?

When the angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest," where they not inviting all who heard their song to allow their hearts to be stolen?

When Jesus hung upon the Cross, was his being lifted up not another invitation for us to allow him to steal our hearts?

If couples sometimes say of their beloved, "She/he stole my heart," why do we not say it of the Lord?

"I think it's very hard to allow God to break us," said Rich Mullins. I think it's very hard to be broken. And I think that who the Lord loves He chastens, and that if we'll never be broken we'll never be saved. And that God doesn't break us because He hates us, or because He's angry at us, but we have to be broken, just like you have to break a horse." [If you're unfamiliar with Rich Mullins, watch this video.]

In his song, "Cry the Name," Mullins sought to express what it means to allow the Lord to break in and steal our heart away when he sang, "I cannot hide this longing that grows / In this temple of silence and stars / But a thief in the night stole in and broke / Every chain that had bound up my heart" (lyrics begin at 1:33):

In one of his earlier songs, "Steal at Any Price," Mullins sang of Jesus: "He's a thief in the night / Where souls are for sale but nobody buys / Please believe me when I When I tell you His love / Is a steal at any price:"

Pope Saint John Paul II once said, "In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences." When Saint Francis of Assisi ascended Mount La Verna in 1224 - his sixth visit to the mountain - for a period of forty days of prayer and penance to prepare for the celebration of the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, he did so to pray for two particular graces:
My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die: the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of Your most bitter passion.  The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners (The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 190-191).
From that moment on, it was noted that "joy and sorrow were intermingled in him." The same can be intermingled in us.

We might say that Saint Francis was asking, even begging, to be broken by Jesus. He was inviting the Good Thief to break in and steal his soul away. When the Seraph appeared and imparted the Sigmata in Saint Francis' body, the stealing of Francis' heart, that began when he first embraced the leper, was now complete and so it was that he became the alter Christus, the other Christ; so closely did he conform his heart to the heart of Jesus that Jesus conformed Francis' body to his, as well and so completed his union with Christ. Saint Francis' love had been repaid with love.

Even today - in Assisi, on Mount La Verna, and throughout the world - Saint Francis continues his work of stealing hearts for Jesus, if only souls will let down their guard, yield to Crucified Love, and allow themselves to be, as it were, stolen away.

So often we desire to allow the Lord Jesus to enter fully into our lives. We invite him in. And we even sometimes begin to notice - little by little - that Jesus is stealing us away from ourselves. But then we grow uncomfortable and we begin to resist and to pull back, refusing to be fully stolen by the Good Thief. Unlike Saint Francis, we do not long to experience the fullness of the Lord's love in both our hearts and our bodies.

The Sanctuary at La Verna is an invitation to follow the example of Saint Francis. Very few of us will receive the grace of the Stigmata, but each of us can always strive for greater union with Christ through prayer and penance, to return the Lord's love with our own.

On the very spot where Saint Francis received the sacred wounds, the Chapel of the Stigmata has been erected with a clear focus on Crucified Love:

The exact spot where Saint Francis was is clearly marked and honored by the presence of flowers and a candle:

Among the many relics preserved at the sanctuary is the very habit Saint Francis was wearing when he received the Stigmata:

If the only thing of Saint Francis you know is his love of animals, you do not know Saint Francis. Unless you know his love of the Cross, you do not know him; it was his love of the Cross that motivated everything he did.

If you like, you can view other pictures I took at the Sanctuary at my Facebook page (even if you are not on Facebook).

Father Jerabek kindly used one of my pictures to say something of the art in the Chapel of the Stigmata.