Scarred for life

La Verna Sanctuary is tucked away in the Apennine mountains of Tuscany. To get there from Assisi, you drive an hour and a half on the highway, and then wind your way up Monte Penna.

Much of northern Italy is underwater at the moment, and the drive from Umbria was through a monsoon; we made decent time largely because hydroplaning is such an efficient way to travel.

As we started the climb up Monte Penna, the rain eased up. By the time we arrived, it was a perfect Fall day: damp, slightly foggy, and cool. Best of all? Very few other people.

 The story of La Verna, in a nutshell, is this: Saint Francis was sandalling his way around the area, orating when the Spirit moved him, and was heard by a man named Count Orlando Cattani, who was so impressed with what Francis had to say that he offered his property at La Verna to Francis and his followers as a hermitage. This is a ridiculously facile account of what transpired, of course, but you get the gist. 

Two years before Francis died, in 1224, he made his last trip to La Verna. In the midst of a 40 day fast, and while participating in the Exaltation of the Cross, a six-winged angel appeared to Francis. When it departed, Francis was left with the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion, which remained until the day he died.

I used to be a bit skeptical about things like stigmata and sightings, but I’ve eased off that as I’ve gotten older and seen more and more that I can’t explain, and talked to so many others who have also had “unexplainable” experiences.

But it did make me laugh when the Catholic-turned-Buddhist Italian tour guide / bat-out-of-hell driver accompanying me shrugged and said, in reference to Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, “Normal to me, I do not believe. But this, I believe. Many people saw.” 

I’m not sure he meant to employ one of the same criterion that New Testament scholars use to determine what Jesus actually said — multiple attestation — but he did, rather perfectly. 

La Verna was beautiful. I wandered around happily, marveling at the della Robbia porcelains, admiring the scenery, and translating the text on the murals, which earned great laughter from the tour guide, because my Italian to English sounds like a mixture of children’s books and chimpanzee communication.

“Saint Francis throw cloth on ground and do not receive monies from the father of him. Count Orlando give to Francis sanctuary at mountain at La Verna. Koko love kitten. Want play string.”

And then I went back outside, and as I was sliding on a mass of wet leaves down some stone stairs, I started thinking about scars.

Saint Francis was the first known stigmatic. His earliest biographer, Thomas Celano, wrote in First Life of St. Francis that when St. Francis saw the six-winged seraph:

“…[H]e was filled with wonder, but he did not know what the vision meant…he was alarmed by the fact that the seraph was affixed to the cross and was suffering terribly.

Thus Francis rose … and his soul was uneasy as it searched for understanding. And as his understanding sought in vain for an explanation… the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified man above him.

His wrists and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing on his wrists and on the upper sides of his feet, the points appearing on the other side. The marks were round on the palm of each hand but elongated on the other side, and small pieces of flesh jutting out from the rest took on the appearance of the nail-ends, bent and driven back.

In the same way the marks of nails were impressed on his feet and projected beyond the rest of the flesh. Moreover, his right side had a large wound as if it had been pierced with a spear, and it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were soaked with his sacred blood.”

That’s some pretty serious stigmata, right? It’s been suggested that what Francis considered stigmata was actually purpura, or even leprosy, but maybe it doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day, we all create the meaning of our lives, including the scars we bear.

I have numerous friends and loved ones with serious scars, momentos of the most terrifying moments of their lives. I have scars, as well, covering the entirety of my body from chest to thighs, in a lovely pattern I like to call “Nile Delta Relief Map.” They’re the result of medication I was on while carrying twins, and while I’ve always hated them, I’ve also known that they’re a ridiculously minor price to pay for healthy babies. Plus, now they have company: a mallet finger, a reattached toe, some chemical burns, and a dozen surgical scars. 

Making my way down the slippery stairs, I thought about my own scars, and those of my friends, and about Francis’ stigmata.

As the first stigmatic, Francis didn’t have an example to follow in interpreting the marks on his body. He couldn’t look to someone before him and feel proud that the wound on his side bled occasionally, or that his marks were so complete as to have “small pieces of flesh…that took on the appearance of nail ends.”

Francis had to decide for himself what to make of these scars, which couldn’t have been welcome, in a practical sense, for a man living in a time when maggots and lice were rampant, and the tunic he was bleeding through was the only one he had. 

 Standing inside a cavern covered by a rock that, had it moved slightly, would have crushed me like a bug, I thought about the conviction Francis had that allowed him to recognize his scars as a triumph of faith, a mark of blessing. The faith that allowed him to accept that, hugely inconvenient and life-threatening though they must have been, these scars bore witness to God’s unwavering commitment to Francis himself, as evidenced by the crucifixion of Jesus.

And I thought about the people I know with serious scars, and how they got them, and the fact that the common denominator in every single one of their stories is unexplainable good fortune.

And then I reconsidered my own Nile Delta scars, and I realized that, although they aren’t stigmata by any stretch, those marks are undeniable signs of God’s commitment to me and the two amazing human beings who came into the world alongside those scars, babies who arrived healthy and whole thanks to “unexplainable good fortune.”

Unexplainable good fortune, otherwise known as God’s grace.

Grace that has been witnessed and attested to by a multitude of people, each with their own unique story of unexplainable good fortune that left behind its mark. 

“Normal to me, I do not believe. But this, I believe. Many people saw.” 

I stepped out from underneath the crushing weight of the boulder overhead, and was truly happy to be scarred for life.