The Devotional Spirituality of The Little Flowers and The Stigmata of St. Francis

Brother Ugolino's The Little Flowers is deeply reflective of Franciscan spirituality. The narratives not only embody the core Franciscan values of chastity, poverty, simplicity, and obedience, but also the whimsy, mysticism, and passion of the movement. Readers new to this material and to this particular stream of Christian discipleship often find The Little Flowers to be at once beautiful and unsettling, both touching and weird. One aspect that can be both moving and strange is the particular way the narratives and their culture of origin approach devotion and the life of the body:
  1. Prophetic Hyperbole: Following on the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the Desert ascetics, the Franciscans inhabit a world of extremes of behavior that are meant to teach important lessons, to awaken their audiences to another way of conceiving the world. These actions also act as ways of living beyond the norm for most people. Thus, they may be subject to ridicule as well as inspiration, and they serve as jarring moments for the participants.
  2. Sacramental Dramatics: In Christian tradition, a sacrament can be defined as a tangible sign of grace. As a sign, it is more than a symbol, however. It is a ritualistic experience of grace communicated through the sign. In this way, the actions of the Franciscans go beyond the prophetic, they also act as lived moments of tangible grace where the persons involved meet God. And this reception of grace is lived before others in ways that move beyond everyday behavior.
  3. Romantic Veneration: The veneration of the saints is not the same thing as the worship of God, yet in this tradition, the two seem to approach merger at times, perhaps because of their sacramental quality. The sacrificial extremes of the Franciscans are treated as both ordinary and yet also as heroic--or perhaps heroic because they are treated by the friars as normal. They inspire an emotional reaction in persons that approaches the devotion of the lover for the beloved in medieval romances. They create bodily responses in both the actor and the ones observing. And their hearts are often knit together by deeply emotional fraternity. Veneration often serves as an overflow of ecstatic worship of God in Christ, as well as a call upwards to it.
  4. Christocentric Imitation: All of this assumes a close identification of the life with Christ, especially seeking to live a life as Christ did on the earth--living as a wanderer, as one subject to other's help, not of necessity tied to place, things, or comfort. This identification extends to a sense of Christ's suffering, especially at the level of imaginative and bodily empathy, and it serves as a further expression of great longing for Christ the Mystical Bridegroom. This Christ-likeness is especially heightened for St. Francis, who is revered almost as another Christ come to earth.

Part Two of The Little Flowers, "The Considerations on the Holy Stigmata" recounts events leading up to Francis' receiving of the stigmata, the events surrounding his years with them, and events afterwards--all intended to both inspire the reader and to document their historical occurrence. I would contend that this deeply inspiring and/or disturbing texts (depending on your response) bring together all four of these devotional strains. The stigmata function as prophetic hyperbole, as sacramental dramatics, as christocentric imitation, and serve as the heart of romantic veneration for those surrounding Francis. After we review select passages in class, consider the following:


Portrait of Saint Francis of Assisi
  • What does Francis' experience reveal about the cultural attitude toward pain and suffering?
  • How are the stigmata seen as a completion (or crown) to Francis' Christ-like life?
  • How does the miraculous surround Francis? What purpose do these events serve?
  • Why is Francis reluctant to reveal the stigmata? What does this suggest?
  • How do the stigmata create devotion in others?
  • Do the events after Francis' death clarify the stigmata's purpose?
  • How do you personally respond to this phenomena?