Here’s how his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, records the encounter of St. Francis of Assisi with the crucifix, now famous, but then hanging forlorn in the crumbling Umbrian church of San Damiano. He write that Francis
was walking one day by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned by everyone and almost in ruins. Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences (visitationibus pulsatus insolitis) and discovered that he was different than when he had entered. As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him, “Francis,” it said, calling him by name, “go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.”
In his recounting of the same incident, St. Bonaventure writes,
Impelled by the Spirit he went inside to pray. Prostrate before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with no little consolation as he prayed (non modica fuit in orando spiritus consolatione repletus). While his tear-filled eyes (cumque lacrymosis oculis) were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, if falling completely into ruin.”
Bonaventure used Celano’s text as a resource for his own, but his Francis, being filled “with no little consolation” and having “tear-filled eyes” is easier to comprehend than Celano’s speaking of Francis “being shaken by unusual experiences.” Both but friars want us to understand that, before any voice was heard, Francis was deeply moved, or, as Thomas of Celano puts it, “he was different than when he had entered.”
What happened? Did he look on the cross and, perhaps for the first time in his life, perceive the pain that it depicted? Or did its beauty move him? Calling something so terrible “beautiful” may seem strange, but it’s said that when the Italian renaissance sculptor Donatello first saw the crucifix, which Filippo Brunelleschi had made for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, he was so moved by its beauty that he dropped the basket of eggs he had been carrying. Is that what happened to Francis? Looking at that crucifix, was he overcome by the pain, moved by the beauty, or drawn into the love that gathered the twain into one?
The story of Francis encountering the San Damiano crucifix wonderfully illustrates what the great Jesuit theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan called “the Law of the Cross.” What was that?
When Lonergan pondered our salvation, he rejected the idea that the Father causes it through any act of external intrusion into history. For Lonergan salvation isn’t something God accomplishes without our cooperation. God certainly doesn’t declare our alienation to be at an end because we’ve killed the Son. On the contrary, God saves us through our being drawn by love into the cross of Christ. The knowledge of the Son’s gift upon the cross compels our conversion, because it calls us to love. Lonergan defined conversion as “otherworldly falling in love.”
We’re meant to look upon Jesus, as Francis did in that Umbrian chapel, and fall in love. And having fallen in love, as any lover knows, the entire world is changed. Just as Donatello was overwhelmed by the beauty of Brunelleschi’s crucifix, so Francis fell in love with the man he saw on the San Damiano cross.
Of course, Donatello eventually picked up what was left of his eggs and went on with life. The only change was his supposed vow never to compete artistically with Brunelleschi. Donatello saw a beauty that altered his art. Francis saw one that compelled his love, and, having fallen in love, it changed his world. And, because Francis fell in love, the world itself has been changed.
In Jesus’ parable of the vineyard (Mt 21: 33-43), the Father sends the Son, expecting that he will be received in love, that his mere presence will be a pivot. The irony is that it doesn’t make any difference in the parable, but it’s supposed to make all the difference in real life. In the parable, they aren’t moved by the beauty and love of the Son. They murder him. We did the same in human history, but if Lonergan is right — if Francis is any guide — the terrible beauty of the cross is meant to quicken the coldest heart, to sear it with a love that “rebuilds my church,” one that literally renews and redeems the world.
Terrance W. Klein