Essay / Theology

“Preach the Gospel at All Times; When Necessary, Use Stigmata”

One of the most famous things St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) never said was,

Preach the Gospel
at All Times.
When Necessary,
Use Words.

It certainly sounds like the kind of thing Francis would have said, and you can buy it on plaques and bumper stickers to your heart’s content. But he never actually said it, apparently.

The phrase is often quoted these days, too often by people who would like to emphasize an active life of Christian service at the expense of doctrine or witness. Some people think of “lifestyle evangelism” as a good excuse to never, you know, actually evangelize at any point in your life(style). It’s tempting to dress that kind of timidity up in high-sounding phrases like this, sweeping “gospel preaching” into some supposedly larger, more authentic, mostly non-verbal reality. This high estimation of mostly wordless gospel preaching is part of the “missional creep” of recent years, which has well-meaning Christians labeling every good thing missional. When creation-care and radical hospitality and social justice and culture-making and parenting are all missions, what’s to become of missions? Wouldn’t it be nice to have at least a short list of things that aren’t missions? When everything is gospel-preaching, what happens to actual gospel-preaching?

Besides the fact that Francis didn’t say this little phrase, consider the fact that if he had said it, he would have been going against the spirit of the saying itself. If he really believed we should preach the gospel without words for the most part, he should have acted like it instead of talking about it.

Hey, Saint Francis! How about

Teach Me To
Preach the Gospel
at All Times,
Mostly Without Words.
When Necessary,
Use Words
To Teach Me This.

Sometime this week (as early as Sept. 14, as late as today, Sept. 17) in 1224, Francis had a vision on a mountaintop. He saw a winged seraph that was also the crucified Christ. He didn’t talk much about it, and the story only emerged gradually in his earliest biographies. He was fasting for 40 days in a special devotion to Michael the Archangel, and that fast overlapped the church’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The two came together in his uncanny visionary experience, about which his greatest theological interpreter, Bonaventure, wrote extensively.

At the same time, he began to manifest stigmata: marks of the crucifixion in his hands, feet, and sides. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the flow of blood and a dark-colored “fleshly or cartilagenous extrusion” (as Bernard McGinn puts it) sticking out of each of his five wounds. It was a very odd phenomenon, to be sure. If the stories of his stigmata are true (and even skeptics have to admit the testimony is unusually strong for the middle ages), Francis’ identification with Christ, and his visionary experience of a kind of angelically glorified crucifixion, impressed themselves on his physical body.

In reflecting on the vision and the stigmata, Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano, says something reminiscent of Francis’ famous non-statement:

Finally, who can express, who can understand how far Francis was from glorying in anything save in the cross of our Lord? … For, though in some sense we should perceive these things in ourselves, words would in no way suffice to express such wonderful things, defiled as words are by everyday and common things. And perhaps it had therefore to appear in the flesh, because it could not be explained in words. Therefore let silence speak where words are wanting, for the thing itself cries out where the word fails.

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