While separated by over 800 years, St. Macrina the Younger (324-379) and St. Francis of Assisi (1182 -1226) have surprisingly similar descriptions of marks left on their bodies and made known upon their deaths. St. Francis’ wounds—the marks of the stigmata on his hands, feet, and side—are much more commonly known and written about. Less well known is the scar left on St. Macrina’s side from a tumor healed miraculously by prayers with her mother.
While hagiographies abound describing the wounds suffered by martyrs at their deaths, far less common are hagiographical accounts in which miraculous wounds from earlier in a saint’s life are revealed upon his or her death. This article will limit its focus to the accounts describing these wounds in Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina and Thomas of Celano’s writings on the life of St. Francis.
Thomas of Celano was the first author to write definitive accounts of Francis’ life. His writings demonstrate that he had working knowledge of the monastic literary tradition, which would have included Gregory of Nyssa’s works.
Thomas’ first Life of St. Francis introduces the concept of Francis as teacher of the Gospel counsels. The editors of the Francis of Assisi: Early Documents series reference Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses to illustrate Thomas’ literary dependence on Gregory’s typology of saint-as-teacher. Yet they might have more accurately pointed to Gregory’s Life of Macrina about his own saintly sister. In the adjoined writing—The Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection—in which Macrina is cast as the knowledgeable authority, Gregory refers to her as “the Teacher” and sets himself up as her disciple in the pursuing dialogue. Gregory does this knowing full well the injunction of 1 Timothy 2:12 that women should not teach men. He introduces her by stating, “I do not know whether it is fitting to designate her by her sex, who so surpassed her sex….”
Thomas also presents Francis as one who surpasses his gender. Recalling Francis’ parable told to the Pope of a poor woman married to a King and bearing him children, Thomas explains that “Francis himself was this woman.” For both Gregory and Thomas, their respective saints each transcend their given gender.
Thomas will begin Francis’ conversion story by recounting his compassionate care of lepers. He describes how, when it was still “bitter for” Francis “to see lepers…the Lord led” him among them. There he “washed all the filth from them, and even cleaned out the pus from their sores….” Thomas’ conversion account culminates with Francis kissing an individual leper whom he had “met…one day.”
Gregory’s Life of his sister will conclude with a miracle story of Macrina kissing the eye of a young girl with an “infectious” eye disease. The infection had left her afflicted eye as a “hideous and pitiful sight, since the membrane around the pupil was swollen and, because of the disease, had taken on a whitish tinge.” Like Francis, Macrina is led to kiss this human affliction which others would deem un-kissable. In a gesture of healing, “she kissed the little girl and was putting her lips to the girl’s eyes,” thereby restoring “sight to the blind.”
Beyond kissing wounded humanity, there is even greater commonality in the descriptions of the bodies of these saints at their deaths. The miracle of Francis’ stigmata is well known. Less explored is the scar on Macrina’s body, which Gregory describes as “a reminder of God’s visitation.” This description is equally apt for Francis’ stigmata.
From the onset, Francis’ wounds are described as miraculous in their origin after the Crucified Seraph’s appearance to him.
In contrast, Macrina’s scar first originates as an illness, a tumor on her breast. In a back story told upon her death, Gregory explains that she had been reluctant to seek medical care, having decided “that to bare a part of her body to the eyes of strangers was worse than being sick.” (Keeping others from “seeing the sacred wound in his side” will also be a theme for Thomas regarding Francis.) Instead of seeking a doctor’s care, Macrina prayed all night, moistening mud with her tears and then applying it as a salve to the afflicted place.
She thereafter sought out her mother to obtain shared intercession for God’s healing. “And when her mother put her hand inside Macrina’s robe to make the sign of the cross on the affected spot…the affliction disappeared.”
While only Macrina’s mother knew of her tumor, with Francis it is only Brother Elias, “whom he had chosen in place of a mother for himself,” who was able “to look at the precious wound in the side” while Francis was still alive.
Macrina was healed of the tumor, but a scar remained, testifying to the miracle. Gregory was shown the scar while her body was being prepared for burial. In his account, “a tiny scar…is left on the body…as a reminder of God’s great help.” For Gregory, this miracle is “the greatest wonder accomplished by this holy lady.” His text explains that the scar remains “there till the end to be a reminder, I think, of God’s visitation, as an impetus and cause for constant thanksgiving to God.”
After his death, Francis’ wounds are described as “even more wonderful,” and they “added great beauty and grace.” Where Macrina’s breast scar is “a reminder of God’s visitation,” Francis’ “wound in his side made them remember the One who poured out blood and water from His own side.”
Gregory does not want this greatest wonder of his sister to “pass by unrecorded.” Thomas explains of the stigmata. “This is a miracle worthy of everlasting remembrance.”
After her death (and anticipating the resurrection), Macrina’s wounded body is described as shining and beautiful. Gregory names it a “sacred beauty” whereby her body “shone even in the dark [funeral] mantle; God’s power… added even such grace to her body that…rays of light seemed to shine out from her beauty.”
Francis’ body is described similarly: “Now shining white in its beauty, promising the rewards of the blessed resurrection…All the people saw him glowing with remarkable beauty and his flesh became even whiter than before.”
Both authors are keenly attentive to the resurrection potency implicit in these saints’ bodies.
Tellingly, Gregory placed two texts from Galatians in the mouth of Macrina as a final prayer just before her death: “For I too have been crucified with you [Galatians 2:20], for I have nailed my flesh [Galatians 5:24] out of reverence for you.” Macrina is thereby overtly connected to the Crucified One.
These texts are also quintessential to the Franciscan tradition’s explanation and interpretation of Francis’ stigmata. But for Thomas, the stigmata are a “new miracle…for they had never heard or read in Scripture…what their eyes [now] could see.”
Thomas’ intent is to emphasize the novelty of Francis’ stigmata. If Thomas was drawing upon Gregory’s Life of Macrina and its miraculous wound typology, in his hagiographies of Francis his goal is ultimately to emphasize the novelty of Francis’ wounds. It would be not unexpected that any parallel to Macrina would be necessarily subtle, so as to not detract from Francis’ uniqueness.
While there are expected differences between the recorded lives (and deaths) of Francis and Macrina, both hagiographies are striking in their attentiveness to the saint’s woundedness as a point of God’s manifestation (in contrast to scars illustrating the fallen state of humanity). Both describe the body as a locus of divine action and revelation. Both find in human woundedness an opportunity for manifestation of the divine. Scars and wounds are portrayed as theophanies. Divine glory shines through frail, wounded flesh. Resurrection does not void and nullify the woundedness of our human lives, but instead validates and glorifies the wounded journey we make toward Heaven.
Both narratives challenge us to find in our scars and wounds evidence of God’s accompaniment through our life journeys, “a reminder of God’s visitation.”
Kevin C.A. Elphick has an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University, an MA in Religious Studies from Loyola University in conjunction with a joint studies program at Spertus College of Judaica, and a DMin from Graduate Theological Foundation with a concentration in Ecumenism. He is a Companion of New Skete, and works as a supervisor with a suicide prevention hotline serving veterans and active duty members.