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franciscan - January 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

The Wounds of Choice

By Petà Dunstan

Imagine yourself at Hilfield before the Second World War. It’s the Depression. There are many wayfarers – and very few brothers to minister to them. There is but one young novice. He must make a decision: should he be professed as a brother or not? He feels increasingly confident that that is indeed God’s will for him. But at that point, his world is turned upside down – for he receives two dramatic and unexpected letters. They concern the two most significant women in his life.

The first letter comes from his brother, who has long provided a home for their widowed mother. Tragically this brother has got into great financial difficulties and, with his own family to care for, he begs his younger brother to leave the Religious Life, find a position and so care for their mother.

The other letter comes from the novice friar’s sister. It concerns his closest female friend, who has long been in love with him, and whom he has loved in return. His sister asks him not to forget this young woman and not to break her heart, because she has vowed to marry no one else if she can not marry our novice. She is still as loyal to him now as when he first went to try his vocation two years before.

The young friar was devastated. He felt trapped in an impossible dilemma. If he left Hilfield, he would disobey what he felt was a profound call from God and would be deserting the brotherhood at a time when it might collapse if he withdrew. On the other hand, to follow this vocation would mean causing great pain to those he loved.

Whichever path he chose, he would bear wounds and others he loved would be wounded. And these wounds would be with him always. He could move on once the decision was made, but the consequences would always be with him. The decision the young novice had to make all those years ago would ‘brand him with the marks of Jesus’ in his heart and his soul.

We have all probably been in a position like that at some point in our lives. St Francis certainly was. He gave up economic security, social position, the respect of many of those around him, including his family, because he felt called to witness to certain values. So for me, when I look at the Stigmata, I don’t just think of them as a symbol, an echo, of Christ’s suffering, but also as a visible symbol of St Francis’ own inner wounds. They speak to us of the pain of Francis’ sacrifices, the ‘cost of his discipleship’, a physical reminder of the inner struggle of choosing to live for Jesus.

Our adult lives are about choices: choices which may wound us. I believe the Stigmata challenges us about our wounds. We have to give up things – and people – sometimes. We have to choose one job, one home, one relationship, one life, over and above another. And a Christian life demands these certain sacrifices alongside giving certain joys. Those decisions leave us with our very own stigmata.

So where are your stigmata? They might have something to do with your own sense of vocation. They might be about a decision you took. They might concern a relationship you felt you had to give up, an opportunity you passed by, or a failure to achieve what you set out to do. Any life situation in which you took a difficult decision knowing that some hurt was caused to others and to yourself. You may have been wrong, but you nevertheless made your choice in good faith. And deep inside you still feel a pain about it. You still have a wound.

So, how do we Christians deal with our wounds? The first step is in recognizing that these wounds are there. That is not always an easy thing to do. For we live in a culture in which success is an idol. We are expected to achieve, to win, not be a ‘loser’. We should aim to ‘have it all’. It is all a matter of succeeding. In such a world, pain is unacceptable. It is seen as a sign of failure either in ourselves or others. So we are tempted to pretend. We act unwounded.

And then comes the time when we can not do it any more. We have to cry out. Our culture then pushes us fast in the opposite direction. We become ‘walking failures’, convinced of our unworthiness and uselessness. We agonise over the negative sides of our lives and become locked in self-doubt and low self-esteem. We chase imaginary failures and analyse quite trivial problems. We believe we are too fat, too ugly, too stupid, too slow. And chasing all these exaggerations is just another way of avoiding the real issues and looking at the real wounds.

So, as Christians, our first step is to witness honestly, neither evading our wounds nor becoming obsessed by them. We then have to take a second step. We have to see our wounds as part of who we are. For these very wounds are one of the creative forces of our own personalities and of our own Christian commitment. They are not alien or separate, but integral to the human being we have become. They are a part of the whole person, whom God loves unconditionally, and so part of the whole we too must love. Healing is not about discarding but about accepting. We do not heal our wounds by cutting them out and throwing them away. We heal them by surrounding them with love.

And so to the final step. Christ teaches us that pain and suffering are not an end. We transcend them by transforming them into a beginning, and using them as an opportunity for growth. So if we have had to make a difficult choice, we should live out fully the way we have chosen. Think of our novice friar at the beginning. Whichever decision he makes, he should try to live it positively. For either path can be an affirmation. The pain of the initial choice can lead to the joy of commitment.

As an Easter people, we are proclaimers of the truth of the Resurrection. The power that gives us is that we know vulnerability and weakness are truly a strength. It is then because of our wounds that we can proclaim our faith. And we are no longer afraid of the wounds of others because we have a message of hope and love to give them. We can use our own experience to help and comfort others. Our wounds become a window to the truth of the Gospel for us.

To acknowledge, to honour and to use creatively – that is what our novice friar did all those years ago. The year it happened was 1932. The young friar was Charles Preston. In the end, he chose to be professed. That the decision cost Father Charles much is shown by the fact that when he died in 1961, he still possessed those two letters. They were indeed his hidden stigmata. He knew the pain of choice. Keeping those letters meant he could never forget and was acknowledging his wound, whilst his loving personality was ample witness to his honouring all that he was. He went on to be one of the most beloved of SSF brothers, a great missioner and spiritual director – especially to women. With much love and joy did he bear the marks of Jesus. Will we be able to do the same? f

This is a shortened version of a sermon preached at the 1995 Stigmata Festival at Hilfield Friary.

Dr Dunstan is Libarian of the Divinity Faculty in the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St Edmund's College in the University.


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