July 14, 2017: ST. BONAVENTURE
July 14, 2017: ST. BONAVENTURE BISHOP, CONFESSOR, AND DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
“He opened his mouth in the midst of the assembly, and the Lord filled him with the spirit of wisdom; he hath clothed him with a robe of glory.”
O God, who didst give to thy people blessed Bonaventure for a minister of eternal salvation; grant, we beseech thee, that he, who was the instructor of our life here one earth, may in heaven become our intercessor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Four months after the Angel of the Schools (St. Thomas Aquinas), the Seraphic Doctor appears in the heavens. Bound by the ties of love when on earth, the two (St. Thomas Aquinas & St. Bonaventure) are now united for ever before the Throne of God. Bonaventure's own words will show us how great a right they both had to the heavenly titles bestowed upon them by the admiring gratitude of men.
As there are three hierarchies of Angels in heaven, so on earth there are three classes of the elect. The Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, who form the first hierarchy, represent those who approach nearest to God by contemplation, and who differ among themselves according to the intensity of their love, the plenitude of their science, and the steadfastness of their justice; to the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, correspond the prelates and princes; and lastly, the lowest choirs signify the various ranks of the faithful engaged in the active life. This is the triple division of men, which, according to St. Luke, will be made at the last day: Two shall be in the bed, two in the field, two at the mill; (St. Luke, xvii. 34-35) that is to say, in the repose of divine delights, in the field of government, at the mill of this life's toil. As regards the two mentioned in each place, we may remark that in Isaias, the Seraphim, who are more closely united to God than the rest, perform two together their ministry of sacrifice and praise; for it is with the Angel as with man: the fulness of love, which belongs especially to the Seraphim, can-not be without the fulfilment of the double precept of charity towards God and one's neighbour. Again our Lord sent His disciples two and two before His, face; and in Genesis we find God sending two Angels where one would have sufficed. (Gen, xix. 1) It is better therefore, says Ecclesiastes, that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. (Eccles, iv. 9)
Such is the teaching of Bonaventure in his book of the Hierarchy, wherein he shows us the secret workings of Eternal Wisdom for the salvation of the world and the sanctification of the elect. It would be impossible to understand aright the history of the thirteenth century, were we to forget the prophetic vision, wherein our Lady was seen presenting to her offended Son His two servants Dominic and Francis, that they might, by their powerful union, bring back to Him the wandering human race. What a spectacle for Angels when, on the morrow of the apparition, the two saints met and embraced: “Thou art my companion, we will run side by side,” said the descendant of the Gusmans (St. Dominic) to the poor man of Assisi (St. Francis); “let us keep together, and no man will be able to prevail against us.” These words might well have been the motto of their noble sons, Thomas and Bonaventure. The star which shone over the head of St. Dominic, shed its bright rays on Thomas (Aquinas); the Seraph who imprinted the stigmata in the flesh of St. Francis, touched with his fiery wing the soul of Bonaventure; yet both, like their incomparable fathers, had but one end in view: to draw men by science and love to that eternal life which consists in knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.
Both were burning and shining lamps, blending their flames in the heavens, in proportions which no mortal eye could distinguish here below; nevertheless, Eternal Wisdom has willed that the Church on earth should borrow more especially light from Thomas (Aquinas) and fire from Bonaventure. Would that we might here show in each of them the workings of Wisdom, the one bond even on earth of their union of thoughts,—that Wisdom, who, ever unchangeable in her adorable unity, never repeats herself in the souls she chooses from among the nations to become the prophets and the friends of God. But to-day we must speak only of Bonaventure.
When quite a child, he was saved by St. Francis from imminent death; whereupon his pious mother offered him by vow to the Saint, promising that he should enter the Order of Friars Minor. Thus, in the likeness of holy poverty, that beloved companion of the Seraphic Patriarch, did Eternal Wisdom prevent our Saint from his very cradle, showing herself first unto him. At the earliest awakening of his faculties he found her seated at the entrance of his soul, awaiting the opening of its gates, which are, he tells us, intelligence and love. Having received a good soul in an undefiled body, he preferred Wisdom before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison with the august friend, who offered herself to him in the glory of her nobility and beauty. From that first moment, without ever waning, she was his light. Peacefully as a sunbeam glancing through a hitherto closed window, Wisdom filled this dwelling, now become her own, as the bride on the nuptial day takes possession of the bridegroom's house, filling it with joy, in community of goods, and above all of love.
For her contribution to the nuptial banquet, she brought the substantial brightness of heaven; Bonaventure on his part offered her the lilies of purity, so desired by her as her choicest food. Henceforth the feast in his soul was to be continual; and the light and the perfumes, breaking forth, were shed around, attracting, enlightening, and nourishing all. While still very young, he was, according to custom, sent, after the first years of his religious life, to the celebrated University of Paris, where he soon won all hearts by his angelic manners; and the great Alexander of Hales, struck with admiration at the union of so many qualities, said of him that it seemed as if in him Adam had not sinned. As a lofty mountain whose head is lost in the clouds, and from whose foot run fertilizing waters far and wide, Brother Alexander himself, according to the expression of the Sovereign Pontiff, seemed at that time to contain within himself the living fountain of Paradise, whence the river of science and salvation flowed over the earth. Nevertheless not only would he, the irrefragable Doctor, and the Doctor of doctors, give up his chair in a short time to the new-comer, but he would hereafter derive his greatest glory from being called father and master by that illustrious disciple. Placed in such a position at so early an age, Bonaventure could say of Divine Wisdom, even more truly than of the great master who had had little to do but admire the prodigious development of his soul: “It is she that has taught me all things; she taught me the knowledge of God and of His works, justice and virtues, the subtleties of speeches and the solutions of arguments.”
Such indeed is the object of those Commentaries on the four Books of Sentences, first delivered as lectures from the chair of Paris, where he held the noblest intellects spell-bound by his graceful and inspired language. This masterpiece, while it is an inexhaustible mine of treasures to the Franciscan family, bears so great testimony to the science of this doctor of twenty-seven years of age, that, though so soon called from his chair to the government of a great Order, he was worthy on account of this single work to share with his friend Thomas of Aquin, who was fortunately freer to pursue his studies, the honourable title of prince of Sacred Theology.
The young master already merited his name of Seraphic Doctor, by regarding science as merely a means to love, and declaring that the light which illuminates the mind is barren and useless unless it penetrates to the heart, where alone wisdom rests and feasts. St. Antoninus tells us also, that in him every truth grasped by the intellect, passed through the affections, and thus became prayer and divine praise. “His aim,” says another historian, “was to burn with love, to kindle himself first at the divine fire, and afterwards to inflame others. Careless of praise or renown, anxious only to regulate his life and actions, he would fain burn and not only shine; he would be fire, in order to approach nearer to God by becoming more like to Him who is fire. Albeit, as fire is not without light, so was he also at the same time a shining torch in the House of God; but his special claim to our praise is, that all the light at his command he gathered to feed the flame of divine love.”
The bent of his mind was clearly indicated when, at the beginning of his public teaching, he was called upon to give his decision on the question then dividing the Schools: to some theology was a speculative, to others a practical science, according as they were more struck by the theoretical or the moral side of its teaching. Bonaventure, uniting the two opinions in the principle which he considered the one universal law, concluded that “Theology is an affective science, the knowledge of which proceeds by speculative contemplation, but aims principally at making us good.” For the wisdom of doctrine, he said, must be according to her name, (Eccli, vi. 23) something that can be relished by the soul; and he added, not without that gentle touch of irony which the saints know how to use: “There is a difference, I suppose, in the impressions produced by the proposition, Christ died for us, or the like, and by such as this: the diagonal and the side of a square cannot be equal to one another.” The graceful speech and profound science of our saint were enhanced by a beautiful modesty. He would conclude a difficult question thus: “This is said without prejudice to the opinions of others. If anyone think otherwise, or better, as he may well do on this point as on all others, I bear him no ill-will; but if, in this little work, he find any thing deserving approval, let him give thanks to God, the Author of all good. Whatever, in any part, be found false, doubtful or obscure, let the kind reader forgive the incompetence of the writer, whose conscience bears him unimpeachable testimony that he has wished to say nothing but what is true, clear, and commonly received.” On one occasion, however, Bonaventure’s unswerving devotion to the Queen of Virgins modified with a gentle force his expression of humility: “If anyone,” he says, “prefers otherwise, I will not contend with him, provided he say nothing to the detriment of the Venerable Virgin, for we must take the very greatest care, even should it cost us our life, that no one lessen in any way the honour of our Lady.” Lastly, at the end of the third book of this admirable Exposition of the Sentences, he declares that charity is worth more than all science. It is enough, in doubtful questions, to know what the wise have taught; disputation is to little purpose. We talk much, and our words fail us. Infinite thanks be to the perfecter of all discourse, our Lord Jesus Christ, who taking pity on my poverty of knowledge and of genius, has enabled me to complete this moderate work. I beg of Him that it may procure me the merit of obedience, and may be of profit to my brethren: the twofold purpose for which the task was undertaken.”
But the time had come when obedience was to give place to another kind of merit, less pleasing to himself, but not less profitable to the brethren. At thirty-five years of age, he was elected Minister General. Obliged thus to quit the field of scholastic teaching, he entrusted it to his friend, Thomas of Aquin, who, younger by several years, was to cultivate it longer and more completely than he himself had been suffered. The Church would lose nothing by the change; for, Eternal Wisdom, who ordereth all things with strength and sweetness, thus disposed that these two incomparable geniuses, completing one another, should give us the fulness of that true science which not only reveals God, but leads to Him.
Give an occasion to the wise man, and wisdom shall be added to him. (Prov, ix. 9) This sentence was placed by Bonaventure at the head of his treatise on “the Six Wings of the Seraphim,” wherein he sets forth the qualifications necessary for one called to the cure of souls; and well did he fulfil it himself in the government of his immense Order, scattered by its missions throughout the whole Church. The treatise itself, which Father Claud Aquaviva held in such high estimation as to oblige the Superiors of the Society of Jesus to use it as a guide, furnishes us with a portrait of our Saint at this period. He had reached the summit of the spiritual life, where the inward peace of the soul is undisturbed by the most violent agitations from without; where the closeness of their union with God produces in the saints a mysterious fecundity, displayed to the world, when God wills, by a multiplicity of perfect works incomprehensible to the profane. Let us listen to Bonaventure's own words: “The Seraphim exercise an influence over the lower orders, to draw them upwards; so the love of the spiritual man tends both to his neighbour and to God; to God that he may rest in Him; to his neighbour to draw him thither with himself. Not only then do they burn; they also give the form of perfect love, driving away darkness and showing how to rise by degrees, and to go to God by the highest paths.”
Such is the secret of that admirable series of opuscula, composed, as he owned to St. Thomas, without the aid of any book but his crucifix, without any preconceived plan, but simply as occasion required, at the request, or to satisfy the needs of the brethren and sisters of his large family, or again when he felt a desire of pouring out his soul. In these works Bonaventure has treated alike of the first elements of asceticism and of the sublimest subjects of the mystic life, with such fulness, certainty, clearness, and persuasive force, that Sixtus IV declared the Holy Spirit seemed to speak in him. On reading the Itinerary of the soul to God, which was written on the height of Alvernia, as it were under the immediate influence of the Seraphim, the Chancellor Gerson exclaimed: “This opusculum, or rather this immense work, is beyond the praise of a mortal mouth.” And he wished it, together with that wonderful compendium of sacred science, the Breviloquium, to be imposed upon theologians as a necessary manual. “By his words,” says the great Abbot Trithemius in the name of the Benedictine Order, “the author of all these learned and devout works inflames the will of the reader no less than he enlightens his mind. Note the spirit of divine love and Christian devotion in his writings, and you will easily see that he surpasses all the doctors of his time in the usefulness of his works. Many expound doctrine, many preach devotion, few teach the two together; Bonaventure surpasses both the many and the few, because he trains to devotion by science, and to science by devotion. If then you would be both learned and devout, you must put his teaching in practice.”
But Bonaventure himself will tell us best the proper dispositions for reading him with profit. At the beginning of his Incendium amoris, wherein he teaches the three ways, purgative, illuminative, and unitive, which lead to true wisdom, he says: “I offer this book not to philosophers, not to the worldly-wise, not to great theologians perplexed with endless questions, but to the simple and ignorant who strive rather to love God than to know much. It is not by disputing, but by activity, that we learn to love. As to these men full of questions, superior in every science, but inferior in the love of Christ, I consider them incapable of understanding the contents of this book; unless putting away all vain show of learning, they strive, by humble self-renunciation, prayer, and meditation, to kindle within them the divine spark, which, inflaming their hearts and dispelling all darkness, will lead them beyond the concerns of time even to the throne of peace. Indeed by the very fact of their knowing more, they are better disposed to love, or at least they would be, if they truly despised themselves and could rejoice to be despised by others.”
Although these pages are already too long, we cannot resist quoting the last words left us by St. Bonaventure. As the Angel of the School (St. Thomas Aquinas) was soon, at Fossa Nova, to close his labours and his life with the explanation of the Canticle of Canticles, so his seraphic rival and brother tuned his last notes to these words of the sacred Nuptial Song: “King Solomon has made him a litter of the wood of Libanus: The pillars thereof he made of silver, the seat of gold, the going-up of purple.” (Cant, iii. 9, 10) “The seat of gold,” added our Saint, “is contemplative wisdom; it belongs to those alone who possess the column of silver, i.e. the virtues which strengthen the soul; the going-up of purple is the charity whereby we ascend to the heights and descend to the valleys.”
It is a conclusion worthy of Bonaventure, the close of a sublime but incomplete work, which he had not even time to put together himself. “Alas! alas! alas!” cries out with tears the loving disciple to whom we owe this last treasure, “a higher dignity, and then the death of our lord and master prevented the continuation of this work.” And then showing us, in a touching manner, the precautions taken by the sons lest they should lose anything of their father's conferences: “What I here give,” he says, “is what I could snatch by writing rapidly while he was speaking. Two others took notes at the same time, but their papers are scarcely legible; whereas several of the audience were able to read my copy, and the master himself and many others made use of it; a fact for which I deserve some gratitude. And now at length, permission and time having been given to me, I have revised these notes, with the voice and gestures of the master ever in my ear and before my eyes; I have arranged them in order, with-out adding anything to what he said, except the indication of certain authorities.”
The dignity mentioned by the faithful secretary is that of Cardinal Bishop of Albano. After the death of Clement IV, and the succeeding three years of widowhood for the Church, our Saint, by his influence with the Sacred College, had obtained the election of Gregory X, who now imposed upon him in virtue of obedience the honour of the Cardinalate. Having been entrusted with the work of preparation for the Council of Lyons, convened for the Spring of 1274, Bonaventure had the joy of assisting at the re-union of the Latin and Greek Churches, which he, more than anyone else, had been instrumental in obtaining. But God spared him the bitterness of seeing how short-lived the re-union was to be: a union which would have been the salvation of that East which he loved, and where his name, translated into Eutychius, was still in veneration two centuries later at the time of the Council of Florence. On the 15th of July of that year, 1274, in the midst of the Council, and presided at by the Sovereign Pontiff himself, took place the most solemn funeral the world has ever witnessed. “I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan,” cried out before that mourning assembly gathered from East and West, the Dominican Cardinal Peter of Tarentaise. After fifty-three years spent in this world, the Seraph had cast off his robe of flesh, and spreading his wings had gone to join Thomas of Aquin, who had by a very short time preceded him to heaven.
There are only two proper lessons consecrated to St. Bonaventure, but the elegant conciseness with which much is said in few words somewhat compensates for their shortness.
Bonaventure was born at Bagnorea, in Tuscany. During his childhood his life was once endangered, and his mother vowed that if her son survived she would consecrate him to God in the Order of Blessed Francis. On this account, while still a youth, Bonaventure begged to be admitted among the Friars Minors. He had for master Alexander Hales, and became in a short time so eminent in learning that at the end of seven years he publicly, in Paris, explained the books of the Sentences, with great applause. Later on he published also excellent commentaries on the same book. After the lapse of six years, he was elected Minister General of his Order, at Rome, and he became the object of universal praise and admiration by the prudence and sanctity he displayed in the fulfilment of this office.
He wrote many works which, combining the greatest learning with the most ardent piety, at once instruct and move the reader. Urged by the renown of his sanctity and wisdom, Gregory X made him Cardinal Bishop of Albano. He was, while still living, called a Saint by Blessed Thomas of Aqnin, who, finding him one day writing the life of St. Francis, said: “Let us allow one saint to labour for another.” Bonaventure departed this life on the day before the Ides of July, at the Council of Lyons, being fifty-three years of age. He performed many miracles, and was added to the number of the saints by the Sovereign Pontiff, Sixtus IV.
Taken from: The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806; and
The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. IV, Dublin, Edition 1901.
Anth. O excellent Doctor, light of the holy Church, blessed Bonaventure, lover of the divine law, pray to the Son of God for us.