Four months after the Angel of the Schools, the Seraphic Doctor appears in the heavens. Bound by the ties of love when on earth, the two are now united forever 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; 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 fullness of love, which belongs especially to the Seraphim, cannot be without the fulfillment of the double precept of charity towards God and one’s neighbor. 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. It is better therefore, says Ecclesiastes, that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society.
Such is the teaching of Bonaventure in his book on 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 to the poor man of Assisi; “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; 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 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 today 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 newcomer, but he would hereafter derive his greatest glory from being called father and master by that illustrious disciple (in II. Sent., dist. xxiii., art. 2, qu. 3, ad 7). 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 spellbound 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 honorable 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 (in Chronicon partibus tribus distincta ab initio mundi ad MCCCLX, p. III., tit. xxiv., cap. 8), 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, something that can be relished by the soul; and he added (Prœmium in Sent. I, qu. 3), 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 (Sent. II., dist. xliv., art. 3, qu. 2, ad 6): “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 bear 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 any one,” he says (Sent. IV, dist. xxviii., qu. 6, ad 5), “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 honor of our Lady.” Lastly, at the end of the third book of this admirable Exposition of the Sentences, he declares (Sent. III, dist. xl., qu. 3, ad 6) 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 fullness 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. 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 in 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 neighbor and to God; to God that he may rest in Him; to his neighbor 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 fullness, 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 (Epistolæ Fratri Minori. Lugd. an. 1426): “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. Not 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 was soon, at Fossa Nova, to close his labors 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.” “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, without 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 honor 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 reunion 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 reunion 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 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 of 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.
Bonaventura, Balneoregii in Etruria natus, cum infans incidisset in vitæ periculum, mater ejus vovit, si inde evasisset, se eum Religioni beati Francisci dicaturam. Itaque adolescens in Ordinem Fratrum Minorum adscribi voluit: ubi Alexandro de Ales magistro, ad eam doctrinæ perfectionem brevi pervenit, ut septimo post anno libros Sententiarum Parisiis publice summa cum laude sit interpretatus: quos etiam præclaris postea commentariis illustravit. Post sex annos sui Ordinis generalis Minister Romæ factus, ea prudentiæ ac sanctitatis laude ministerium gessit, ut in omnium ore et admiratione esset.
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 fulfillment of this office.
Multa scripsit, in quibus summam eruditionem cum pari pietatis ardore conjungens, lectorem docendo movet. Quem Gregorius Decimus, ejus sanctimoniæ et sapientiæ fama commotus, Cardinalem et Episcopum Albanensem creavit. Eumdem adhuc viventem beatus Thomas Aquinas sanctum appellavit. Cum enim vitam sancti Francisci scribentem comprerisset: Sinamus, inquit, sanctum pro sancto laborare. Migravit e vita pridie Idus Julii, in Concilio Lugdunensi, quinquaginta tres annos natus, multis editis miraculis. Quem Sixtus Quartus Pontifex Maximus retulit in Sanctorum numerum.
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 Aquin, who, finding him one day writing the life of St. Francis, said: “Let us allow one saint to labor 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.
Thou hast entered, O Bonaventure, into the joy of thy Lord, and what must thy happiness be now, since, as thou thyself didst say: “By how much a man loves God on earth, by so much does he rejoice in him in heaven?” If the great St. Anselm, from whom thou didst borrow that word, added, that love is proportioned to knowledge, O thou, who wast at the same time a prince of sacred science and the doctor of love, show us how all light, in the order of grace and of nature, is intended to lead us to love. God is hidden in everything; Christ is the center of every science; and the fruit of each of them is to build up faith, to honor God, to regulate our life, and to lead to divine union by charity without which all knowledge is vain. For, as thou didst say, all the sciences have their fixed and infallible rules, which come down to our soul as so many reflections of the eternal law; and our soul, surrounded and penetrated with such brightness, is led, of her own accord, unless she is blind, to contemplate that eternal light. Wonderful light, reflected from the mountains of our fatherland into the furthermost valleys of our exile! In the eyes of the Seraphic Father Francis the world was truly noble, so that he called, as thou tellest us, even the lowest creatures by the name of brothers and sisters; by the traces left in creation by its Author he found his Beloved everywhere, and he made of them a ladder whereby to ascend to him.
Do thou, too, O my soul, open thine eyes, bend thine ear, unlock thy lips, and prepare thy heart, that in every creature thou mayest see thy God, hear him, praise him, love him, and honor him, lest the whole universe rise up against thee for not rejoicing in the works of his hands. Then from the world beneath thee, which has but the shadow of God and his presence, inasmuch as he is everywhere, pass on to thyself, his image by nature, reformed in Christ the Bridegroom. From the image rise to the truth of the first Beginning, in unity of Essence and trinity of Persons, that thou mayest attain the repose of that sacred night where both the shadow and the image are forgotten in an all-absorbing love. But first of all thou must know that the mirror of the external world will avail thee little, unless the interior mirror of thy soul be purified and bright, unless thy desire be aided by prayer and contemplation in order to kindle love. Know that here, reading without unction, speculation without devotion, labor without piety, knowledge without charity, intelligence without humility, study without grace, are nothing; and when at length, rising gradually by prayer, holiness of life, and the contemplation of truth, thou shalt have reached the mountain where the God of gods reveals himself, taught by the powerlessness of thy sight here on earth to endure splendors of which nature was too feeble to give thee an indication, let thy blind intelligence remain asleep, pass beyond it in Christ, who is the gate and the way, question no longer the master but the Bridegroom, not man but God, not the light but the all-consuming fire; pass from this world with Christ to the Father, who will be shown to thee, and then say with Philip: “It is enough for us.”
O Seraphic Doctor, lead us by this sublime ascent, of which every line of thy works discloses the secrets, the toils, the beauties, and the dangers. In the pursuit of that Divine Wisdom, which even in its feeblest reflections, no one can behold without ecstasy, guard us against mistaking for an end the satisfaction felt from the scanty rays sent down to us to draw us from the confusion of nothingness even to Itself. If these rays which proceed from the eternal Beauty be withdrawn from their focus and perverted from their object, there will be nothing but delusion, deception, vain knowledge, or false pleasures. Indeed, the more lofty the knowledge and the nearer it approaches to God as the object of speculative theory, the more in a certain sense is error to be feared. If a man in his progress towards true wisdom, which is possessed and relished for its own sake, is drawn aside by the charms of knowledge, and rests therein, thou, O Bonaventure, hesitatest not to compare such knowledge to a vile deceiver, who would withdraw the affections of the king’s son from his noble betrothed to fix them upon herself. Such an insult to an august queen would be equally grievous whether offered by a servant or by a lady of honor. Hence thou didst declare that “the passage from science to wisdom is dangerous, unless holiness intervene.” Help us to cross the perilous pass; let science ever be to us a means of attaining sanctity and acquiring greater love.
Thou hast still, O Bonaventure, the same thoughts in the light of God. Witness the predilection thou hast more than once shown in our time, for those centers , where, in spite of the fever of activity which must needs keep in motion every force of nature, divine contemplation is still appreciated as the better part, as the only end and aim of all knowledge. Deign to continue thy protection of thy devout and grateful clients. Defend, as heretofore, the life and prerogatives of all religious Orders which are now so persecuted. To thy own Franciscan family be still a cause of increase both in numbers and in sanctity; bless the labors undertaken by it, to the joy of all the world, to bring the light as they deserve thy history and thy works. Bring back the East a third time to unity and life, and that forever. May the whole Church be warmed by thy rays; may the divine fire thou didst so effectually nurture, enkindle the earth anew!
From The Liturgical Year, by Dom Prosper Gueranger
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