Thursday, 20 November 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 1.

From an engraving by Eitel after the painting by Cavazzola (P. Morando)
It is refreshing to turn from the depressing materialism of the present time to the inspiring faith of the Middle Ages. The change of outlook is invigorating; it has on the soul the effect which a bracing atmosphere has on the body.
The temper of modern times tends to enfeeble our sense of the supernatural. If we would maintain undiminished our spiritual vigour we must withdraw occasionally from its influence and endeavour to dwell for a time in a more healthy religious atmosphere.
This is why I would take my readers back to the thirteenth century--a period glowing with the faith and fervour of the great spiritual revival effected by St. Francis and St. Dominic. I do not intend to treat of that epoch and its characteristics generally; a field so wide could be but very imperfectly surveyed in these pages. I think we shall receive a clearer and more forcible impression of it if we study it as exemplified in the life of one {2} of those great saints who personified its spirit in themselves. Of course we should find this in all its fulness in St. Francis, but there are so many works treating of the Seraphic Patriarch that only the discovery of some entirely new aspect of his marvellous life would fully justify another. I do not pretend to this; but I consider that we shall achieve our purpose by studying the life of one of Francis' most remarkable sons, viz. the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure. This great man presents to us an aspect of the Franciscan spirit which those who study the life of St. Francis in all its literal simplicity may fail to discover. For actual pre-eminence in learning and the establishment of means to secure its continuance amongst his followers do not at first sight appear to receive either approval or support from the life of St. Francis. Learning and the honour naturally attaching to it seem to savour of temporal greatness, but direct and absolute opposition to this was the dominant note in Francis' life. He would have his brethren called "Friars Minor," or lesser brethren, and he directly says in his Rule: "Let those who are unlearned not seek to learn". Yet we find St. Bonaventure--deeply imbued with the spirit of St. Francis, and seventh General of his Order--bearing the high dignity of Master of Theology and Arts, and as Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, occupying one of the most exalted stations in Christendom.
In the course of our survey we shall discover the secret of this apparent anomaly. No one appears to have been more fully alive to its existence than St. Bonaventure himself, as frequent references to it in his writings testify. It is from these references and the explanations they contain that we receive the truest insight into the development of the spirit of learning in the Franciscan Order.
St. Bonaventure was born in the year 1221, at Balneumregis, the modern Bagnorea, in the vicinity of Viterbo. His parents were John and Ritella Fidanza. Their station in life is a matter of conjecture. One historian asserts that John Fidanza was descended from the noble house of Fidanza of Castello, and was a Master of Medicine. We are in no way concerned to prove the nobility of Bonaventure's ancestors. His personal eminence in learning and holiness, with which alone we are concerned, was not the inheritance of rank or station. It may have been otherwise with those instincts of piety and virtue that developed in his soul even as a child. To the fostering care of a devout mother the presence of these may justly be attributed. Experience teaches us that the mother's influence, if it be good, and well and prudently directed, is paramount in the life of the child for all time, determining it for good according to the degree of its own excellence.
Of the early years of our Saint only one striking episode is preserved to us, which is thus recorded {4} by himself in his introduction [Footnote 1] to the Life of St. Francis. Lamenting his "inability and unworthiness to relate that life most worthy of all imitation," he feels himself bound, "through the love he is compelled to feel for our Holy Father," to undertake the task which the General Chapter so urgently laid on him. "For," he continues, "through his invocation and merits I was snatched from the jaws of death while yet a child--as I remember with fresh and vivid memory. Were I then to refrain from publishing his praises I should fear to incur the crime of ingratitude." In his smaller life of St. Francis, [Footnote 2] he again refers to this incident, but adds a further detail. "God does not cease," are his words, "to glorify his servant by numberless miracles wrought in various parts of the world, as I myself can vouch from personal experience. For as I lay dangerously ill as a child, I was snatched from the very jaws of death and restored to healthy life owing to a vow my mother made to the Blessed Father Francis."
[Footnote 1: "Legenda Major Sti Francisci," Prolog. No.3.]
[Footnote 2: "Legenda Minor Sti Francisci," Lectio Octava.]
Around this incident, thus simply recorded, the legend has grown up that our Saint owes his name to a prophecy uttered by St. Francis on the occasion of his cure. We are told that the sick child was presented to Francis by the anxious mother who with tears besought his intercession. The Saint took the child in his arms and, raising his eyes to {5} Heaven, prayed earnestly for its restoration. Assured that his petition was granted, he restored it to its mother, and regarding it with prophetic gaze, exclaimed, O buona ventura--"Oh good luck!" We cannot vouch for the authenticity of this narrative, but it has the support of a fairly reliable tradition. One thing is certain, that prior to the time of our Saint, the name Bonaventure was in existence. From his father he appears to have received the name of John, and in many MSS. he is frequently referred to under that name. He has also been referred to as Eustachius, Jacobus, Eutychius. This must be attributed partly to errors in transcription and partly to the Saint's intercourse with Greek theologians who adapted the Greek form of his name. Bonaventure, however, is the name by which he was commonly known to his contemporaries, and it is the one under which his fame has come down to us.
As has been said, the story of his boyhood is lost to us. We might sketch a fanciful portrait of it, to harmonize with the holiness and learning of his subsequent life, but conjecture is not history. In the absence of recorded facts we are condemned to silence. The biographers to whom we might look for enlightenment on this matter are silent. They seem so intent on proclaiming the world-wide fame of his mature years and recording his great achievements on behalf of the Church and the Franciscan Order, that they have overlooked the {6} comparatively obscure period of his youth. This was no uncommon fault with the chroniclers of that period. We have another very striking example of it in the insoluble obscurity in which the biographers of the renowned Duns Scotus have left the question of his birthplace and nationality. We do not know where Bonaventure acquired the rudiments of learning; we do not know with anything like certainty the name of the convent in which he made his novitiate. Our certain knowledge of him dates from his appearance in Paris in the year 1242.
Certain of our Saint's words, however, lift the veil, though somewhat slightly, from the shadows that obscure his early years. Writing in after years against a detractor of the Rule he professed, Bonaventure thus gave expression [Footnote 3] to the trend of his earlier thoughts: "Do not take offence," he wrote, "that in the beginning, the brethren were simple and unlettered. This ought rather to raise the Order in your esteem. For my part I acknowledge as before God that what chiefly drew me to love the life-work of Blessed Francis was that it bore so close a resemblance to the beginning and growth of the Church. As the Church began with simple fishermen and afterwards numbered renowned and skilled doctors, so too did it happen in the Order of the Blessed Francis. In this way God makes it {7} evident that the Institute was founded not by the prudence of men but by Christ."
[Footnote 3: "Epistola de tribus Quaestionibus," Tom. VIII, p. 336. No. 13.]
With his mind penetrated with that miracle of his early years we can readily conceive how the spiritual awakening started by the Franciscan movement seized on Bonaventure's thoughts. His mother's vow, harmonizing with his youthful desires, would clothe those impulses with the glamour of the virtue of religion. It is certain that our Saint entered the Franciscan Order as a youth; all the ancient chroniclers testify to this. The precise year of his reception, however, is a debatable question. To the learned editors of our Saint's works [Footnote 4] it seems almost established that he entered the Order in the year 1238. We know authoritatively that it was in the novitiate of the Roman Province St. Bonaventure received the habit, but the name of the friary has not come down to us. The three years following on his profession in 1239 were spent in the study of philosophy at some quiet house of the Roman Province which tradition tells us was Orvieto. Wherever these three years were passed, our Saint's lectors could not but notice his opening powers, and plans were formed for developing those conspicuous abilities which would reflect, they were sure--and time has ratified their conviction--such glory on the Order. Accordingly in 1242 Bonaventure proceeded to the University of Paris.
[Footnote 4: "Opera Omnia" (Quaracchi, 1902), Tom. X, pp. 42, 43, 44.]

Nihil Obstat:
Censor Deputatus

Vicarius Generalis

die 30 Martii, 1911.