Friday, 21 November 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 2.

When St. Bonaventure arrived at Paris he was twenty-one years of age and had spent three years in the Order. In those days Paris was the great centre of philosophical and theological learning. Universities devoted to the study of those branches did not exist in Italy until fully a century later, hence all who were desirous of acquiring proficiency in these sciences had to journey to France. The Franciscans founded a monastery at Paris about the year 1216. [Footnote 5] Only about twenty years later were they thoroughly established there. By the munificent benefactions of St. Louis and his saintly mother, Blanche of Castille, they succeeded in erecting a large church and monastery. The latter was to be the chief house of studies not only for France but for all the Provinces of the Order.

[Footnote 5: "Wadding," Tom. I, Anno 1219. No. 43.]

A very detailed account of this convent, and of the nature of the studies, and the manner in which they were pursued, is given by Wadding. [Footnote 6] There was accommodation for 240 Friars, including professors. The school comprised four departments, one for Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic respectively, and one for Theology and Philosophy. The study {9} rooms and public lecture halls were the largest and best appointed in the city. They were four in number, each measuring seventy-six feet by forty-six. Unlike similar structures of that period, they were built without pillars and were lighted by eleven large windows. At the end of the Theological hall stood a large rostrum composed of two stages or compartments, from the higher of which the Licentiates and Doctors lectured, whilst the lower served for the Bachelors who under the guidance of the former were sometimes allowed to lecture on Physics and Theology. Each morning there were two lectures on Theology, and in the evening two on Scripture. An hour was devoted every day to the discussion by students and professors of the matter treated of in class. Once a week the public defence of some thesis was undertaken. Like the other students of the University the Friars, when necessary, attended lectures outside their own convent. They underwent examinations and took their degrees publicly. As early as the year 1234, we find special ordinations, issuing from the Minister-General of the Order, determining the number of Friars to be sent to Paris from each Province and regulating the manner in which they were to be presented for degrees. Two Fathers from each Province were generally chosen every year for the degree of Doctor. Having successfully complied with all the tests, public and private, imposed by the University, they were {10} formally proclaimed Doctors in the court of the Archbishop of Paris.

[Footnote 6: Tom. II, Anno 1234. Nos. 17-36.]

To this world-famous centre of theological learning Bonaventure came in 1242, and for three years followed the ordinary University course which was based mainly on Scriptural Exegesis and on the Exposition of the "Book of Sentences". This oft-referred-to work was a compendium of Dogmatic Theology written about the year 1140 by Peter Lombard. It takes its name from the fact that its doctrine is based upon the "Sentences," i.e. the views or opinions of the Fathers of the Church. Divided into four books, it treats respectively of God and the Trinity; of Creation and the Fall; of the Incarnation; and finally of the Sacramental system. For years it constituted the recognized text-book among scholastic theologians whose labours and lectures upon it are embodied in the immense commentaries bequeathed to us.
At this time the great Franciscan doctor Alexander of Hales occupied the chair of Theology at Paris. Born in Gloucestershire, he derived his name from the monastery in that county at which he was educated. Before his entrance into the Order (1222) he had studied at Paris and was already one of the most renowned professors of that University. He was subsequently styled and is now known as "The Irrefragable Doctor," and "The Monarch of Theologians": There is, perhaps, no greater blessing for a rich and growing {11} mind than to come early and to remain long under the influence of another mind which, while equally rich, is yet more highly educated and matured with a wider experience than itself. During the three years our Saint was following Alexander through his expositions of Scripture and of "The Sentences of Lombard"--studying his points of view, his workable materials and his constructive methods--the magnificence of his master's genius allured him as with magnetic force; and Bonaventure's emulous efforts to be worthy of his master's care could not but lead him to undreamt of heights of knowledge.
We catch a glimpse of their mutually cordial attitude from a few of their casual expressions. Whereas St. Bonaventure refers to Alexander as "his master", and "his father" and in his choice of a decision is drawn almost unconsciously to "that Father's" opinion, Alexander anticipated in the case of his pupil the verdict of Sixtus IV. That part of the Bull of canonization serves as so apt a commentary on Alexander's words that we quote it in full. "Bonaventure was great in learning, but not less great in humility and holiness. The innocence and dove-like simplicity of his life were such that the renowned Doctor Alexander of Hales used to say of him, 'It seemed as though Adam had never sinned in him'."
In 1245, when twenty-four years of age, Bonaventure received his degree of Bachelor. Following {12} this came the necessary letters from the Minister-General, our Saint then fulfilling the office of Professor to his own brethren and at times teaching publicly in the University under the guidance of a fully-qualified lector. That same year Alexander died, and the chair thus vacated was filled by John of La Rochelle. Three years later, however, he resigned, and then at the command of the Minister-General, John of Parma, and at the earnest entreaty of the authorities of the University, Bonaventure succeeded to the post. This took place in 1248. Bonaventure was now a Licentiate, i.e. he was "licensed" or allowed to lecture publicly in view of his qualifications being recognized. It was no doubt a trial to his humility to follow so eminent a light as the "Monarch of Theologians," but fortunately personal distrust yielded to obedience. One of the ancient chroniclers, referring to this event, shows us Bonaventure as his contemporaries saw him. "This Brother Bonaventure," writes Blessed Francis of Fabriano, "was a most eloquent man, wonderful in his understanding of the Sacred Page and of the whole of Theology. He was also an excellent lecturer, a very fine preacher and in his presence every tongue was hushed."
Bonaventure occupied this post from 1245 to 1257, and during that time acquired those stores of knowledge which he at first communicated to his pupils in the form of lectures, and then, with after-thoughts, corrections and additions bequeathed to {13} the world in the four folio volumes known as "The Commentary on the Sentences of the Lombard". His love of God growing in proportion, Bonaventure ultimately reached those sublime heights of contemplation which earned for him the title of Seraphic Doctor. To the Saint his youthful age seemed unequal to the fulfilment of such a task. His superiors, however, in laying on him the burden of obedience, felt assured that he would more than justify the wisdom of their appointment. And indeed so exceptional were the natural and supernatural gifts of this Seraphic Doctor that Sixtus IV. could say of him in his Bull of Canonization: "Such things he uttered on sacred science that the Holy Ghost would seem to have spoken through his mouth." And again, "Enlightened by Him Who is the Light, the Way, the Truth and the Life, in the space of a few years he attained to incredible knowledge".
The timidity with which his humility undertook the work contrasts strangely with the universal appreciation it has received at the hands of others. Thus at the end of the third volume, he writes: "I render thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, that taking pity on the poverty of my knowledge and ability, He has enabled me to come to the end of this work. I beseech Him to aid me to go forward in my work unto the merit of obedience and the welfare of my brethren--for which two motives alone this task was undertaken." And again in the {14} Introduction to the second volume, "By the help of God's grace I have ended the Commentary on the first book, and at the instance of the Brethren must needs begin the second. . . . I do not intend to propound new opinions but to reproduce those that are generally admitted. Nor should anyone think that I wish to be the author of a new book; I am sincerely conscious and acknowledge that I am but a poor and faulty compiler."
This is the language of profound humility which is all the more striking in view of posterity's verdict on our Saint, and his writings. Salimbene, [Footnote 7] a contemporary chronicler, writes as follows of Bonaventure: "He then lectured on the whole Gospel of St. Luke--a beautiful and excellent treatise: and he wrote four books on the Sentences which even to this day remain useful and esteemed. It was then the year 1248 but now the year 1284." Gerson, the learned chancellor of Paris University, is more unstinting in his praise. "Were I to be asked," he writes, "who is the most eminent amongst all the doctors, I should answer, without prejudice, 'Bonaventure'. I know not that Paris ever possessed another such Doctor." And again, "In Theology there is nothing more sublime, more divine, more salutary, nor more sweet than Bonaventure's writings". The following striking testimony of Pope Sixtus V in the Bull Triumphantis Jerusalem--conferring on St. Bonaventure the title {15} of "Doctor"--adumbrates his two salient characteristics as embodied in his title "The Seraphic Doctor". "In his writings," the Pope's words run, "Bonaventure united to the deepest erudition an equal amount of the most ardent piety, so that whilst enlightening his readers, he also moved their hearts, penetrating to the inmost recesses of their souls."

[Footnote 7: "Chronica," p. 129.]

Numberless other proofs might be adduced of the high esteem in which Bonaventure's works have always been held, but these will suffice. As an instance, however, of the widespread popularity they enjoyed it is curious to note that amongst the depredations of his book-borrowing friends which Charles Lamb, the genial author of the "Essays of Elia," deplores, [Footnote 8] is the abstraction of his "Opera Bonaventurae". "That foul gap in the bottom of the shelf facing you, like a great eye-tooth knocked out, with the huge Switzer-like tomes on each side (like the Guildhall giants in their reformed posture, guardant of nothing) once held the tallest of my folios, 'Opera Bonaventurae,' choice and massy divinity, to which its two supporters (school divinity also, but of a lesser calibre--Bellarmine and Holy Thomas), showed but as dwarfs--itself an Ascapart!"

[Footnote 8: "The Two Races of Men".]

The fundamental characteristic underlying the fervour and the love of the Seraphic Doctor's writings, is his ever-conscious realization of God's {16} presence. This with Bonaventure was not a feature of passing or variable devotion; it rested upon the basis of philosophical conviction, and of vivid childlike faith. To Bonaventure, in his system of thought as in his spiritual ideals, God is constantly and emphatically the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Source and Centre, by Whom and in Whom and from Whom all things are. Throughout the whole of his writings God is ever the central idea round which all converges. As in his writings so in his life. In this continual and abiding presence of God--the very spirit as it is also the ideal of monastic solitude--his soul, his entire being, grew and blossomed, turning ever to the light and warmth of the Divine Beauty as the sunflower to the sun.
Not only was this the source of his light and unction, it was also the guiding principle of his spiritual and mental life. Hence sprang that moderation of tone--the calm balancing of evidence as in the presence of an impartial Judge. Hence that humility--his simultaneous knowledge of God and himself--to which all arrogance and pretension are so alien. Hence, too, that directness of aim--fastening on the essence of facts, rather than on their accidental surroundings--which ensured at once a love of truth for truth's sake, and limpid, simple utterance as its worthiest channel. In God's sight all men are brothers, so it became our Saint to communicate his lights in the spirit of deference {17} and self-effacement. Hence, finally, came that unflinching loyalty to His Lord's revelations which implies aversion to curious searchings, singular views, and novel innovations--which, when not the result, are often the occasion of heretical betrayal of the trust committed to our care.

Nihil Obstat:
Censor Deputatus

Vicarius Generalis

die 30 Martii, 1911.