Thursday, 27 November 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 8.

From a fresco by Giacomelli in the Franciscan Church at Cimiez.

At the General Chapter of Narbonne, in 1260, Bonaventure was requested to write the life of St. Francis. Owing to the circumstances that surround it, considerable importance attaches to this incident. There already existed several legends of the Saint. Thomas of Celano had written one in 1229. His work received the approval of Gregory IX., who had officially recommended it to the Brethren. In the year 1246, at the request of the Minister-General, Crescentius, appeared the "Legend of the Three Companions," written by Brothers Angelo, Rufinus and Leo. A second life was written by Thomas of Celano in 1247 or 1248.
A few years ago the well-known French writer, {57} M. Paul Sabatier, edited a work [Footnote 26] which he contended was anterior to any of these. He maintained it was nothing less than a complete life of St. Francis written by Brother Leo in the year 1227--within a year of the Saint's death. This remarkable work had been already well known, but according to M. Sabatier its authorship and the date of its compilation had been misconceived. Although the learned writer supports his contention with weighty arguments he cannot be said to have rendered it certain. He is enamoured of the tone and spirit of the book. If it be an original work and the production of Brother Leo, it is, to the modern critic, an ideal biography. It reveals simply and forcibly the human side of Francis. The personal traits of the Saint are brought prominently before us in all their unique individuality. We have the real, living man--not the stereotyped example of every virtue which the earlier hagiographers delighted in. Still it must be admitted that the book is characterized by the prejudices of its author. Certain sayings and doings of Francis which appealed to his prepossessions are insisted upon with evident emphasis. Indeed, to such an extent is this apparent that the work cannot be regarded as purely historical. It is largely polemical and would seem to have been designed to refute the ideas of the moderate party concerning certain points of observance.
[Footnote 26: "The Mirror of Perfection," by Brother Leo, Paris, 1898.]
Before quitting this subject it may be said that {58} the ardour and enthusiasm with which the greatest literary critics of the day, Catholic and non-Catholic, devote themselves to the investigation of the sources of St. Francis' biography, is one of the most remarkable phenomena which our times witness. We hear of the formation of societies composed of the ablest scholars of Europe for the study of early documents relating to Francis and his Order. How the words of Christ are herein verified: "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted!" I doubt if there is a personality in history, exclusive of the Divine Founder of Christianity, whose words and actions are so closely studied in a spirit of loving admiration as are those of St. Francis.
To return to Bonaventure and the task imposed upon him by the General Chapter, the importance of the latter becomes apparent when we reflect that as far as the Order could effect it, the legend he was about to compose was to be the sole record of the life of Francis which should come down to posterity. This purpose evidently underlay the demand for its composition, for when the work was finished and submitted to the General Chapter of Pisa three years later it was officially approved of and all the other legends were formally proscribed. More stringent measures still for the suppression of the older legends were adopted at the Chapter of Paris in 1266. Therein was framed the following Constitution: [Footnote 27] "The General Chapter commands {59} under obedience that all the legends of St. Francis hitherto composed be destroyed, and that where they can be found outside the Order the Brethren shall strive to remove them, for the legend composed by the General was written according as he had it from the mouth of those who, as it were, had been always with Blessed Francis and knew everything with certainty, and those things which are proven are therein diligently set down."

[Footnote 27: "Rinaldi," p. 11. Cf. "Opera Omnia," Tom. X, p. 58.]

On the part of modern historiographers this ordination has excited much criticism, and even the warmest admirers and staunchest advocates of the Order must confess their inability to account for it adequately. At first sight it appears to be a very high-handed and obscurantist procedure, little in keeping with the ingenuous simplicity of the Franciscan spirit. It looks like an attempt to put out the light--to abolish the true ideal and substitute a counterfeit in its stead. But in reality it was nothing of the sort. At the present day it is impossible to determine the precise motives that actuated the authors of that statute, but no one who is even slightly acquainted with the condition of the Order at the period can fail to conjecture what most likely was the prevailing influence.
The Chapter aimed at introducing peace and harmony amongst the Brethren and producing uniformity of thought and action in their common life. We have seen that these most desirable elements were wanting--that there were dissensions {60} and differences concerning the nature of the observance to be pursued. The appeal of the contending parties was ever to the words and actions of St. Francis, which, according to their respective views, they strained and exaggerated and, unconsciously perhaps, even falsified. We cannot but conclude that such a state of affairs affected very prejudicially the biographers of the Saint and tended to depreciate the historical value of their labours. For these, too, took sides, and, as it is easy to see, they made the Lives they wrote the vehicle of their particular ideas. Thus Thomas of Celano favours Brother Elias and the moderate observance, whilst the "Three Companions," and (if M. Sabatier's contention be correct), the "Mirror of Perfection" by Brother Leo, constitute a species of manifesto against the latter, and an appeal for a literal and rigorous observance.
Now it is evident that whilst such a condition of things was tolerated, unity and peace could never be established. As long as these old legends, redolent of party spirit and biassed views, remained, legislation making for harmony would be of no avail. This the Chapter clearly perceived, and hence its statute. We may say of it finally that although it was a drastic measure the circumstances more than justified it. And we must not forget that it was adopted only after Bonaventure's work had been examined and approved.
Of this work it is now time to give some account. {61} Owing to the important place in history this new "life" was to hold, and the manifold distractions of public duties among which it was to be written, we may accept in strict and literal sincerity our Saint's expressions of reluctance to undertake it. "Feeling myself unworthy," he writes, [Footnote 28] "to relate that life most worthy of all imitation, I should in no wise have attempted it, had not the devout desires of the Brethren and the unanimous importunity of the Chapter moved me thereunto, and had not that love compelled me which I am bound to feel for our holy Father. . . . This, indeed, was my chief reason for undertaking this work; to wit, that since I owe to him under God the life of my body and soul, and have learned the holiness of his life through personal experience of his power with God, it behoved me in return to collect, as best I could, his words and deeds--fragments, as it were, partly overlooked and partly scattered--that they be not utterly lost with the death of those who lived and conversed with the Blessed Servant or God."

[Footnote 28: "Legend of St. Francis," Prologue, § 3.]

During the year 1261, St. Bonaventure was in Italy collecting the materials for his work. "The better to come by first-hand information of this life," he tells [Footnote 29] us, "I visited the scenes of the birth, life and death of the Blessed Francis, and held studious converse on these things with all who had enjoyed his intimacy, and with such especially as {62} had fuller knowledge of his holiness and were his chief disciples. To all of these all credence is due alike for their tried virtue as for their perfect knowledge of the truth." We cannot say definitely who these "chief disciples" were. To have mentioned them by name would have frustrated the purpose for which the life was undertaken. We presume, however, that our Saint was chiefly indebted to Brothers Leo, Illuminatus, and Giles.

[Footnote 29: "Ibid." § 4.]

When these researches were completed, Bonaventure returned to Paris to work up into an authentic record of St. Francis' life all the materials--oral and written--he had come by during his sojourn in Italy. Every incident of any moment in St. Francis' life is faithfully recorded. The graces bestowed upon him, the labours he undertook, the sufferings he bore, the virtues he practised, the miracles he worked: all are graphically and sympathetically described. The following episode gives us an insight into the fervour of soul with which this task was undertaken. On one occasion, as our Saint was engaged on his work, his intimate friend St. Thomas Aquinas came to visit him. Gently opening the door of his cell, the saintly Dominican saw Bonaventure seated at his table, pen in hand, and so engrossed in contemplation that he was lost to exterior things. Deeply moved, St. Thomas withdrew whispering to his companion "Come! let us leave a Saint to write the life of a Saint".
In his undertaking Bonaventure had before him an ideal. He wished to present Francis as the chosen servant of God, raised up to be the founder and head of a great Religious Order. Accordingly, his attention is fixed on the supernatural rather than on the natural element in Francis, and he deals more with those aspects of his life and character that bring him within practical reach of his spiritual children than with those that lift him up into a sphere so high that the ordinary soul dares not aspire to it. He distinguishes judiciously between what Francis recommended and practised himself and that which he strictly enjoined upon his Brethren. Here the conciliatory aim of the book is apparent. But he is never betrayed into anything unworthy of an upright biographer. All his facts are unassailable--nothing of importance is suppressed or distorted. In consequence, such a picture of Francis as his spiritual children required is the result. This was the end Bonaventure had in view, and having accomplished it, it matters little if his work forfeits the approval of those modern critics who, in the life of Francis, wish to find a record of the natural rather than the supernatural.
From this "Greater Legend"--as it is called--Bonaventure made an abstract of the salient events, and arranged them under seven headings, each of which contained nine lessons or readings. This was called the "Smaller Legend" and was intended {64} for the use of the Religious in the Divine Office during the Octave of St. Francis. To this smaller work attaches the same historical accuracy that distinguishes the Greater Legend. In many instances events are described in the same words; other incidents are given in abridged form; the whole work is marked by a more liturgic style, and occasionally fresh details are given.