Friday, 28 November 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 9.

Hitherto we have considered principally the outward life of Bonaventure; we now turn to those interior virtues which made him a saint. Notwithstanding his manifold labours and the eminently strenuous life he led he was a perfect master of the interior life. A glance at his writings will show how thoroughly he understood the secrets of Mystic Theology, and how intimately acquainted he was with every aspect of the spiritual life. There is no phase of divine contemplation that he does not seem to have learnt by personal experience. It was this very striking characteristic which gained for him the title of Seraphic Doctor.
He possessed the rare faculty of keeping his mind habitually fixed upon God in the midst of external occupations. To this may be traced the very remarkable attribute of his writings whereby {65} every subject he treats of is made ultimately to converge Godwards. In his treatises "The Journey of the Mind to God," and "The Reduction of the Arts to Theology," the workings of his soul in this respect are systematized and reduced to scientific order. St. Antoninus notes this feature of Bonaventure's works when he says: "According as Bonaventure made progress in science and the knowledge of the Scriptures, so, too, he grew in the grace of devotion. For whatever he perceived with the intellect he reduced to the form of prayer and worship of God and kept meditating on it continually in his heart."
Besides maintaining at all times this habitual spirit of recollection, our Saint sometimes withdrew entirely from the cares of his office and gave himself exclusively to prayer and recollection. It was on one such occasion, in the seclusion of Mount Alverna, that he conceived the idea of, and actually composed, his "Journey of the Mind to God". He tells us this himself. "On an occasion," he says, [Footnote 30] "when, after the example of the most Blessed Francis, I, a sinner, sighed for spiritual peace--I who, though unworthy in every respect, am yet his seventh successor in the general ministry of the Brethren--it happened that about the thirty-third year after his death I had withdrawn to Mount Alverna as to a quiet place where I might find {66} the peace I sought. Whilst there, as I reflected on certain elevations of the soul to God, amongst other thoughts there occurred to me the miracle which happened to Blessed Francis in this place, viz. the apparition of the Crucified Seraph. On reflection it instantly seemed to me that the vision signified the lifting up of St. Francis by contemplation and the manner in which it was accomplished."

[Footnote 30: "Opera Omnia," Tom. V, Prologus, p. 295.]

Unfortunately the biographers of Bonaventure give us no definite insight into his interior spirit. There is no attempt at depicting that inner life which by words and actions, by trains of thought, lines of policy and personal habits, is always revealed to observant contemporaries. We have innumerable vague, though glowing, appreciations of his virtues and character in general. We are told most emphatically that he was a saint, but what kind of a saint we are not informed. In this dearth of particulars we must fall back upon the Saint's writings. We can justly hope to find in them some revelation of his spirit--of those particular ideas that guided and animated him. We can take it for granted that what he taught he practised. The fact that he is a canonized Saint forbids us to think otherwise. Hence, in his numerous descriptions of those interior virtues that should adorn the spiritual life in general, we may see a reflection of those virtues which flourished in his own soul.
There is a small work on the spiritual life written by our Saint in which he depicts the virtues that {67} make for religious perfection. The book is entitled "The Perfection of Life," and it reveals the spirit of Bonaventure more simply and, for our present purpose, more suitably than his greater works. It was written at the request of the Mother Abbess of some Community of Poor Clares. He refers to this fact in his introduction, and his words breathe such a deep spirit of humility that I cannot refrain from quoting them.
"Wherefore, Reverend Mother, devoted to God and dear to me, you have asked me out of the poverty of my heart to write something whereby, for the time being, you may instruct your soul in the way of devotion. I sincerely confess that rather do I stand in need of such instruction myself, seeing that my life is not adorned with virtue outwardly, nor is it inflamed with devotion inwardly, nor is it enhanced by learning. Nevertheless, moved by your pious wish, even as you have requested I have obeyed. But I ask your blessedness, most holy mother, to regard rather my good will than the result of my efforts; rather the truth of my words than the elegance of my language; and, that, where I fail to give satisfaction, you will excuse and forgive me on account of the lack of time and the pressure of business."
We must remember that these words were uttered by the successor of St. Francis--a man whose reputation for learning and sanctity was world-wide--a man who was consulted by Popes and Princes, {68} whose merits were soon to raise him to the dignity of the Cardinalate, and upon whose words a few years later the entire Christian Church in General Council assembled would hang with profound admiration. Such an utterance gives us a better insight into Bonaventure's mind and character than pages of indefinite eulogy.
His deep sense of humility sprang from his perfect knowledge of himself. He considered self-knowledge an essential condition to the acquisition of true knowledge of any kind. "He knows nothing aright who knows not himself--who understands not the conditions of his own being. How dangerous it is for a religious soul to be eager to know indifferent things and yet neglect to learn its own deficiencies. That soul is near to ruin which is curious to know extraneous things and prone to judge others yet cares not to know itself." Apart from the sentiment of humility prompting this utterance, what profound wisdom does it not reveal! It establishes a truly golden rule for the guidance of the soul in its search after knowledge, secular or spiritual. It must begin by discovering its own limitations and defects. If it ignores these it cannot form a true estimate of anything. This truth was uttered by our Saint six hundred years ago and it is strange to hear it re-echoed in our own day under totally different circumstances. Men of science, on purely rational grounds, are reverting to the advice given by Bonaventure and are {69} deprecating the consequences of having hitherto more or less ignored it. Our knowledge of things distinct from ourselves must be modified and verified by our knowledge of the means by which it is acquired.
The intensity of Bonaventure's humility is evidenced by the fact that whereas his biographers seem to have overlooked his other virtues, they have left on record several instances of his humility. The following incident related [Footnote 31] by Wadding is touching in its simplicity:--

[Footnote 31: "Annals," Tom. IV, Anno 1269. NO.5.]

"As Bonaventure was on his way to the General Chapter of Assisi, it happened that a poor spiritually afflicted Brother, named Fulginas, was very desirous of speaking to him but could not do so because of the numbers that surrounded him and engaged his attention. The poor Brother went along in advance of the Saint until he came almost to the walls of Assisi and there awaited him. On his approach he cried out: 'Reverend Father, I should like very much to speak with you for my consolation, and I humbly beseech you not to despise your poor subject though he is beneath notice'. Bonaventure immediately left the company that surrounded him and seating himself on the ground beside the poor Brother, listened with great patience and kindness to his long and tedious recital, and consoled him with much compassion and sympathy. His {70} companions, impatient at his long absence, expressed their disapproval of his action. But he said: 'I could not do otherwise. I am the minister and servant--the poor Brother my lord and master. I often recall those words of the Rule: 'Let the Ministers receive the Brothers charitably and kindly, and show themselves so familiar towards them that they (the Brothers) may speak and act with them like masters with their servants.' I, being the servant, should obey the will of my master and solace the misery of that poor sufferer."
This other anecdote illustrates this virtue of humility quite as forcibly, and has the advantage of being more authentic. Salimbene, [Footnote 32] a contemporary chronicler, is our authority. "Brother Mark," he wrote, "was my special friend, and to such a degree did he love Brother Bonaventure, that he would frequently burst into tears on recalling (after his father's death) the learning and heavenly graces that had crowned his life. When Brother Bonaventure, the Minister-General, was about to preach to the clergy, this same brother Mark would say to him: 'You are indeed a hireling,' or, 'On former occasions you have preached without knowing precisely what you were talking about. I sincerely hope you are not going to do that now.' Brother Mark acted thus to incite the General to more painstaking efforts. His depreciation was merely {71} affected and in no way genuine, for Mark reported all the sermons of his master and treasured them greatly. Brother Bonaventure rejoiced at his friend's reproaches, and that for five reasons. First, because his was a kindly-hearted and long-suffering character; secondly, because thus he could imitate his blessed Father Francis; thirdly, because it showed how loyally Mark was devoted to him; fourthly, because it afforded him the means of avoiding vainglory; lastly, because it incited him to more careful preparation."

[Footnote 32: "Chronica," p. 138.]

For a mind so powerful, so enlightened, of such perfect equilibrium and sound judgment, humility was the only possible attitude. Pride is the accompaniment of a weak mind or an unsound judgment. It is based upon a notion so palpably false and unworthy as to be inadmissible to a powerful mind. The proud man attributes to himself what he does not possess, or he fails to see that what he does possess is limited and imperfect, and that it is attributable rather to the Author of his being than to himself. Consequently, he does not perceive how senseless it is to glory in it or to despise his neighbour because he lacks it. The more a man knows, however, the humbler he is; because the very greatness of his knowledge only widens the extent of his outlook into the boundless sphere of truth that surrounds him, and which he feels he cannot explore.
In keeping with his spirit of humility our Saint {72} shunned honours of every kind. He steadfastly refused the Archbishopric of York to which he was appointed by Clement IV., and when that Pope, to secure more effectively his invaluable services for the Church, insisted on making him Cardinal, the envoys who brought him the Cardinal's hat found him washing the dishes of the monastery--nor would he receive it before he had finished his menial task.