Saturday, 29 November 2014

Saint Bonaventure, The Seraphic Doctor by Rev. Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. Part 10.

The Papal Envoy presenting St. Bonaventure with the Cardinal's hat
The Love of God is the perfection of the interior life. It is this which unites the soul with God, and the more intense it is, the closer is the union and the greater the consequent perfection. It is the crown and, consummation of all the virtues. Where it exists we shall, as a matter of consequence, find all the other virtues; and to describe it is implicitly to portray them all. Hence, when we shall have treated of St. Bonaventure's love for God, we shall consider ourselves absolved from the necessity of discussing his other virtues, especially as there is such a scarcity of data to lay under contribution. And even concerning the virtue under consideration, we must be content with reviewing the Saint's teaching upon it.
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None realized better than Bonaventure the supremacy of charity. "Charity alone," he writes, [Footnote 33] "renders us pleasing to God. Of all the virtues charity alone makes its possessor wealthy and blessed. If it is absent, in vain are all the other virtues present; if only it be present, all is present--for whoso possesses it possesses the Holy Ghost. If virtue constitute the blessed life--virtue, I should add, is nothing else but the highest love of God." Since charity is so excellent it must be insisted upon beyond all the other virtues. Nor ought any kind of charity to be considered sufficient but that alone by which we love God above all things and our neighbour as ourselves for God's sake. The Saint insists, particularly, on the exclusive nature of the love of God. No interest in creatures and no affection for them should be allowed to interfere with it. "We should love God," he says, "with the whole heart, the whole mind and the whole soul. To love anything not in God and for God is to be wanting in His love." He quotes with approval the remarkable utterance of St. Augustine: "He loveth Thee less, O Lord! who loveth anything along with Thee which he does not love because of Thee". He assigns as the proof of perfect love willingness to lay down one's life for God: "We love God with our whole soul when for the love of Jesus Christ we freely expose ourselves to death {76} when circumstances demand it. To love God with our whole mind is to be ever mindful of Him, to love Him unceasingly and without forgetfulness or neglect." Such is the substance of Bonaventure's general teachings on charity.

[Footnote 33: "Opera Omnia," Tom. VIII, "De Perfectione Vitae," Cap. VII, p. 124.]

Elsewhere in his treatise, "The Triple Way, or the Fire of Love," he treats of the subject more in detail. He writes, no doubt, from the fulness of his heart and describes, the love which dominated his own soul. He distinguishes [Footnote 34] six stages or degrees of perfect charity.

[Footnote 34: "Opera Omnia," Tom. VIII, "De Triplici Via," Cap. II, §4, p. 10.]

The first stage is that of sweetness when the soul learns to "taste and see how sweet the Lord is".
The second consists in the yearning of the soul for God. Having become accustomed to spiritual sweetness, it is filled with a longing which nothing save the perfect possession of that which it loves can satisfy. And as this cannot be attained to here below the soul is continually transported out of itself by ecstatic love, and exclaims in the words of the Psalmist: "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God!" (Ps. XLI. 2).
The third degree is satiety which succeeds to the yearning just described. As the soul most vehemently desires God and is lifted up towards Him, everything that tends to hold it down becomes distasteful to it. It can find no pleasure in {77} anything save its beloved. It is like one whose appetite has been fully appeased: if he attempt to take more food it produces disgust rather than pleasure. Such is the attitude of the soul at this stage towards all earthly things.
The fourth degree is that of spiritual inebriation which follows upon the aforesaid satiety. Inebriation consists in this: The soul's love for God is so great that not only does it reject all comfort and pleasure but it delights in suffering. For its consolation it embraces pain, and, as the Apostle did of old, it rejoices in reproaches and scourgings and torments for the love of its beloved.
The fifth degree of perfect charity is security. When the soul realizes that it loves God so greatly that it would willingly bear every pain and opprobrium for Him, it conceives such confidence in the divine assistance that it casts out all fear and assures itself that it can never by any means be separated from God. The Apostle had reached this stage when he exclaimed: "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ? I am certain that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
The sixth and last degree is found in true and perfect tranquillity, wherein such peace and quiet reign that the soul appears to lie in peaceful slumber from which there is nothing to disturb it. For what can disturb the soul which no movement of passion assails and no pang of fear disquiets? {78} In such a soul peace and quiet reign. It has reached the final stage--"His place is in peace". It is impossible to reach such perfect tranquillity save by perfect charity. When this is attained it is very easy for a man to fulfil all that appertains to perfection--whether it be to do or to suffer, to live or to die.
Here indeed we have disclosed to us the dizziest heights of spiritual perfection. No more intimate union with God can we conceive, and yet may we not justly conjecture that it is a faithful portrayal of the personal experience of the Saint himself. The title of Seraphic Doctor bestowed upon Bonaventure is an undeniable tribute to his all-absorbing love for God. To the minds of his contemporaries, impregnated with the mysticism and supernatural atmosphere of the Middle Ages, the spirit that breathed in his writings seemed to find its parallel only in the lives of those heavenly beings--the Seraphim--whose existence is depicted as like to a glowing flame of divine love.
Furthermore, in his utterances concerning the workings of the soul in prayer, there is what I consider a very striking revelation of the intensity of Bonaventure's love for God. It is the love of God that vivifies prayer. Prayer is more or less perfect according to the charity that reigns in the soul--it reaches its highest perfection where love is all-pervading. Then we look for raptures and ecstasies such as marked the lives of the greatest saints. {79} Bonaventure's reflections on prayer imply this most burning love. The following utterances, [Footnote 35] of which I give the substance, are clearly indicative of this.

[Footnote 35: "Opera Omnia," Tom. VIII, "De Perfectione Vitae," Cap. V, passim.]

"In prayer we must enter with the Beloved into the chamber of the heart and there remain alone with Him. We must forget all external things, and with our whole heart and all our mind and all our affections and desires endeavour to lift our souls up to God. We should endeavour by the ardour of our devotion to mount higher and higher until we enter even into the heavenly court, and there with the eyes of the soul having caught sight of our Beloved, and having tasted how sweet the Lord is, we should rush into His embrace, kissing Him with the lips of tenderest devotion. Thus are we carried out of ourselves, rapt up to Heaven, and as it were, transformed into Christ." The Saint proceeds to explain how the ecstatic state is reached. "It sometimes happens," he says, "that the mind is rapt out of itself when we are so inflamed with heavenly desires that everything earthly becomes distasteful, and the fire of divine love burns beyond measure, so that the soul melts like wax, and is dissolved--ascending up before the throne of God like the fumes of fragrant incense. Again, it sometimes arrives that the soul is so flooded with divine light and overwhelmed by the vision of God's beauty that it is stricken with {80} bewilderment and dislodged from its bearings. And the deeper it sinks down by self-abasement in the presence of God's beauty, like a streak of lightning, the quicker it is caught up and rapt out of itself. Finally, it occurs that the soul inebriated by the fulness of interior sweetness utterly forgets what it is and what it has been, and is transported into a state of ineffable beatitude and entirely permeated with uncreated love. It is forced to cry out with the Prophet: 'How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts. My soul longeth and fainteth for the Courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God'" (Ps. LXXXIII.).
Effusions such as these assuredly give us an insight into the extraordinary love that burned in the soul of Bonaventure. From the spiritual tepidity that oppresses us we can only contemplate it with wistful admiration. It proves to us indeed "how wonderful is God in His Saints," and how profoundly and intimately He influences the hearts of His chosen ones and attaches them inseparably to Himself.
It will be fitting to bring this chapter to a close by quoting, as outside testimony, the tribute which Cardinal Wiseman paid [Footnote 36] to this feature of our Saint's life. "There is another writer upon this inexhaustible subject," said His Eminence, "who more than any other will justify all that I have {81} said; and, moreover, prove the influence which these festivals of the Passion may exercise upon the habitual feelings of a Christian. I speak of the exquisite meditations of St. Bonaventure upon the life of Christ, a work in which it is difficult what most to admire, the riches of imagination surpassed by no poet, or the tenderness of sentiment, or the variety of adaptation. After having led us through the affecting incidents of Our Saviour's infancy and life, and brought us to the last moving scenes, his steps become slower from the variety of his beautiful but melancholy fancies; he now proceeds, not from year to year, or from month to month, or from day to day, but each hour has its meditations, and every act of the last tragedy affords him matter for pathetic imagination. But when at the conclusion, he comes to propose to us the method of practising his holy contemplations, he so distributes them, that from Monday to Wednesday shall embrace the whole, of Our Saviour's life; but from Thursday to Sunday inclusive each day shall be entirely taken up with the mystery which the Church in Holy Week has allotted to it. In this manner did he, with many others, extend throughout the whole year the solemn commemorations of Holy Week, for the promotion of individual devotion and sanctification, even as the Church had done for the public welfare."

[Footnote 36: Four Lectures on the Offices and Ceremonies of Holy Week. Lecture the Fourth.]