Four months after the Angelic Doctor (St. Thomas Aquinas), the Seraphic Doctor appears in the heavens. Bound by the ties of charity when on earth, the two are now united forever before the throne of God. It would be impossible to understand aright the history of the 13th century were we to forget the prophetic vision, wherein Our Lady was seen presenting to Her offended Son His two servants, St. Dominic and St. Francis, that they might by their powerful union, bring back to Him the wandering human race. What a spectacle for angels when, on the morrow of the apparition, the two Saints met and embraced: "Thou art my companion, we will run side by side," said the descendent of the Guzmans to the Poor Man of Assisi; "let us keep together, and no man will be able to prevail against us." These words might well have been the motto of their noble sons, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure. The star which shone over the head of St. Dominic shed its bright rays on St. Thomas; the Seraph who imprinted the stigmata in the flesh of St. Francis touched with his fiery wing the soul of St. Bonaventure; yet both, like their incomparable fathers, had but one end in view: to draw men by knowledge and love to that eternal life which consists in knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent.
When quite a young child, St. Bonaventure was saved by St. Francis of Assisi from imminent death; whereupon his pious mother offered him by vow to the Saint, promising that he should enter the Order of Friars Minor. While still very young, he was, according to the custom, sent, after the first years of his religious life, to the celebrated University of Paris, where he soon won all hearts by his angelic manners; and the great Alexander of Hales, struck with admiration at the union of so many qualities, said of him that it seemed as if in him Adam had not sinned. As a lofty mountain whose head is lost in the clouds, and from whose foot run fertilizing waters far and wide, Brother Alexander himself, according to the expression of the Sovereign Pontiff, seemed at that time to contain within himself the living fountain of Paradise, whence the river of science and salvation flowed over the earth (Letter of Pope Alexander IV). Nevertheless, not only would he, the irrefutable Doctor, and the Doctor of doctors (as he was called), give up his chair in a short time to the newcomer, but he would hereafter derive his greatest glory from being called father and master by that illustrious disciple.
St. Bonaventure's Commentaries on the four Books of Sentences, were first delivered as lectures from the chair of Paris, where he held the noblest intellects spellbound by his graceful and inspired language. This masterpiece, while it is an inexhaustible mine of treasures to the Franciscan family, bears so great testimony to the knowledge of this Doctor of 27 years of age that, though so soon called from his chair to the government of a great Religious Order, he was worthy on account of this single work to share with his friend St. Thomas Aquinas, who was fortunately freer to pursue his studies, the honorable title of Prince of Sacred Theology (Letters of Popes Sixtus IV, Sixtus V and Leo XIII).
The young master already merited his name of Seraphic Doctor, by regarding science as merely a means to love, and declaring that the light which illuminates the mind is barren and useless unless it penetrates to the heart, where alone Wisdom rests and feasts. St. Antoninus tells us also that in him every truth grasped by the intellect passed through the affections, and thus became prayer and divine praise. "His aim," says another historian, "was to burn with love, to kindle himself first at the Divine Fire, and afterwards to inflame others. Careless of praise or renown, anxious only to regulate his life and actions, he would fain burn and not only shine; he would be fire, in order to approach nearer to God by becoming more like to Him Who is fire. Albeit, as fire is not without light, so was he also at the same time a shining torch in the House of God; but his special claim to our praise is that all the light at his command he gathered to feed the flame of divine love" (H. Sedelius).
The bent of his mind was clearly indicated when, at the beginning of his public teaching, he was called upon to give his decision on the question then dividing the Schools: to some theology was a speculative science, to others a practical one, according as they were more struck by the theoretical or the moral side of its teaching. St. Bonaventure, uniting the two opinions in the principle which he considered the one universal law, concluded that "Theology is an affective science, the knowledge of which proceeds by speculative contemplation, but aims principally at making us good." For the wisdom of doctrine, he said, must be according to her name (Eccli. 6: 23), something that can be relished by the soul; and he added, not without that gentle touch of irony which the saints know how to use: "There is a difference, I suppose, in the impressions produced by the proposition, Christ died for us, or the like, and by such as this: The diagonal and the side of a square cannot be equal to one another." The graceful speech and profound science of our Saint were enhanced by a beautiful modesty. He would conclude a difficult question thus: "This is said without prejudice to the opinions of others. If anyone think otherwise, or better, as he may well do on this point as on all others, I bear him no ill-will; but if, in this little work, he find anything deserving approval, let him give thanks to God, the Author of all good. Whatever, in any part, be found false, doubtful or obscure, let the kind reader forgive the incompetence of the writer, whose conscience bears him unimpeachable testimony that he has wished to say nothing but what is true, clear, and commonly received." On one occasion, however, St. Bonaventure's unswerving devotion to the Queen of Virgins modified with a gentle force his expression of humility: "If anyone," he says, "prefers otherwise, I will not contend with him, provided he say nothing to the detriment of the Venerable Virgin, for we must take the very greatest care, even should it cost us our life, that no one lessen in any way the honor of Our Lady."
At 35 years of age he was elected Minister General of the Franciscan Order. Obliged thus to quit the field of scholastic teaching, he entrusted it to his friend, St. Thomas Aquinas, who, younger by several years, was to cultivate it longer and more completely than he himself had been allowed. The Church would lose nothing by the change; for Eternal Wisdom, who ordereth all things with strength and sweetness, thus disposed that these two incomparable geniuses, completing one another, should give us the fullness of that true science which not only reveals God, but leads to Him.
This is the secret of that admirable series of opuscula (little works), composed, as he admitted to St. Thomas, without the aid of any book but his crucifix, without any preconceived plan, but simply as occasion required, at the request, or to satisfy the needs of the brothers and sisters of his large spiritual family, or again when he felt a desire of pouring out his soul. In these works St. Bonaventure has treated alike of the first elements of asceticism and of the most sublime subjects of the mystical life, with such fullness, certainty, clarity and persuasive force that Pope Sixtus IV declared the Holy Ghost seemed to speak in him (Litt. Superna coelestis). On reading the Itinerary of the Soul to God, which was written on the height of Alvernia, as it were under the immediate influence of the Seraphim, Gerson exclaimed: "This opusculum, or rather this immense work, is beyond the praise of a mortal mouth." And he wished it, together with that wonderful compendium of sacred science, the Breviloquium, to be imposed upon theologians as a necessary manual. "By his words," says the great Abbot Trithemius in the name of the Benedictine Order, "the author of all these learned and devout works inflames the will of the reader no less than he enlightens his mind. Note the spirit of divine love and Christian devotion in his writings, and you will easily see that he surpasses all the doctors of his time in the usefulness of his works. Many expound doctrine, many preach devotion, few teach the two together; Bonaventure surpasses both the many and the few, because he trains to devotion by science, and to science by devotion. If then you would be both learned and devout, you must put his teaching in practice."
After the death of Pope Clement IV, and the succeeding three years of widowhood for the Church, our Saint, by his influence with the Sacred College, had obtained the election of Pope Gregory X, who now imposed upon him in virtue of obedience the honors of Bishop and Cardinal. Having been entrusted with the work of preparing for the Council of Lyons, convened for the spring of 1274, St. Bonaventure had the joy of assisting at the reunion of the Latin and Greek Churches, which he, more than anyone else, had been instrumental in obtaining. But God spared him the bitterness of seeing how short-lived the reunion was to be: a union which would have been the salvation of that East which he loved, and where his name, translated into Eutychius, was still in veneration two centuries later at the time of the Council of Florence. On July 15 of that year, 1274, in the midst of the Council, and presided at by the Sovereign Pontiff himself, took place one of the most solemn funerals the world has ever witnessed. "I grieve for thee, my brother..." cried out before that mourning assembly, gathered from East and West, the Dominican Cardinal Peter of Tarentaise. After 53 years spent in this world, the Seraphic Doctor had cast off his robe of flesh, and spreading his wings had gone to join St. Thomas Aquinas, who had by a very short time preceded him to Heaven.
The following are the proper lessons appointed for St. Bonaventure in the Breviary:
St. Bonaventure was born at Bagnorea, in Tuscany. While still a child, he was smitten by a mortal sickness, and his mother vowed that he should be consecrated to the Order of Blessed Francis if he recovered. He came safely through the sickness at the Saint's prayer: and consequently, when a young man, he determined to enter the institute of the Friars Minor. He was put under the instruction of Alexander of Hales, and became so eminent in learning that at the end of seven years he obtained the Master's degree at Paris, and lectured publicly with great applause on the books of the Sentences, which later in life he explained by lucid commentaries. He attained great eminence, not only in knowledge and learning, but also in purity of life, innocence, humility, meekness, contempt for earthly things and desire for those of Heaven; and he was manifestly worthy of being held as an example of perfection. By Blessed Thomas Aquinas, to whom he was bound by close friendship, he was called a saint, and when St. Thomas found him one day writing the Life of St. Francis, he said: "Let us allow one saint to labor for another."
He was enkindled with a great flame of divine love, and was moved with particular affection for the Passion of Christ Our Lord, which was his constant matter of meditation, and for the Virgin Mother of God, to whom he wholly vowed himself. He sought, moreover, with all his power to excite a like ardor in others both by word and example, and to increase it by his books and other writings. Hence arose that sweetness of disposition, unction in speech and open-hearted charity to all men, by which he succeeded in binding the hearts of all so closely to himself. For these reasons, when scarcely 35 years old, he was elected at Rome, by acclamation, Minister-General of his Order, and he held the office for nearly 20 years, with remarkable prudence and praiseworthy holiness. He made a number of regulations suited to the maintenance of regular discipline and the extension of the Order: and he defended it, as well as the other mendicant Orders, with great success against the charges of calumniators.
He was summoned to the Council of Lyons by Blessed Gregory X, and created Cardinal Bishop of Albano. He steered the Council successfully through the arduous tasks it had undertaken: as a result of which the disputes excited by schismatics were brought to an end, and the dogmas of the Church vindicated. In the midst of these labors, to the great sorrow of all who knew him, he died in 1274, in the 53rd year of his age, and his funeral was adorned by the presence of the whole Council, and of the Roman Pontiff himself. He became renowned for many great miracles, and Pope Sixtus IV enrolled him among the Saints. He composed a number of writings, in which he exhibited great learning and ardent piety, moving the reader's heart by his instruction: and for this reason Pope Sixtus V deservedly bestowed on him the title of Seraphic Doctor.
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