July 2002 – On the Biographies of St. Francis

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

July 2002

Dear Friends of St. Francis:

May the Lord give you peace.

Some of the best insights into the spirituality of St. Francis come to us from two of the earliest biographers: Bonaventure of Bagnoreggio (d.1274) and Thomas of Celano (d.1255).

St. Bonaventure, whose feast we celebrate July 15, became a Franciscan while studying at the University of Paris. He received his doctorate in theology in 1257 along with his Dominican counterpart St. Thomas Aquinas. He had little time, however, for academic pursuits: At the age of thirty-six, he was elected to serve as minister-general of the Friars Minor.

This was a critical time for the order since there were deep divisions between those who wished to remain faithful to the mendicant option for living the gospel life in poverty and those who wanted to adopt a style of life that was more similar to that of monks. Both parties laid claim to the legacy of St. Francis.

To create unity within their ranks, St. Bonaventure set out to write a clever biography that both groups could adopt by drawing on his gifts as a theologian and as a mystic. This presentation was meant to appeal to the so-called spirituals, who maintained a somewhat anarchistic approach to organization, and those who wanted a more relaxed interpretation of poverty and a more traditional view of religious life.

Although Bonaventure’s career as a theologian was sacrificed to the government of his order, he managed to write a number of important works, including The Journey of the Soul to God, written at the site where St. Francis had received the stigmata. The book is a valiant attempt to translate this experience into philosophical terms, without betraying the visceral devotion that fired the holy man’s life.

In the prologue, he invites the reader to enter the book with deep prayerfulness “so that he not believe that reading is sufficient without unction, speculation without devotion, investigation without wonder, observation without joy …knowledge without love …or reflection …without divinely inspired wisdom”.

Bonaventure was himself a model of humility and charity. He is said to have respectfully declined calls to the episcopate, but finally relented and was named cardinal-bishop of Albano. He died in 1274 during the second Council of Lyons, was canonized in 1482, and was declared a doctor of the church in 1588. In recognition of his angelic virtue he is known as the Seraphic Doctor.

St. Bonaventure’s view of St. Francis, Legenda Maior, is a remarkable work, yet very accessible. While there has been controversy regarding the work’s historical interpretations, its account of the distinct spiritual dimensions of the life of St. Francis remains illuminating while revealing in its structure his own orderly method of analysis. As a result, we see the life of St. Francis presented as a journey through purgation, in the austerity of his life; illumination, in his zeal for prayer and charity; and, finally, perfection, crowned by the stigmata.
For those with an appetite for the Seraphic Doctor’s theological discourse, one of the most authoritative sources is The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure. Those who can read French might consider the detailed and much-respected entry in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité by the now deceased Montreal Franciscan Ephrem Longpré. If a taste is sufficient, I would recommend the volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality series in which we find this encapsulating observation: “Viewed within the religious ferment of the high Middle Ages as a whole – when Islamic, Jewish and Christian spirituality were flourishing – he produced one of the richest syntheses of Christian spirituality. Although cosmic in its scope, it is distinctively Christian in its content, grounded on the doctrine of the Trinity and devotion to the humanity of Christ. Within Christianity he achieved a striking integration of Eastern and Western elements.” Indeed, at the time of his death, he was working for reunion with the Greek church.

For the passover to God to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. (St. Bonaventure, Journey of the Soul to God)

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Thomas of Celano was a poet and one of the first Franciscan friars, probably joining the order in 1215. Though active for a period in Germany, he returned to Italy in time to develop a certain familiarity with the holy founder. Soon after the canonization of St. Francis (July 16, 1228), less than two years after his death, Pope Gregory IX asked Thomas to write his “vita prima”. Between 1244 and 1247, he compiled his “vita secunda” as a supplement to the first hagiography.

While recent scholarship has brought into question the accuracy of some details of his account, readers must bear in mind that throughout these writings, Thomas offers lyrical snapshots that fairly reveal the flavour of the saints relationship with God, with creation and with people. The language is always exquisite but never excessive. His words are luscious but not superfluous. Throughout, he unbundles Francis’ passion and authenticity, humility and generosity … pain and joy.

Thomas helps us to see how filled Francis was with the Holy Spirit and how courageously he journeyed an uncharted course, never cursing those with whom he disagreed but always opting for a better way …in simplicity and love. In this closing segment of the biographical account, he brings to life the joy with which the church’s gratitude was expressed.

Then the happy pope spoke with a loud voice, and extending his hands to heaven, he said: “To the praise and glory of Almighty God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the glorious Virgin Mary and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and to the honour of the glorious Roman Church, at the advice of our brothers and of the other prelates, we decree that the most blessed father Francis, whom the Lord has glorified in heaven and whom we venerate on earth, shall be enrolled in the catalogue of saints and that his feast shall be celebrated on the day of his death”. At the decree, the venerable cardinals began to sing in a loud voice along with the pope the Te Deum Laudamus. Then there was raised a clamour among the many people praising God: The earth resounded with their mighty voices, the air filled with their rejoicings, and the earth was moistened with their tears. New Songs were sung, and the servants of God gave expression to their joy in melody of spirit(…) Later, the happy pope Gregory descended from his lofty throne(…)he kissed with his happy lips the tomb that contained the body that was sacred and consecrated to God(…)
A ring of his brethren stood about him, praising, adoring and blessing Almighty God who had done great things in all the earth (Ecclus. 31:8) . All the people increased the praises of God and they paid due thanksgiving to St. Francis in honour of the most holy Trinity. (Thomas of Celano, Legenda Maior)

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There is a great complementarity between these two accounts of the life of St. Francis. In fact, Celano’s Vita prima was the major source for the very first paragraph of St. Bonaventure’s reading (legenda, from the latin word legere).

There was a man in the town of Assisi, Francis by name (Job 1:1), whose memory is held in benediction (Ecclus. 45:1) because God in his generosity foreordained goodly blessings for him (Ps. 20:4), mercifully snatched him from the dangers of the present life and richly filling him with gifts of heavenly grace. As a boy, he lived among worldly sons of men (Ibid. 61:10) and was brought up in worldly ways. After acquiring a little knowledge of reading and writing, he was assigned to work in a lucrative merchant’s business. Yet with God’s protection, even among wanton youths, he did not give himself over to the drives of the flesh, although he indulged himself in pleasures; nor even among greedy merchants did he place his hope in money or treasures (Ecclus. 31:8) although he was intent on making a profit.

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Even discounting for embellishments due to the flowery literary style of the times, it remains evident to this day that Francis was a remarkable man who left an indelible impression on all of us who see in him the freedom and courage to say yes …unequivocally …to the simple and compelling call: Follow me.

Dear friend of the humble one who sought to live freely by letting go of all obstructions to faithful gospel living, I pray that our heavenly Father bless you with gratitude for the wonders of Creation, that he fortify your will to follow joyfully in the footsteps of his Son, our brother Jesus Christ, and that he ease your mind by the caring illumination of the Holy Spirit.