July 2011 – Letters from Assisi VII

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

July 2011

Dear Friend of Saint Francis,

The triumph of the Resurrection, in my humble opinion, is the account in the Gospel of Saint Luke concerning Jesus’ conversation with two grieving disciples on the way to Emmaus. As a person who is often called upon to accompany the bereaved, I have a particular affinity for this story.

Saint Luke shows Jesus simply walking along with them, probably taking his cue from their stride. He asks them about what is burdening their hearts. They reply that this happened, and besides, this other thing happened; moreover, that happened. This is who he was to us, what happened to him, what hopes were dashed. Awful as these things were, people are telling us things that confuse us further. It all comes out.

Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interprets to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they come near the village to which they were going, he walks ahead as if he were going on. But they urge him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” Then their eyes are opened, and they recognize him. Then he vanishes from their sight. They say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Later they tell others what had happened on the road, and what Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. The message is clear: “Open your hearts and minds to new possibilities, different ways of being in relationship with one another, with the one who has left and different ways of looking upon the journey.”

The Gospel of Saint Luke was of particular interest to the Franciscan theologian Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, doctor of the church.

Through the eye of the flesh, the human could see things outside in creation, with the eye of reason, the things within, with the eye of contemplation, the things above.
Saint Bonaventure, Breviloquium

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Bagnoregio, meaning royal bath, is a quiet country town in Latium, close to Viterbo and Orvieto. King Desiderous gave it this name because the waters of its hot springs cured his wounds some time before the Lombards were defeated by the Franks in 774.

At the centre of this rural town, on a quiet weekday, I enter the cathedral of St. Nicholas. There are the usual volunteers preparing the church for an upcoming liturgy. The presence of Saint Bonaventure’s memory is faint here. No particular attention is paid to the few artefacts. I am nonetheless awestruck by the relic of the entire right arm, encased in a silver reliquary, with which he wrote important works of Christian theology and spirituality.

The cathedral, which recalls the architecture of St. Peter’s in Rome from the interior, was constructed on the ruins of a church said to date back to the fifth century. Its green marbled walls and arches, and brilliantly coloured windows also harbour a parchment bible that is believed to have belonged to the saint. The grotto where Saint Bonaventure prayed lies at the end of a garden.

La casa natale di S. Bonaventura rests in the nearby Civita di Bagnoregio. The Etruscan hamlet juts on its own rock high above the surrounding olive-groved valley through which the Chiaro and Turbido streams run lazily. It has been abandoned since an earthquake in 1695 seriously damaged its now all but forgotten houses and palaces.

Within the Franciscan Order, Bonaventure is considered its second founder and the chief architect of its spirituality
Ewert Cousins, Introduction to Bonaventure (The Classics of Western Spirituality)

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Saint Bonaventure’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke is a three-volume opus that interprets each verse of the Lucan Gospel. His understanding of scripture is informed by scripture, which means that he takes a comprehensive and integrated view of the entire body of sacred writing. His own texts are filled with bible verses, as a result.

During the period that immediately followed his sudden death in 1274, Saint Bonaventure was recognized as a leading figure in the development of Christian thought. As his views differed in some respects from those of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican teacher eclipsed his Franciscan counterpart, in part, to distinguish between Catholic and Protestant views. Saint Bonaventure, aligned with the philosophies of Plato, Saint Augustine and Blaise Pascal, was more acceptable to Protestants than Saint Thomas Aquinas who was significantly influenced by the more-recently rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle. Etienne Gilson persuasively argues that this is because Saint Bonaventure’s writing is often compartmentalized and misunderstood: “The totality of the system means so much that the mere notion of fragments has no meaning at all.” (The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure) He adds:

“St. Bonaventure’s doctrine marks the culminating point of Christian mysticism and constitutes the most complete synthesis it has even achieved. Thus it must be clear that it can never be properly comparable in any point with the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas…The philosophy of St. Thomas and the philosophy of St. Bonaventure are complementary, as the two most comprehensive interpretations of the universe as seen by Christians, and it is because they are complementary that they never either conflict or coincide.

In recent years, considerable scholarship has begun to restore Bonaventurian theology to its rightful place in the Christian faith’s pantheon of development. Contemporary authors such Zachary Hayes, Ewert Cousins and Ilia Delio, have mined his writing to uncover aspects that address contemporary concerns about the nature of God, creation and humanity’s place in it.

Near the end of his life, Saint Bonaventure summarized his entire outlook in a lecture given at the University of Paris entitled Six Days of Creation, “This is our entire metaphysics, emanation, exemplarity, and consummation, that is, illumination though spiritual radiations and return to the Most High.”

Every good thing emanates from the Father as a powerful life-giving river—creating cosmic beauty, order, harmony, meaning and vision. The idea would be Platonic were it not for distinctly Christian qualities as the free expression of a self-communicating Love. As Delio writes, “God simply desires to create because God is love, and perfect love can never be self-contained but must be shared freely with another.”

All creation reflects God in various degrees of resemblance. Christ expresses the Father’s love in a language that is comprehensible to creation. Humanity strives to imitate the Word as its deepest desire and highest achievement. “The journey to God is really a journey in love deepened by knowledge of God that, in Bonaventure’s thought, finds its deepest meaning in the imitation of Christ,” writes Delio.

Creation ultimately returns to the Father as its fulfillment and consummation. “The human person is God-oriented and cannot find rest anywhere except in God,” writes Delia. This is perhaps best expressed in the Canticle of Creation in which Saint Francis relates all created things back to the Lord. “Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind…through Sister Water…through Brother Fire…through our Sister Mother Earth.”

Bonaventure writes that creation is like a river which flows from a spring…the spring is the creative and dynamic Trinity.
Ilia Delio, Simple Bonaventure: An Introduction to His Life, Thought, and Writings

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May God who created you out of love, the Son who took your form to demonstrate that love, and the Spirit of constant love fill you with peace and joy.

Richard Boileau

Crib and Cross
Franciscan Ministries