Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saint Bonaventure and the Stigmata of St Francis

Domenico Ghirlandaio (original name Domenico di Tommaso Bighordi) (1449, - 1494)
The Stigmata of St Francis
The Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinità, Florence

Representation of The Stigmata of St Francis (13th century)
Cappella delle Stimmate, Sanctuary at La Verna

Andrea della Robbia (1435 – 1525)
Crucifixion. (Cristo crocifisso fra angeli con ai piedi la Madonna, San Giovanni San Francesco e San Girolamo dolenti) 1481
565 x 420 cm
Cappella delle Stimmate, Sanctuary at La Verna
The inscription at the bottom reads: "O vos omnes, qui transitis per viam, attendite et videre, si est dolor sicut dolor meus".
Note the heads of twenty three seraphim

The Chapel of St Bonaventure at La Verna Sanctuary

Jean Hey (style de) ; Jean Pichore (style de) ; Maître de la Chronique scandaleuse (style du)
Saint Bonaventure
Heures à l'usage de Rome (c. 1510)
Tours - BM - ms. 2104 f. 172

Two men climbed Mount La Verna in Italy: St Francis of Assisi in 1224 and about thirty years later St Bonaventure.

Seraphim appeared to St Francis bearing a vision of the crucified Christ and he received the wounds produced by the nails and lance, the stigmata.

What the Seraphic Francis lived, the mind of the Seraphic Doctor Bonaventure sought to understand so "as much as possible (to) be restored, naked of knowledge, to union with the very One who is above all created essence and knowledge."

Both men had the same ideal: to rise from the contemplation of God`s symbols in creatures to the vision of uncreated goodness itself.

In 1259 St Bonaventure had a cell made at the sanctuary near the spot where St Francis experienced the stigmata. It is now the Chapel of St Bonaventure see above.

In 1260 a church was consecrated at La Verna in presence of St. Bonaventure and several bishops. A few years later the Chapel of the Stigmata was erected, paid for by Count Simone of Battifole, near the spot where the miracle took place. The Chiesa Maggiore was begun in 1348, although not finished until 1459

The Holy Father in his talk about St Bonaventure on 10th March 2010 made the following comments about the stigmata of St Francis and St Bonaventure:

"Of these his writings, which are the soul of his government and show the way to follow either as an individual or a community, I would like to mention only one, his masterwork, the "Itinerarium mentis in Deum," which is a "manual" of mystical contemplation.

This book was conceived in a place of profound spirituality: the hill of La Verna, where St. Francis had received the stigmata. In the introduction, the author illustrates the circumstances that gave origin to his writing:

"While I meditated on the possibility of the soul ascending to God, presented to me, among others, was that wondrous event that occurred in that place to Blessed Francis, namely, the vision of the winged seraphim in the form of a crucifix. And meditating on this, immediately I realized that such a vision offered me the contemplative ecstasy of Father Francis himself and at the same time the way that leads to it" (Journey of the Mind in God, Prologue, 2, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici / 1, Rome, 1993, p. 499).

The six wings of the seraphim thus became the symbol of six stages that lead man progressively to the knowledge of God through observation of the world and of creatures and through the exploration of the soul itself with its faculties, up to the satisfying union with the Trinity through Christ, in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi.

The last words of St. Bonaventure's "Itinerarium," which respond to the question of how one can reach this mystical communion with God, would make one descend to the depth of the heart:

"If you now yearn to know how that happens (mystical communion with God), ask grace, not doctrine; desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of the letter; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness not clarity; not light but the fire that inflames everything and transport to God with strong unctions and ardent affections. ... We enter therefore into darkness, we silence worries, the passions and illusions; we pass with Christ Crucified from this world to the Father, so that, after having seen him, we say with Philip: that is enough for me" (Ibid., VII, 6).

Dear friends, let us take up the invitation addressed to us by St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, and let us enter the school of the divine Teacher: We listen to his Word of life and truth, which resounds in the depth of our soul. Let us purify our thoughts and actions, so that he can dwell in us, and we can hear his divine voice, which draws us toward true happiness"

Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (1875) dwelt upon the fate of five German Franciscan nuns fleeing anti-Catholic laws in Germany and who drowned together as their ship sank in a storm off Harwich, the sisters holding hands as their leader called out, "O Christ, come quickly!"

In his poem, Hopkins elided the nuns' fate with their founder's, "With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance/his/ Lovescape crucified." In Hopkins' words, St Francis' stigmatic body became a landscape of Christ's love:

Five! the finding & sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man's make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd & priced --
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb's fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! & these thy daughters
And five-livèd  leavèd favour pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire

A more argumentative work about the role of St Bonaventure is set out in St. Francis as prophet in Celano and Bonaventure. (2002) The Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters

"Bonaventure may have ordered all previous biographies of Francis destroyed, and wrote his own Life to be the final statement; this official version borrows heavily from Celano I and II, the Assisi Compilation, and the Legend of the Three Companions.

Bonaventure's drastic solution to the problem of division within the Order was to simply ignore the problem as if it never existed. (It could be argued in hindsight that it had the opposite effect, for the rigorist wing then became more assertive in its claims.)

Bonaventure sought to transpose Francis into a universal prophet, who was sent to the entire Church. This is why he emphasizes the stigmata, the ultimate sign of Christ's presence in the world.

Francis was Christ, Who had returned to restore the gospel life. More precisely, to use Bonaventuran language, Francis the "hierarchical man" was the image or vestige of Christ on earth, physically and spiritually.

Bonaventure's methodology becomes clear when one compares his Major Legend of Francis with the lives of Celano and others.

Bonaventure was determined to place Francis in a wider theological and historical context. Francis the particular (Franciscan) saint becomes the universal (Catholic) prototype. The Franciscan Order recedes into the background, as but one element in the cosmic vista.

While dismissing the more extreme claims of the apocalyptic Spiritual Franciscans, Bonaventure retains Francis as the angel of the sixth seal. Francis is the third in the line of the great triad of prophets, after King David and the apostle Peter; the Old Law (David), the New Law (Peter), and the New Law recently recovered (Francis).

As the hierarchical man, Francis resembles the prophet Elijah and the "true prophecy" of John the Apostle In the manner of Isaiah (Is. 57: 7) the Poverello proclaimed peace, preached salvation, and promoted penance.

Repeating an incident in Celano, Bonaventure refers to Francis predicting the expansion of the Order --with no mention of future dissensions. Francis the second Elijah descends from the mountain to forecast the growth of his Order; again, no reference to internal disruptions.

When Francis made these predictions and disclosed divine mysteries, the brothers came to realize that it was "safe to follow his life and teaching." Francis the exemplar of virtue for everyone is a main theme in Bonaventure's Major Legend.

Even when Bonaventure does portray Francis as a critic of the brothers who set a "bad example," his point is to illustrate the vice of detraction and its opposite: the virtue of forgiveness. Francis personifies this virtue by bringing the wayward friars back to Christ.

But Bonaventure, referring to these events in Celano, shifts the focus away from the latter's intention, which was in part to reprimand the extremist wing of the Order. Himself alluding to the Assisi Compilation, Celano uses the curse of Francis to chastise those who search for novelties.) The evil for Celano is less the brothers' detraction than the sharp divisions within the Order.

When Bonaventure refers to Francis's infused knowledge of the scriptures as one of the latter's prophetic gifts, he intends to underline the special quality of this attribute; the brothers should not conclude that they might also possess a similar grace.

Nor should the friars think that they too share his ability to read hearts and to predict future events, God had given Francis a special revelation Special revelation is a theological term that states a belief that knowledge of God and of spiritual matters can be discovered through supernatural means, such as miracles or the scriptures, a disclosure of God's truth through means other than through man's reason, without intermediary, which was intended to illuminate the world. His role is quasi-apocalyptic; he is part of the providential pattern of salvation. ...

The ultimate proof of Francis's sanctity, gospel-inspired preaching, and likeness to Christ is his reception of the stigmata.

Bonaventure emphasizes the physical aspect of the stigmata in order to place Francis above the Franciscan factions, and thereby to reconcile them.

The prophetic sign of the wounds of Christ sets Francis apart from other mortals; his sanctity has become "inaccessible and inimitable The Poverello remains, to be sure, the prototypical friar. But in this prophetic sense he is beyond the "Franciscan" saint of Celano II; he is no less than Christ crucified.

Bonaventure, then, quietly removes the tensions from Celano II. The new, authorized portrait of Francis reverts to a more hagiographical mode, less historical and more archetypical.

Francis is now a topos, an image of the Crucified. To be sure, the Seraphic Doctor retains some of the prophecies of Celano I and II. But the context has changed; these passages harken "Listen to the sound of this cello" back to their classic hagiographical status as expressions of the spirit of prophecy, as marks of sanctity.

Whereas Celano alluded to the exposure of a friar's "singular ways" as a technique to admonish misguided friars, Bonaventure uses the same incident to show Francis's power to convert hearts, as well as his capacity for divine contemplation.

Whereas Celano's Francis reads hearts as a way of warning deviants, Bonaventure uses this gift to raise him to the level of the Hebrew prophets in order to show how exceptional contemplatives are sent at certain times in history. ...

From a hagiographical point of view, Bonaventure's universal Francis was to prove less influential, at least with regard to prophetic attributes.

While subsequent Franciscan vitae (and the place of Francis in the liturgy, devotions, and homilies) certainly utilize the Major Legend, these allusions quickly became commonplaces that seem extracted from the theological vision of Bonaventure's biography. The minister general's prophetic Francis could not be easily adapted to subsequent mendicant saints, male or female.

He tried hard to synthesize the various attitudes toward Francis--attitudes that threatened the stability of the Franciscan movement--within the Order. But this lofty ideal seemed far from the world of the virulent polemics of the poverty controversy after 1280. As it happened, it would be the Spirituals who were more effective in exploiting the potential of the prophetic heritage of Francis.

Bonaventure's reluctant Francis of the Sixth Seal became the thundering judge who castigated the moderate wing of the Order, Francis prophesied the coming of the precursor of the Antichrist, who would punish the Community, the pope, and all sinners in the Church. Only the true saints, as Francis had predicted, would endure. Prophets may be saints; they can also be avenging angels. "