Friday, March 12, 2010

Bonaventure: The Spirituals and the Conventuals - A view from Dante

John Flaxman (1775 - 1826)
Dante and Beatrice encircled by two garlands of souls
La Divina Comedia di Dante Alighieri: cioé L'Inferno, Il Purgatorio ed Il Paradiso disegnata da Giovanni Flaxman, scultore inglese, ed incisa da Tommaso Piroli Romano. (Cornell Fiske Dante Collection)
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

John Flaxman (1775 - 1826)
Second Ring of Solar Spirits

'But the track left by the outer rim
of its circumference is abandoned,
so that where once was crust, there now is mold.
'His family, which started out setting their feet
upon his footprints, is now turned backward,
setting their toes where once they placed their heels.
'Soon that harvest of bad tillage
shall occur, when the tares complain
that the barn is shut against them.
'I readily admit that, should one search our volume
leaf by leaf, one still could find some pages
where one might read, "What once I was, I am."
'But these will not come from Casale or Acquasparta,
for those from there come to the Rule
either to flee it or constrict it further.

I am the living soul of Bonaventura
from Bagnoregio, who in great office
ever put last the left-hand care. ...

'Rabanus is here and, shining at my side,
abbot Joachim of Calabria,
who was endowed with prophetic spirit.
'To sing the praises of so great a champion
the ardent courtesy and fitting discourse
of Brother Thomas has inspired me
and did the same to my companions

Dante Paradise Canto XII From lines 112-145

Saint Bonaventure and his circle appear in Canto 12 of Dante`s Paradise of The Divine Comedy

As the second ring of wise spirits surrounds and mirrors the first ring, so Bonaventure performs a role in canto 12 similar to that of Saint Thomas Aquinas in canto 11.

Just as St Thomas, a Dominican, told the life of Saint Francis of Assisi , so Bonaventure sings the praises of Dominic.

Bonaventure's gives an unsparing complaint against his fellow Franciscans (12.112-26): he is particularly critical of those who distort Francis' message and turn it to their own advantage either by not adhering closely enough to the Rule (with its emphasis on poverty) or by imposing too narrow an interpretation of the Rule (an accusation leveled at the so-called "Spirituals").

Dante further harmonizes the two solar circles of wise spirits, and he further develops the theme of harmony itself, by staging a heavenly reconciliation between Bonaventure and the abbot Joachim of Flora.

Appearing right next to Bonaventure and praised now for his "prophetic spirit" (12.139-41), Joachim articulated a Trinitarian theory--an imminent age of spiritual renewal (following the ages of the Father and of the Son)--that held great appeal for the Franciscan Spirituals but was condemned by the Church (1215) and later criticized by Bonaventure himself.

Dante perhaps shows some support for Joachim's prophesied age of the Holy Spirit when he has a third ring of spirits begin to come into focus just as the travelers leave the Sun and enter Mars (14.70-8).

On 10th March 2010 the Holy Father explained the role of St Bonaventure in the dispute between the Spirituals (the zelanti) and the Conventuals in the Franciscan order which after the death of St Francis threatened to tear the Order apart

He draws a comparison between the desire for "anarchic utopianism" with "how after the Second Vatican Council, some were convinced that everything should be new, that there should be another Church, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and that we would have another, totally "other" Church."

"As I already said, among various merits, St. Bonaventure had that of interpreting authentically and faithfully the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he venerated and studied with great love. In a particular way, in the times of St. Bonaventure a current of Friars Minor called "spiritual" held that there was a totally new phase of history inaugurated with St. Francis; the "eternal Gospel" had appeared, of which Revelation speaks, which replaced the New Testament.

This group affirmed that the Church had now exhausted her historical role, and in her place came a charismatic community of free men guided interiorly by the Spirit, namely, the "spiritual Franciscans." At the base of the ideas of this group were the writings of a Cistercian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202.

In his works, he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm of history. He considered the Old Testament as the age of the Father, followed by the time of the Son, the time of the Church. To be awaited yet was the third age, that of the Holy Spirit.

The whole of history was thus interpreted as a history of progress: from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative liberty of the time of the Son, in the Church, up to the full liberty of the children of God, in the period of the Holy Spirit, which would have been also the period of peace among men, of the reconciliation of peoples and religions.

Joachim of Fiore aroused the hope that the beginning of the new time would come from a new monasticism.

It is thus understandable that a group of Franciscans thought it recognized in St. Francis of Assisi the initiator of the new time and in his order the community of the new period -- the community of the time of the Holy Spirit, which left behind it the hierarchical Church, to begin a new Church of the Spirit, no longer connected to the old structures.

There was, hence, the risk of a very serious misunderstanding of the message of St. Francis, of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church, and such a mistake implied an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole.

St. Bonaventure, who in 1257 became minister-general of the Franciscans, found himself before serious tension within his own order due, precisely, to those who espoused this current of "spiritual Franciscans," which aligned itself to Joachim of Fiore.

Precisely to respond to this group and to give unity again to the order, St. Bonaventure carefully studied the authentic writings of Joachim of Fiore and those attributed to him and, taking into account the need to present correctly the figure and message of his beloved St. Francis, he wished to show a correct view of the theology of history.

St. Bonaventure addressed the problem in fact in his last work, a collection of conferences to monks of the Paris studio, which remained unfinished and which was completed with the transcriptions of the hearers.

It was titled "Hexaemeron," that is, an allegorical explanation of the six days of creation. The Fathers of the Church considered the six or seven days of the account of creation as a prophecy of the history of the world, of humanity.

The seven days represented for them seven periods of history, later interpreted also as seven millennia. With Christ we would have entered the last, namely, the sixth period of history, which would then be followed by the great sabbath of God. St. Bonaventure accounts for this historical interpretation of the relation of the days of creation, but in a very free and innovative way.

For him, two phenomena of his time render necessary a new interpretation of the course of history:

The first: the figure of St. Francis, the man totally united to Christ up to communion of the stigmata, almost an alter Christus, and with St. Francis the new community created by him, different from the monasticism known up to then. This phenomenon called for a new interpretation, as a novelty of God which appeared in that moment.

The second: the position of Joachim of Fiore, who announced a new monasticism and a totally new period of history, going beyond the revelation of the New Testament, called for an answer.

As minister-general of the Order of Franciscans, St. Bonaventure had seen immediately that with the spiritualistic conception, inspired by Joachim of Fiore, the order was not governable, but was going logically toward anarchy. For him there were two consequences:

The first: the practical need of structures and of insertion in the reality of the hierarchical Church, of the real Church, needed a theological foundation, also because the others, those who followed the spiritualist conception, showed an apparent theological foundation.

The second: although taking into account the necessary realism, it was not necessary to lose the novelty of the figure of St. Francis.

How did St. Bonaventure respond to the practical and theoretical need? Of his answer I can only give here a very schematic and incomplete summary in some points:

1. St. Bonaventure rejected the idea of the Trinitarian rhythm of history. God is one for the whole of history and he is not divided into three divinities. As a consequence, history is one, even if it is a journey and -- according to St. Bonaventure -- a journey of progress.

2. Jesus Christ is the last word of God -- in him God has said all, giving and expressing himself. More than himself, God cannot express, cannot give. The Holy Spirit is Spirit of the Father and of the Son. Christ himself says of the Holy Spirit: He "...will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26), "he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:15).

Hence, there is not another higher Gospel, there is not another Church to await. Because of this, the Order of St. Francis had also to insert itself in this Church, in her faith, in her hierarchical order.

3. This does not mean that the Church is immobile, fixed in the past and that novelties cannot be exercised in her.

"Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt," the works of Christ do not go backward, do not fail, but progress, says the saint in the letter "De tribus quaestionibus."

Thus St. Bonaventure formulates explicitly the idea of progress, and this is a novelty in comparison with the Fathers of the Church and a great part of his contemporaries. For St. Bonaventure, Christ is no longer, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, the end, but the center of history; history does not end with Christ, but a new period begins.

Another consequence is the following: prevailing up to that moment was the idea that the Fathers of the Church were at the absolute summit of theology, all the following generations could only be their disciples.

Even St. Bonaventure recognizes the Fathers as teachers for ever, but the phenomenon of St. Francis gave him the certainty that the richness of the word of Christ is inexhaustible and that also new lights can appear in the new generations. The uniqueness of Christ also guarantees novelties and renewal in all the periods of history.

Certainly, the Franciscan Order -- so he stresses -- belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the Apostolic Church, and cannot build itself on a utopian spiritualism. But, at the same time, the novelty of such an order is valid in comparison with classic monasticism, and St. Bonaventure -- as I said in the preceding catechesis -- defended this novelty against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris.

The Franciscans do not have a fixed monastery, they can be present everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. Precisely the break with stability, characteristic of monasticism, in favor of a new flexibility, restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.

At this point perhaps it is useful to say that also today there are views according to which the whole history of the Church in the second millennium is a permanent decline; some see the decline already immediately after the New Testament.

In reality, "opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt," the works of Christ do not go backward, but progress. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, of the Franciscans and Dominicans, of the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so on?

This affirmation is also valid today: "Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt," they go forward.

St. Bonaventure teaches us the whole of the necessary discernment, even severe, of the sober realism and of openness to new charisms given by Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to his Church. And while this idea of decline is repeated, there is also the other idea, this "spiritualistic utopianism," which is repeated.

We know, in fact, how after the Second Vatican Council, some were convinced that everything should be new, that there should be another Church, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and that we would have another, totally "other" Church. An anarchic utopianism!

And thanks be to God, the wise helmsmen of Peter's Barque, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on one hand defended the novelty of the council and on the other, at the same time, defended the uniqueness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.

4. In this connection, St. Bonaventure, as minister-general of the Franciscans, took a line of government in which it was very clear that the new order could not, as a community, live at the same "eschatological height" of St. Francis, in which he saw the future world anticipated, but -- guided, at the same time, by healthy realism and spiritual courage -- had to come as close as possible to the maximum realization of the Sermon on the Mount, which for St. Francis was the rule, though taking into account the limits of man, marked by original sin.

Thus we see that for St. Bonaventure, to govern was not simply a task but was above all to think and to pray. At the base of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions resulted from reflection, from thought illumined by prayer.

His profound contact with Christ always accompanied his work of minister-general and that is why he composed a series of theological-mystical writings, which express the spirit of his government and manifest the intention of guiding the order interiorly, of governing, that is, not only through commands and structures, but through guiding and enlightening souls, orienting them to Christ."

The movement of Blessed Joachim was not extinguished. His memory, his works and his thought continued to provide inspiration over the centuries. In Calabria the Joachimites are still strong.

The Blessed Joachim`s Apocalyptic view of history is illustrated in the following illustrations for his work Liber Figurarum

Albero Aquila

Albero Aquila Old Testament

Albero Trinity

Monster with the seven heads

Figure of the seven ages

The spiral of the Liturgy

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