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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Davidson (1840–1900)

By Saint Bonaventura (c. 1217–1274)

SAINT BONAVENTURA, whose original name was Giovanni di Fidenza, was born at Bagnaréa in Tuscany. At the age of four he was attacked by a severe illness, during which his mother appealed to St. Francis for his prayers, promising that if the child recovered, he should be devoted to God and become one of Francis’s followers. When the child did recover, the saint, seeing him, exclaimed “O bona ventura!” a name which clung to the boy ever afterwards, and under which he entered religion and the order of St. Francis in 1243.

Soon after, he went to the then world-renowned university of Paris, where he had for his teacher an Englishman, Alexander of Hales, the first of the schoolmen who studied the whole of Aristotle’s works, and attempted to construct a Christian theology on the basis of them. Even at this time the young Italian’s life was so saintly that his master (so it is reported) said of him that he seemed to have been born without the taint of original sin. He graduated in the same year as Thomas Aquinas, and immediately afterward began his career as a public teacher under the auspices of the Franciscan order, while Thomas did the same under those of the Dominican. These two men, the greatest of the schoolmen, and the sweetest and sanest of the mystics, were bosom friends; and one can hardly imagine a loftier friendship.

In 1256, at the early age of thirty-five, he became general of his order, a post which he held till his death. He did much to ennoble and purify the order, and to bring it back to orthodoxy, from which then, as nearly always, it was strongly inclined to swerve. In 1265 Clement V. nominated him to the see of York; but Bonaventura, unwilling probably to face so rude a climate and people, persuaded the Pope to withdraw the nomination. A few years later, under Gregory X., he was raised to the cardinalate and appointed bishop of Albano. In 1274 he attended the Council of Lyons, and must have been deeply affected when he learned that Thomas Aquinas had died on his way thither. The success of the efforts of the council to come to terms with the Greeks was mainly due to him.

This was Bonaventura’s last work on earth. He died before the council was over, and was honored with a funeral whose solemnity and magnificence have seldom been equaled. It was attended by the Pope, the Eastern Emperor, the King of Aragon, the patriarchs of Antioch and Constantinople, and a large number of bishops and priests. His relics were preserved with much reverence by the Lyonnese until the sixteenth century, when the Huguenots threw them into the Saône. In 1482 he was canonized by Sixtus IV., and in 1588 declared a doctor of the Church by Sixtus V. Dante places him in the Heaven of the Sun.

Bonaventura is the sweetest and tenderest of all the mediæval saints. His mode of teaching was so inspiring that even in his lifetime he was known as the “Seraphic Doctor.” He was a voluminous writer, his works in the Lyons edition of 1688 filling seven folio volumes. They consist largely of sermons, and commentaries on the Scriptures and the ‘Sentences’ of Peter the Lombard. Besides these, there is a number of ‘Opuscula,’ mostly of a mystic or disciplinary tendency. Most famous among these are the ‘Breviloquium,’ perhaps the best compend of mediæval Christian theology in existence; and the ‘Itinerarium Mentis in Deum,’ a complete manual of mysticism, such as was aspired to by the noblest of the mystics; a work worthy to be placed beside the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ though of a different sort.

Bonaventura was above all things a mystic; that is, he belonged to that class of men, numerous in many ages, who, setting small store by the world of appearance open to science, and even by science itself, seek by asceticism, meditation, and contemplation to attain a vision of the world of reality, and finally of the supreme reality, God himself. Such mysticism is almost certainly derived from the far East; but so far as Europe is concerned it owes its origin mainly to Plato, and his notion of a world of ideas distinct from the real world, lying outside of all mind, and attainable only by strict mental discipline. This notion, simplified by Aristotle into the notion of a transcendent God, eternally thinking himself, was developed into a hierarchic system of being by the Neo-Platonists, Plotinus, Porphyry, etc., and from them passed into the Christian Church, partly through Augustine and the Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita (q.v.), and partly through the Muslim and Jewish thinkers of later times. Though at first regarded with suspicion by the Western Church, it was too closely interwoven with Latin Christianity, and too germane to the spirit of monasticism, not to become popular. Its influence was greatly strengthened by the mighty personality of that prince of mystics, St. Bernard (1091–1153), from whom it passed on to the monastery school of St. Victor in Paris, where it was worthily represented by the two great names of Hugo (1096–1141) and Richard (1100?–1173). From the writings of these, and from such works as the ‘Liber de Causis,’ recently introduced into Europe through the Muslim, Bonaventura derived that mystical system which he elaborated in his ‘Itinerarium’ and other works.

A magnificent edition of his works is now being edited by the fathers of the College of St. Bonaventura, at Quaracchi, near Florence (1882–). There is a small, very handy edition of the ‘Breviloquium’ and ‘Itinerarium’ together, by Hefele (Tübingen, 1861).