Monday, July 15, 2019

Saint Bonaventure: "Follow the Poverty-Stricken Christ"

Every year, in the middle of July, when his feast day rolls around, I think, "Gosh, I haven't read Saint Bonaventure since... like... last year." So I look something up. I have some books - including a couple of those volumes in English that the Franciscans published years ago - on one of the few shelves in the house that actually stays organized.

The Seraphic Doctor, the great medieval Franciscan and contemporary of St Thomas Aquinas, can be appreciated in many theoretical ways, but we are missing something fundamental if we never get burned while reading him.

Bonaventure is a fire. He is like a burning bush. You wonder if you can look upon the flame in him and continue to live.

Maybe this is why I only read him once a year.

Here are words written seven and a half centuries ago that cut through the differences of history and context and speak directly to us today.

Below are some excerpts from chapter III of De Perfectione Vita ad Sorores, a short work written for the edification of the Poor Clares. I felt the heat from the fire of these words today. In their light I see what a hypocrite I am, what a mediocre half-hearted lukewarm Christian I really am. At the same time, they also awaken in me the desire to be changed. Bonaventure is emphasizing that defining accent of the Franciscan spirit: poverty. But he didn't use this sort of terminology; he simply preached about the poverty of Jesus.

Granted, his words are directed to cloistered nuns, but that doesn't mean that they have no relevance for people living in the world. Bonaventure is convinced that the example of Jesus should inspire not only consecrated persons, but all Christians to a love of poverty.

We argue and scheme and wring our hands about our society today, our social problems, and the "need for change." How often do we consider the possibility of cultivating in our own lives the simplicity, trust, and poverty of spirit that pervade the Gospel and the witness of the saints?

It is a possibility, because God makes it possible for us. We fall short because we fail to respond to His love for us. He wants to kindle a fire in us but we remain cold. And sad.

Bonaventure exhorts us to ponder the humanity of Jesus in meditative prayer. The more we remember this man who reveals and communicates the love of God, the more He will draw us to Himself, change us, set us aflame.

Excerpts below from chapter III of Bonaventure's small treatise for the Poor Clares - De Perfectione Vita ad Sorores - are given in bold type. My occasional comments are in regular (non-bold) type. Read his words carefully. Ponder what strikes you. Go to the Gospels themselves and meet the poor Christ, hear His calling, speak to Him from your heart, and let God have space to work within you.

"Christ was born poor, lived poor, and died poor. Realise and bear in mind that Christ gave you this wonderful example of poverty in order to induce you to become a friend of poverty. Our Lord Jesus Christ was so poor at birth that He had neither shelter, nor clothing, nor food. In lieu of a house He had to be content with a stable. A few wretched rags did duty for clothes. For food He had milk from the Virgin's breast. It was meditation on this poverty of Christ that roused the heart of St Paul and caused him to exclaim: 'You know the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that being rich He became poor for our sakes, that through His poverty we might be rich' (2 Corinthians 8:9).

"St Bernard, speaking of this same poverty, says: 'An eternal and copious abundance of riches existed in Heaven. Poverty, however, was not to be found there. It abounded and was superabundant on earth. Alas! Man did not know its worth. The Son of God, though, loved poverty, and desired it, and came down from Heaven and took it as His own possession in order to make it precious in our eyes' (Sermons I, 5).

[Bonaventure often cites Church Fathers from the first millennium such as Augustine and Gregory the Great, but he also draws deeply from the incomparable witness of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a relatively contemporary figure (12th century) who had a great influence on the evangelical renewal of the times, and who also has a lot to say to us. We will look at him next month; his feast is August 20.]

"All His life long, Jesus Christ Our Lord was an example of poverty... He was so poor that oftentimes He did not know which way to turn for a lodging. Frequently, He and His Apostles were compelled to wander out of the city and sleep where they could. It is with reference to such a happening that St Mark the Evangelist writes: 'Having viewed all things round about, when now the eventide was come, He went out to Bethany with the twelve' (Mark 11:7)... In similar strain St Matthew writes: "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head' (Matthew 8:20).

"Added to the poverty of His birth and life was the poverty of the death of the King of Angels... Look at His poverty as He dies. His executioners stripped and robbed Him of everything He possessed. He was robbed of His clothes, I repeat it, when the executioners 'divided His garments between them, and for His vesture cast lots' (cf Matthew 27:35, Psalm 22:19).

"He was robbed of body and soul, when as He succumbed to His most bitter sufferings His soul was separated from His body in the pangs of death. His persecutors deprived and robbed Him of His divine glory when they refused 'to glorify Him as God,' (cf Romans 1:21) and instead treated Him as a common criminal. 'They have stripped me of my glory,' complains holy Job in a moment of prophecy (cf Job 19:9).

"Drawing a lesson from the compelling example of Christ's poverty, St Bernard writes: 'Think of the poor man Christ! There is no house for Him at His birth, so they lay Him in a manger, between an ox and an ass. Look at Him wrapped in wretched swaddling clothes! Think of Him a fugitive on the rough road to Egypt! Think of Him riding on an ass! Think of His poverty as He hangs on the cross' (Sermons III, 1)."

Then the text invites us to consider our own anxiety over status and possessions, and how far removed this is from the poverty of Christ. We worry about temporal things. We are preoccupied with the concerns of this life. Our lives are so much taken up with grasping for worldly success and security, and fear of failure and deprivation. Why?

"Did you never read, did you never hear what Christ the Lord said of poverty to His Apostles? It occurs in the Gospel of St Matthew. 'Be not solicitous, therefore, saying, what shall we eat, or, what shall we drink. Your Father knows that you have need of all these things' (Mt 6:31-32)... [You are encouraged to be free of anxiety and to trust in God:] 'Cast, therefore, all your care upon Him, for He has care of you' (1 Peter 5:7).

"Since the fatherly care and solicitude of God for us is so intense, should not our anxious longing for temporal things cause us to marvel? Should it not astound us that we are eaten up with desire for vain and empty things? Why, when God occupies Himself with our welfare, do we trouble ourselves so about things of wealth and things of little concern?

"I can find no other explanation than that we have become avaricious. Avarice, avarice, the mother of confusion and damnation, has taken hold of us. We may assign no other reason than that we have turned away our affections from God, our Salvation. The fire of Divine Love has become extinguished in us. We have cooled. Love for God has frozen within us. If we were really fervent and had really stripped ourselves of earthly things we should follow the poverty-stricken Christ. Men when they become excessively hot are accustomed to strip themselves of their clothes. The proof of our want of love and of our great coldness is the attraction which worldly goods possess for us."

Obviously, those of us who live in the world might be perplexed about how to "manage" the "attraction to worldly goods" that seems inseparable from living a robust and serious human life, and fulfilling our responsibilities not only to ourselves but also to temporal history - to our families, our communities, our societies. Indeed, being a Christian in the world is complicated and "divided" and calls for the seemingly paradoxical posture of being in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world. 

I can't resolve that paradox. Part of the special grace of the calling of Bonaventure's Poor Clare nuns (and all those in consecrated life) is the radical simplicity of its form of life. Yet he feels the need to preach to them about worldliness and the dangers of "avarice, the mother of confusion and damnation."

Clearly, we are all called to cultivate self-discipline and the virtues. There is no place for mediocrity, for trying to "play it safe." We lay people are called to engage the realities of the world. Asceticism is necessary. Virtue is necessary.

But Bonaventure wants to remind all of us of the essential focus of every vocation: the love of God. We are made for God, and the things of this world are good and beautiful because they reflect God's glory. When we forget God, we lose the basic dynamic that guides the journey of life with all its achievements and sufferings. We fall into desperation and "are eaten up with desire for vain and empty things." 

We all struggle with this forgetfulness. The good news is that the Word who is God has become flesh so that He might dwell among us.

Jesus came to be with us, to accompany us through life and to die for us so that He could stay with us even in death. He frees us from sin and brings healing through His life and above all His sacrificial death on the Cross. His resurrection is our hope. In Jesus we "find" God in our lives, and "remember" Him again and again.

Saint Bonaventure therefore exhorts us all to follow Jesus Christ, to follow in a spirit of poverty and humility the poor and humble Christ.