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St. Bonaventure and The Tree of Life

DM 101: Week 29

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 3, 2006)
Let us move on now to the works of St. Bonaventure, the great 13th century mystic philosopher, theologian, and doctor of the Church. We have already seen how St. Bonaventure traces the theme of God's merciful love in the life of St. Francis. However, he also wrote extended meditations on the life of Jesus Christ, especially in a work entitled The Tree of Life. In the New Testament image of "Jesus, the Solicitous Shepherd" (section 13), St. Bonaventure discerns the merciful love of our Savior:

How great was this devoted shepherd's solicitous care for the lost sheep and how great his mercy, the Good Shepherd himself indicates with an affectionate metaphor in the parable of the shepherd and the hundredth sheep that was lost, sought with much care, and finally found and joyfully brought back on his shoulders. He openly declares the same thing in an express statement when he says: "The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep" (Jn 10:11). In him is truly fulfilled the prophecy: "Like a shepherd he will feed his flock" (Isa 40:11). In order to do this he endured toil, anxiety, and lack of food; he travelled through towns and villages preaching the kingdom of God in the midst of many dangers and the plotting of the Pharisees; and he passed nights in watchful prayer. Fearless of the murmuring and scandal of the Pharisees, he was affable to the publicans, saying that he had come into the world for the sake of those who are sick (Mt 9:12). He also extended fatherly affection to the repentant, showing them the open bosom of divine mercy. As witnesses to this I call upon and summon Matthew, Zacchaeus, the sinful woman who prostrated herself at his feet, and the woman taken in adultery.

In the next section of The Tree of Life (section 14), St. Bonaventure tells us that the truth that Jesus is "the Fountain of all mercy" is manifest by His tears:

To manifest the sweetness of supreme devotedness, the Fountain of all mercy, the good Jesus, wept for us in our misery not only once but many times. First over Lazarus, then over the city [of Jerusalem] and finally on the cross, a flood of tears streamed from those loving eyes for the expiation of all sins. The Savior wept abundantly, now deploring the misery of human weakness, now the darkness of a blind heart, now the depravity of obdurate malice.

Finally, in section 20 of the same work, entitled "Jesus Bound with Chains," St. Bonaventure again refers to our Lord as "the Fountain of mercy," but this time as that Fountain to which the traitor Judas refused to turn in the midst of Judas' final despair:

Woe to that man who did not return to the fountain of mercy out of hope of forgiveness but, terrified by the enormity of his crime, despaired!

Looking at these early Franciscan references to the Divine Mercy, one is struck by their focus on God's merciful love expressed in His willingness to forgive our sins, and pour into our hearts that sanctifying grace which is so much greater than our sins. As we have seen, this focus is the same in the life of St. Francis, the writings of St. Bonaventure, and in the legends of the early Franciscan entitled The Little Flowers of St. Francis.

Among the early Dominicans, on the other hand, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Siena, divine mercy is usually seen as a much broader, theological concept: It is God's gracious condescension whereby He seeks to meet the needs and overcome all the miseries of His creatures. As St. Catherine put it: "Wherever I look I find nothing but mercy."

The differences between the two mendicant spiritualities, however, are more of style and of emphasis than of substance. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas admitted that the salvation of a soul through the mercy of God was a greater act than His creation of the whole world, because it has an eternal effect (the everlasting salvation of a soul), whereas the whole earthly creation is merely a temporal effect of God's omnipotence and wisdom, and will one day pass away. Thus, even the greatest Dominican theologian gives a certain "pride of place" to God's mercy expressed in the form of the forgiveness of sins. Moreover, we need to remember the differing charisms given by the Holy Spirit to these two religious Orders. From the very beginning, the Dominicans' special charism involved the task of preaching and teaching the fullness of Catholic Doctrine. The early Franciscans, on the other hand, were originally considered an order devoted primarily to "penance," and to preaching the call to repentance. It is no wonder that in the early Franciscan writings, it is this expression of Divine Mercy " the mercy of the Good Shepherd for His lost sheep " that is the heart of their preaching and writing.

(This series continues next week on the message of Divine Mercy in the writings of St. John Eudes).

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