Sister Death

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. (St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun)

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

On the 21st of April 1109, St Anselm of Canterbury lay ill in his cell. One of the monks came to read to him the Gospel from that day’s Mass. While the monk was reading, writes Eadmer, his biographer:

he began to draw his breath more slowly than usual. We felt therefore that he was now on the point of death, and he was lifted from his bed onto sackcloth and ashes. The whole congregation of his sons gathered round him, and, sending forth his soul into the hands of the Creator, he slept in peace.

A few decades later, with his monastic sons gathered around him, St Stephen Harding, abbot of Citeaux, would die with the word, ‘Crist’ on his lips (that is, ‘Christ’ in his native English, rather than ‘Christus’ [nominative] or ‘Christe’ [vocative] in Latin).

In the hospitals of medieval Europe, when the doctors and others had done all they could, and it became clear that a patient was dying, the community would gather around his or her bed and pray the office, singing hymns and psalms to escort the Christian soul to the throne of grace.

This is the good death. Surrounded by your community, by those whom you love, bathed in prayer, being escorted into the presence of God by them. This is how most accounts of the deaths of beloved medieval individuals are described.

Not alone. Not at the hand of another. Not with tubes and machines and a sterile smell that itself reeks of death in its worst incarnations.

We live in community. Why should we die alone?

Die we all shall, more certain even than paying taxes.

Yet our culture has a strange and awkward relationship with death. We put it out of the way, hide it in a back corner. In the quest for the unfettered, individual will, doctors are now allowed to kill upon request under certain circumstances. We slay the unwanted unborn. But we also prolong life sometimes beyond true liveability.

And once a person dies, for some reason we embalm them. I am no Pharaoh. This makes no sense to me. Allow me to rot. ‘Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.’

For the medievals, death was there, confronting them. Inescapable. A world without vaccines, without anaesthetic, with much hard labour and poor living conditions. A world of war. Beginning in the 1340s, the Black Death (consider the dance of death carved in Rosslyn Chapel a century later).

They had better medicine, surgery, and science than you probably think.

But people were still more likely to die then than they are now.

They thus knew how to die. Gather the community. Surround yourself with those you love. Pray together. Sing together. Escort the dying into the embrace of the Divine.

Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.

What to do with the “Canticle of Brother Sun”

First, pop on over to this website and read the “Canticle of Brother Sun”.

The first Franciscan text we read last night was the “Canticle of Brother Sun”.  This is one of St. Francis’ most popular writings.  It is especially popular today since St. Francis is the patron saint of ecologists and people can get their pets blessed on his feast day.  According to GK Chesterton, in fact:

It is a supremely characteristic work and much of Saint Francis could be reconstructed from that work alone.

Like all acts of writing, the “Canticle of Brother Sun” is dangerous, risky.  In the hands of an unsympathetic reader, it could be interpreted as heresy, as a form of pantheism, panentheism, or pagan nature-worship.  In the hands of a heretic, it could be used as such.  On the other hand, in the hands of a sympathetic orthodox reader, it becomes the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

St. Francis of Assisi was an orthodox Catholic believer.  His goal was not to start his own hippie church (contra Donovan & Brother Sun, Sister Moon).  His goal was to bring the true faith to the common people of Italy, to bring people to true faith and hearty repentance, to cause the rich to reconsider the value of wealth, to give strength the poor — and all of these things are not done through Brother Sun but through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  St. Francis was aware of this.  It permeates the majority of his life, the stories of his life, and his writings.

And if we look at the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” we see that it balances all the words about creation with praise of the Creator.  This is the balance that must be found when we discuss eco-theology or the greening of theology or a theology of the environment or creation care.  The centre of our worship must always, ever, and ceaselessly be our Lord God.

So it was for St. Francis.  I disagree with the Chesterton quotation above.  If we are to know St. Francis’ heart, we must look beyond the “Canticle of Brother Sun.”  Elsewhere we see the centrality of Christ in his life.  We must balance this canticle with the rest of the saint’s writings.  Thus, we shall take the “Canticle of Brother Sun” and look at it parallel to chapter 23 of the “Earlier Rule” (for those pressed for time, I have bolded the word therefore; read from that word on for a briefer experience):

All-powerful, most holy, most high and supreme God
Holy and just Father
Lord, King of heaven and earth
we thank You for Yourself
for through Your holy will
and through Your only Son
with the Holy Spirit
You have created all things spiritual and corporal
and, having made us in Your own image and likeness,
You placed us in paradise.
And through our own fault we have fallen.
And we thank You
for as through Your Son You created us
so also through Your holy love, with which You loved us,
You brought about His birth
as true God and true man
by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary
and You willed to redeem us captives
through His cross and blood and death.
And we thank You
for Your Son Himself will come again
in the glory of His majesty
to send the wicked ones
who have not done penance and who have not known You
into the eternal fire,
and to say to all those who have known You and have adored You
and have served You in penance:
“Come, you blessed of My Father,
receive the kingdom,
which has been prepared for you
from the beginning of the world.”
And because all of us wretches and sinners
are not worthy to pronounce Your name,
we humbly ask that our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your beloved Son, in whom You were well pleased,
together with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
give You thanks as it pleases You and Him for everything,
[He] Who always satisfies You in everything
through Whom You have done such great things for us.
Alleluia!

[Here follows a list of saints begged to join in thanks.  Then a request for all people, laity and clergy, to serve the Lord.]

Let us all love the Lord God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength [cf. Mark 12:30], with fortitude and with total understanding, with all of our powers, and with every effort, every affection, every emotion, every desire, and every wish.  He has given and gives to each one of us our whole body, our whole soul, and our whole life.  He created and redeemed us, and will save us by His mercy alone.  He did and does every good thing for us who are miserable and wretched, rotten and foul-smelling, ungrateful and evil.

Therefore
let us desire nothing nothing else
let us wish for nothing else
let nothing else please us and cause delight
except our Creator and Redeemer and Saviour,
the one true God,
Who is the fullness of Good
all good, every good, the true and supreme good
Who alone is good
merciful and gentle
delectable and sweet
Who alone is holy
just and true
holy and right
Who alone is kind
innocent
pure
from Whom and through Whom and in Whom is
all pardon
all grace
all glory
of all the penitent and the just
of all the blessed who rejoice together in heaven.
Therefore let nothing hinder us
nothing separate us
or nothing come between us.
Let all of us
wherever we are
in every place
at every hour
at every time of day
everyday and continually
believe truly and humbly
and keep in our hearts and love, honour, adore, serve
praise and bless
glorify and exalt
magnify and give thanks to
the most high and supreme eternal God
Trinity and Unity
the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
the Creator of all
Saviour of all who believe in Him
and Hope in Him
and love Him
Who is
without beginning and and without end
unchangeable, invisible,
indescribable, ineffable,
incomprehensible, unfathomable,
blessed, worthy of praise,
glorious, exalted on high, sublime,
most high, gentle, lovable,
delectable and totally desirable above all else
forever.
Amen.

This is the heart of Franciscan spirituality.