The Mystical Vine
A treatise on the Passion of Our Lord
Translated from the Latin by a Friar of S.S.F.
Edited by Matthew Dallman
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It is regrettable that the translation into English of the spiritual writings of Saint Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor and the ‘Prince of mystics,’ has been so neglected in modern times. In an age when in many of the contemporary lay movements emotionalism was tending to outstrip reason, we have in his writings sentiments of an almost Bernadine tenderness towards the humanity and passion of Christ together with a sound theological and philosophical foundation. In him we do not find any of that morbid sentimentality which mars some of the later devotion to the passion. His is an affective spirituality, far removed from the sort of emotionalism which, divorced from reason, tends to weaken the will and dispersing our energy along abortive bypaths. Emotion, of course, has its place as a by-product of affection, and it is a mistake to be afraid or ashamed of it, but, as modern psychology teaches, sentiments guided by reason are the key to the control of the instinctive forces within us, and in them lie the most effective springs of action. Bonaventurian affectivity is such that again and again the fire of the Franciscan movement has been blown into flame when the embers have been growing cold.
Saint Bonaventure became Minister-General of the Order at a time when it was being torn in two by extreme factions. On the one hand, there were those who, in the interest of a learning which was deemed to be necessary to combat the heretical tendencies of the day, desired certain relaxations of the rule, especially as regards poverty. On the other hand, there were the “spirituals” who were trying to impose a literal following of Saint Francis’ heroic ideals upon all the members of the Order alike. The latter were also affected by the movement, inspired by the Abbot Joachim, which believed that with the Franciscan revival a new age of he spirit had dawned, which could no longer be shackled to the discipline of an institutional church founded by Christ, as they believed, only for an interim period.
Our Saint had the qualities of a peacemaker, and was an ideal mediator in such a situation. He combined an enthusiastic admiration for the way of Saint Francis, the way of the poor Christ, together with a profound belief that learning could be used in the service of sanctity. All learning, he thought, should “make us better, lead us to love, and unite us to God.” Nor was he afraid to point to the highest sates of mystical union with God as the end and climax of all asceticism and all knowledge.
In his Itinerarium mentis ad Deum he describes how, when contemplating Saint Francis’ Vision on Mount Alverna, he saw again the six-winged seraph as a “ladder” of knowledge leading up to an ecstatic experience of God in the vision of the crucified Christ. The bottom two wings of the seraph represented the traces of the wisdom, power, and love of God in the natural world, considered first objectively, then subjectively. The middle two wings represent the image of God as reflected in the natural man with his gifts, and in man as restored in Christ. The top two wings represent Being and the Goood. In the unity of Being he sees the unity of God, and in the communicability of the Good he sees the Trinity. These are like the two cherubs, which face each other across the Mercy-seat in the ark. The Mercy-seat represents the Cross, which is also the rod which enabled Moses to cross the Red Sea. “He who turns his face fully towards this Mercy-seat and contemplates him on the cross with faith, hope, and charity, with devotion, wonder, exultation, appreciation, praise and rapturous joy is ready to keep the passover with him; in other words, to make with him the transition from things temporal to things eternal.” Here the intellect is left behind, and the affection entirely centred on God in rapturous ecstasy. Here is the reconciliation of Being and the Good.
For Bonaventure the Cross was the means of purging the soul from its sloth, its lust, and its malice, thus making possible the way of illumination in which the imitation and the embracing of the Cross leads to the resplendent truth about God, man, the world, heaven, hell, virtue, and sin. Even in the way of union the Cross is the means by which pure love is offered to God; for union with Christ means allowing the world to be crucified to us, being ourselves crucified to the world, and being ready to be crucified for the world. “The true Christian who desires to resemble the crucified Saviour ought above all things to strive to carry the Cross of Christ Jesus either in his soul or in his flesh in order to feel himself, like Saint Paul, nailed to the Cross.”
The Cross is so central in his thought that it is not surprising to find Saint Francis de Sales saying of him that he had “no other paper than the Cross, no other pen but the lance, and no other ink but the blood of Christ.” If there are some passages which strike the modern ear as fanciful, we must take into account that he was a poet, whose art is always designed to hammer at the heart and will. He never stopped at our Lord’s physical sufferings, but let them lead him on to the contemplation of the wounds of his love, so that his grief at the passion was always transfused with rapturous joy. Of no passages could this be more true than those from the present work and from the Lignum Vitae which have been incorporated into the night office of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. The would in the physical heart is a symbol of the wound in his spiritual heart. The one is the door to the other. Here was have one of the earliest examples of devotion to the Sacred Heart. But like Saint Thomas à Kempis he also sees the whole life of Christ as a perpetual martyrdom.
Saint Bonaventure’s treatment of the subject of the Church as Christ’s Mystical Body should also be noted in this work. Christ shares the sufferings of His martyrs, and the Mystical Body is called upon the share the sufferings of its Head. The doctrine of the Mystical Body had among the Scholastics suffered a certain decline. According to Mersch (The Whole Christ, chap. 6) this was due partly to its intractability to precise definition, its Platonic affinities, and the legalistic atmosphere of the age. Nevertheless, they did develop the doctrine as it appeared in the anti-pelagian writings of Saint Augustine, where we find the idea that the grace of the Head is shared by the Mystical Body, and His supernatural life thereby communicated to the whole Church. Saint Bonaventure follows his master Alexander of Hales in teaching that the physical body of Christ is the sacred sign or sacrament of the mystical Body. He treats of this in his Commentary on the Sentences and in the Breviloquium.
The idea of the Mystical Vine, of course, goes back to our Lord’s allegory in John 15, and the Apocalypse identifies our Lord with the Tree of Life (Rev 2:7). But Henri de Lubac has recently traced the ancestry of the idea of the Tree of Life (Aspects of Buddhism, chap. 2). The symbol of the tree is found in many ancient civilizations—Persia, India, the Far East, Assyria, and the Semitic races. It appears identified with Wisdom or Law in Proverbs 3:18. The Shepherd of Hermas identified the Law with the Son of God (Similitudes 8.3), but it was Origen who first brought the Tree into association with the idea of the Redemption. Apocryphal legend had it that the Cross was actually made from the wood of the Tree of Good and Evil. There are many instances in art of the Cross depicted as a tree or even as Christ Himself. Lubac gives instances of living crosses in a fresco at Bruneck in the Tyrol (late sixteenth century) and at the museum in Beaune (French School, seventeenth century). In the Catacombs there are crosses covered with flowers, reminding us of the blossoming of Bonaventure’s Mystical Vine. And of course there is the beautiful hymn we sing in Holy Week, the Crux Fidelis. The theme is “one of the oldest and most widely found in Christian tradition.”
The Vitis Mystica is often to be found included in the works of Saint Bernard, and it was for long thought to be his work. But one of the best known MSS. Dating from the end of the thirteenth century of the beginning of the fourteenth, the Codex Linciensis, calls it a sermon of Saint Bonaventure, and Mabillon in his edition of Bernard’s works admits that it is by “some other pious author, who is neither unlearned nor inelegant.”
The matter is complicated by the fact that there is both a longer and a shorter version. The latter has much in common with Bonaventure’s Lignum Vitae, though the Lignum is more restrained and compressed in character, doubtless being meant for use in meditation. The additions in the longer work are mainly in the second half and are decidedly inferior in style. They develop in a somewhat artificial way the symbolism of the various vine blossoms. No longer a “lamentation” on the passion as some MSS. Describe it, it seems to be a rather drawn-out treatise on the religious life intended for nuns. It is “very ordinary in content, sentimental in places, and over-burdened with figures of speech” (cf Medieval Mystical Tradition and Saint John of the Cross, by a Benedictine of Stanbrook, p. 78).
The Quarracchi editors agree that the shorter version is the original and is by Saint Bonaventure. The earlier part may have been a sermon, or possibly more than one sermon, extended in the latter part to further meditations on the Passion. The style of this latter part is characteristic of the Saint, but it may have been worked over by other hands.
The following translation is from the shorter version, as edited by the Franciscan Fathers at the College of Saint Bonaventure at Quarracchi (1900, 2nd ed.). The scriptural quotations are taken as a rule form the Revised Version, but there are some places where a direct translation has been made from the Vulgate or the Septuagint, where they differ from the Revised Version. It is never easy to translate spiritual writing of another age into the language of our own time, and one has led to steer between a literal translation of the Latin and a paraphrase of the colloquial English, realizing that some of the things said just would not be said to-day, however clearly paraphrased. This translation cannot claim to be anything more than the work of an amateur in such matters, but it is hoped that it will serve to whet the lips and stimulate renewed interest in the writings of the Saint.
May the translator take here the opportunity of expressing his gratitude to those who have helped him with their suggestion and corrections, those who have done some of the typing, and those who have read the proofs.
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© Akenside Press and Matthew C. Dallman, 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, Akenside Press.