St Francis & the End of the World
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, arguably the most well loved Saint in the Church, a person admired by Christian and non-Christian alike.
When I thought of St Francis growing up, I thought of an anti-urbanite hippie who traipsed through the countryside as a proto-environmentalist, communing with all of nature, flora and fauna alike. The stereotype of Francis the nature-lover often prevents us from inquiring as to his popular unique trait of communicating with animals.
It is here where started getting schooled on the specifically theological significance of St. Francis and eschatological figures.
In the Platonic philosophy of the medieval doctor of the Church St. Bonaventure, every creature is marked with the Word of God. And the Word of God, John’s Gospel says, has existed even before the world began. Furthermore, it is through the Word of God that all things came into being (this is summarised masterfully in Ilia Delio’s Simply Bonaventure).
For Bonaventure, this Word in creation is drawing every creature back to the God who created it. This drawing of creation by to God is facilitated by each creature following what he calls “exemplars” or models of perfection. The Word of God, incarnated in Jesus Christ, fully divine and human at the same time, stands as the exemplar par excellence for all creatures.
You see a biblical injunction for this kind imitation of exemplars in Paul, particularly when he tells the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 11:1) to “imitate me as I imitate Christ”. This biblical instruction also has a metaphysical fruit, for in Platonic philosophy, the more you imitate your exemplar, the more you become transformed into the image and likeness of the exemplar.
For Bonaventure, Francis of Assisi has a special place among the Saints because of his perfect imitation of the example of Christ. So perfect is Francis’ imitation of Christ that he becomes transformed into a historical image of the Word made flesh. This transformation has two immediate physical implications.
First, because of his perfect union with the Word/Christ, Francis was also in perfect harmony with the Word imprinted in every creature, hence the ability of Francis to commune not only with animals, but everything in the cosmos.
Second, because of Francis intimate union with the incarnate Word, the former will also bears the physical traits of the latter, which is characterised by Francis’ bearing of the wounds of Christ or stigmata.
Third, and most dramatic of all, recall in an earlier post that Christ heralds an unfolding of a New Eden, which is an eschatological condition in the world that is consummated at the end of the world. If this is true, then Francis’ union with Christ makes the Saint nothing less than a portal to the end of days, an eschatological figure. Bonaventure believed that like Christ, Francis also brought the eschaton back into history, well before its consummation. The inbreaking of the eschaton into history heralded what Bonaventure called a “Seraphic Order” or “Order of Angels”. Francis thus stands as a reminder that, in Christ the incarnate word, the New Eden is already present among us.
Nevertheless, Christians should not kid themselves that this somehow automatically gives them some special status in creation, relinquishing them of any need to strive after perfection. Bonaventure also implied in his writings that it was through the wounds of Christ, imprinted on Francis, that this eschatological “Seraphic Order” could enter history. Francis union with Christ was that of a union with a Crucified Christ, and as such the “Seraphic Order” could not be realised in history without the Suffering Body of Christ.
What this means is that Christians bring about the eschaton then, not through conquest or manipulation, but by suffering, and uniting that suffering with the suffering of the Crucified Christ.
This mode of eschatological living is not the preserve of mystics like Francis, but for everyone. This explains why, in explaining what it meant to be perfect, Bonaventure wrote in a letter:
Your heart is the altar of God…You are to feed it everyday with the wood of the cross of Christ…let your love lead your steps to Jesus wounded, to Jesus crowned with thorns…there transformed into Christ by your burning love for the Crucified…
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