…John Duns Scotus didn’t just wear a Franciscan habit, he was Franciscan through and through like “Franciscan Rock”. Unlike many priests and intellectuals who became Franciscans after their initial training, Scotus was firstly grounded in Franciscan Spirituality from the age of 15 by his uncle Elias at the Friary in Dumfries in Scotland, where he had joined the Order.
He was born around 1266 and went to Oxford in about 1289, so he must have spent about eight years living and imbibing the spirit of St Francis first. The works that would have had the greatest influence on him would have been the writings of Francis himself, most especially his “Rule and Testament” and his “Admonitions”, then St Bonaventure’s “Life of St Francis” and his two great spiritual works, “The Tree of Life” and the “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum”. It would be difficult to say how many of the other early lives or writings about Francis would have been available to him, possibly none of them. This was because once St Bonaventure had completed his authoritative “Life of St Francis”, other early writings were all ordered to be burnt by the Chapter held in 1266 in the interest of fraternal unity.
Above all other works then, this work became mandatory reading for all prospective friars. It was in this work that he first read about the revelation of the “Primacy of Love” that was to dominate his theological thought. It was of the interval just after Francis saw the Seraph approach and just before he received the stigmata that Bonaventure wrote: “Eventually he understood by a revelation that he was to be totally transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by the martyrdom of the flesh, but by the fire of His love consuming his soul”.
Like any novice, John Duns Scotus would be taught how to pray, beginning at the beginning. The beginning was meditating on the life of Jesus on earth, and there was simply no better companion to the Scriptures for this purpose than Bonaventure’s work: “The Tree of Life”. Once an experienced director, whether it was his uncle Elias or another, discovered that his meditation had led John into contemplative prayer, he would have placed in his hands the “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum”. This would have enabled him to understand why, and how, he was now being led into the mystic way. It would explain too why he wasn’t just interested in theology because he wanted to enter into theological speculation for the sake of it, or for academic preferment like many of his contemporaries, but for something more important.
For Scotus the very raison d’etre of all theology is to love God, and through love to seek communion with Him. This he discovered firstly by reading Bonaventure’s “Life of St Francis” and secondly through reading the “Itinerarium” inspired by the revelation of the “Primacy of Love” and written by St Bonaventure at La Verna, the very place where that revelation had been received. That is why John Duns Scotus’ theological inspiration didn’t begin at Oxford or Paris, but at La Verna, where he learnt from the revelation that Francis received there the absolute importance of the “Primacy of Love”. This key revelation then, was not only the inspiration for St Bonaventure’s “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum”, but for the mystical theology of Blessed John Duns Scotus.
– This is an excerpt from the article “Real Franciscan” by D.Torkington, published in the “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue December 2012. For subscriptions etc. contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy.
PRAYER TO OBTAIN THE CANONIZATION OF BLESSED JOHN DUNS SCOTUS:
O Most High, Almighty and gracious God, Who exalt the humble and confound the proud at heart, grant us the great joy of seeing Blessed John Duns Scotus canonized. He honoured Your Son with the most sublime praises; he was the first to successfully defend the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary; he lived in heroic obedience to the Pope, to the Church and to the Seraphic Order. O most holy Father, God of infinite love, hear, we beseech You, our humble prayer, through the merits of Your Only-Begotten Son and of His Mother, Coredemptrix and Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Amen.