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Joachim of Flora

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Cistercian abbot and mystic; b. at Celico, near Cosenza, Italy, c. 1132; d. at San Giovanni in Fiore, in Calabria, 30 March, 1202.

His father, Maurus de Celico (whose family name is said to have been Tabellione), a notary holding high office under the Norman kings of Sicily, placed him at an early age in the royal Court. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Joachim was converted from the world by the sight of some great calamity (perhaps an outbreak of pestilence). He passed the whole of Lent in contemplation on Mount Thabor, where he is said to have received celestial illumination for the work of his life. Returning to Italy, he retired to the Cistercian Abbey of Sambucina, probably in 1159, and for some years devoted himself to lay preaching, without taking the religious habit or receiving any orders. The ecclesiastical authorities raising objections to his mode of life, he took the Cistercian habit in the Abbey of Corazzo, and was ordained priest, apparently in 1168. He now applied himself entirely to Biblical study, with a special view to the interpretation of the hidden meaning of the Scriptures. A few years later, much against his will, he was elected abbot. Finding the duties of his office an intolerable hindrance to what he deemed his higher calling, he appealed, in 1182, to Pope Lucius III, who relieved him of the temporal care of his abbey, and warmly approved of his work, bidding him continue it in whatever monastery he thought best. He spent the following year and a half at the Abbey of Casamari, engaged upon his three great books, and there a young monk, Lucas (afterwards Archbishop of Cosenza ), who acted as his secretary, tells us of his amazement at seeing so famous and eloquent a man wearing such rags, and of the wonderful devotion with which he preached and said Mass.

The papal approbation was confirmed by Urban III, in 1185, and again, more conditionally, by Clement III, in 1187, the latter exhorting him to make no delay in completing his work and submitting it to the judgment of the Holy See. Joachim now retired to the hermitage of Pietralata, and finally founded the Abbey of Fiore (or Flora) among the Calabrian mountains, which became the center of a new and stricter branch of the Cistercian Order approved by Celestine III in 1198. In 1200 Joachim publicly submitted all his writings to the examination of Innocent III, but died before any judgment was passed. It was held to be in answer to his prayers that he died on Holy Saturday, "the Saturday on which Sitivit is sung, attaining the true Sabbath, even as the hart panteth after the fountains of waters." The holiness of his life is unquestionable; miracles were said to have been wrought at his tomb, and, though never officially beatified, he is still venerated as a beatus on 29 May.

Dante voiced the general opinion of his age in declaring Joachim one "endowed with prophetic spirit." But he himself always disclaimed the title of prophet. The interpretation of Scriptural prophecy, with reference to the history and the future of the Church, is the main theme of his three chief works: "Liber Concordiae Novi ac Veteris Testamenti," "Expositio in Apocalipsim," and "Psalterium Decem Cordarum." The mystical basis of his teaching is the doctrine of the "Eternal Gospel," founded on a strained interpretation of the text in the Apocalypse (xiv, 6). There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament ; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit , a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions. Joachim held that the second period was drawing to a close, and that the third epoch (already in part anticipated by St. Benedict) would actually begin after some great cataclysm which he tentatively calculated would befall in 1260. After this Latins and Greeks would be united in the new spiritual kingdom, freed alike from the fetters of the letter; the Jews would be converted, and the "Eternal Gospel" abide until the end of the world.

Although certain doctrines of Joachim concerning the Blessed Trinity were condemned by the Lateran Council in 1215, his main teaching does not seem to have excited suspicion until the middle of the century. Many works had meanwhile come into being which were wrongly attributed to Joachim. Among these the "De Oneribus Prophetarum," the "Expositio Sybillae et Merlini," and the commentaries on Jeremias and Isaias are the most famous. The sect of the "Joachists" or "Joachimists" arose among the "spiritual" party among the Franciscans, many of whom saw Antichrist already in the world in the person of Frederick II, nor was their faith shaken by his death in 1250. One of their number, Fra Gherardo of Borgo San Donnino, wrote a treatise entitled "Introductorium in Evangelium Aeternum", of which the contents are now known only from the extracts made by the commission of three cardinals who examined it in 1255. From these it is clear that the Joachists went far beyond what the abbot himself had taught. They held that, about the year 1200, the spirit of life had gone out of the two Testaments and that Joachim's three books themselves constituted this "Eternal Gospel," which was not simply to transcend but to supersede, the Gospel of Christ. The Catholic priesthood and the whole teaching of the New Testament was to be rendered void in a few years.

This work was solemnly condemned by Alexander IV, in 1256, and the condemnation involved the teaching of Joachim himself. His central doctrine was confuted by St. Thomas in the Summa Theologica (I-II, Q. cvi, a. 4), and its Franciscan exponents were sternly repressed by St. Bonaventure. Another blow was given to the movement when the fatal year 1260 came, and nothing happened. "After Frederick II died who was Emperor," writes Fra Salimbene of Parma, "and the year 1260 passed, I entirely laid aside this doctrine, and I am disposed henceforth to believe nothing save what I see." It was revived in a modified form by the later leader of the spiritual Franciscans, Pier Giovanni Olivi (d. 1297), and his follower, Ubertino da Casale, who left the order in 1317. We hear a last echo of these theories in the letters of Blessed Giovanni dalle Celle and the prophecies of Telesphorus of Cosenza during the Great Schism, but they were no longer taken seriously.

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