In the history of Western spirituality, St. Bonaventure holds a central and pivotal position. The 13th century professor at the University of Paris, minister-general of the Franciscan Order, and adviser to popes played a major role in the spiritual ferment of the Middle Ages.
Viewed within the religious context of the Middle Ages as a whole, when Islamic, Jewish and Christian spirituality were flourishing, Bonaventure produced one of the richest sources of Christian spirituality — one from which we can all learn. It is distinctively Christian: grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity and immersed in the humanity of Christ, reverence for creation, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Born Giovanni di Fidanza in 1221 in the small central Italian town of Bagnorea some 60 miles north of Rome, Bonaventure was given the baptismal name of John. He would retain this name for some 20 years until joining the Franciscan Order when it was changed.
In 1234 he went to study at the University of Paris and that is where he came into contact with the Franciscans. He entered the Order in 1243 and by 1248 had become a lecturer in Scripture. Nine years later he was elected to the top position as minister general of the Order. In 1273 he was named cardinal-bishop of Albano by Pope Gregory IX; in that position he played a major role in the reforms initiated by the Council of Lyons in 1274. He died at that Council on July 15, 1274, and was buried at the Franciscan church in Lyons.
Despite living only into his 50s Bonaventure’s writings were extensive, covering some nine folio volumes. Among his most notable works are The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life and The Life of St. Francis. From these three major works we can obtain a picture of the spirituality of this towering figure in Christian history. As we learn from his spirituality, our own can become more meaningful.
The Soul’s Journey Into God is considered to be Bonaventure’s masterpiece. It is an extraordinary compilation of Christian spirituality which was widely disseminated during the Middle Ages. This work expresses the Franciscan awareness of the presence of God in creation. It contains significant christological material with emphasis on the mystical Christ. In regard to creation, he wrote:
“The magnitude of things in the mass of their length, width and depth; in their great power extending in length, depth; and width as appears in the diffusion of light; in the efficiency of their operations which are internal, continuous and diffused as appears in the operation of fire — all this clearly manifests the immensity of the power, wisdom and goodness of the Triune God.”
Bonaventure, who believed that those who do not feel the presence of God in creation are depriving themselves of a major source of spiritual development, let his feelings be known on this topic:
“Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf; whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; whoever does not discover the First Principle from such signs is a fool.”
Bonaventure viewed the sciences — particularly metaphysics, mathematics and physics — as means of deepening our awareness of spiritual realities and ultimately leading us to God. Again in this masterful work, he wrote:
“All these sciences have certain infallible rules like rays of light shining upon our mind, from the eternal law. And our mind illumined by such brilliance, unless it is blind, can be led through itself to contemplate that Eternal Light.”
Mystical union with Christ is expressed by Bonaventure in his exhortation:
“Let us then die and enter into darkness; let us impose silence upon our cares, our destinies and our imaginings. With Christ crucified, let us pass out of this world to the Father.”
There is also a devotion to the Blessed Virgin evident in his writings. In the prologue to The Soul’s Journey Into God, he wrote:
“I call upon the Eternal Father, through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, that through that intercession of the most holy Virgin Mary, the mother of the same God and Lord Jesus Christ, and through the intercession of blessed Francis, our leader and father, He may enlighten the eyes of our soul to guide our feet in the way of peace that passes all understanding.”
The Tree of Life is a meditation on the life of Christ, a gem of Christian devotional literature imbued with deep feelings and intellectual power. With both power and delicacy Bonaventure calls forth the complex cluster of human sentiments cultivated during the Middle Ages in compassion for the suffering Savior — compassion that was to flower in the great pietas of Michelangelo. Contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the agony He suffered on our behalf is an integral part of this work. In the Sixth Fruit of this book, Bonaventure wrote:
“O truthful kind Jesus, what soul who is devoted to you, when it sees and hears this, can restrain itself from tears and hide the sorrow of its inner compassion?”
There is also a call to commitment based on John the Baptist’s call to repentance. Bonaventure exhorts us:
“You also, accompany Him faithfully, and once regenerated in Him, explore His secrets so that on the banks of the Jordan you may discern the Father in the voice, the Son in the flesh and the Holy Spirit in the dove, and when the heaven of the Trinity is opened to you, you will be taken up to God.”
Nor is the honor due the mother of our Lord overlooked in this book. Of Mary, Bonaventure wrote:
“But you also, my most merciful Lady, behold the most sacred garment of your beloved Son, artistically woven by the Holy Spirit from your most chaste body; and together with Him beg forgiveness for us who take refuge in you that we may be found worthy to flee the wrath to come.”
The Life of St. Francis focuses on the concrete detailing of a unique human life. It is especially important since Bonaventure’s own personal biography is an interpretation of St. Francis as the model of spirituality. Bonaventure’s deep devotion to Francis is evident throughout the book. In the prologue he wrote, “I feel that I am unworthy and unequal to the task of writing the life of a man so venerable and worthy of imitation.”
Bonaventure’s commitment to the cause of Christ, inspired by St. Francis, is evident in these lines in which he makes reference to a wound in Francis’s body. Implicit in this is the call for our own discipleship.
“Carry the seal of Christ, the High Priest by which your words and deeds will be rightly accepted by all as authentic and beyond reproach. For now, because of the brand-marks of the Lord Jesus which you carry in your body, no one should trouble you; rather, every servant of Christ should show them deep devotion.”
His reverence for nature, like that of St. Francis is also evident in this work through such passages as:
“Larks are birds that love the light and dread darkness. But at the hour of the holy man’s passing, although it was twilight and night was to follow, they came in a great flock over the roof of the house and, whirling around for a long time with unusual joy, gave clear and evident testimony of the glory of the saint who so often had invited them to praise God.”
Finally, in The Tree of Life, too, the spirituality of St. Bonaventure is reflected in his devotion to Mary. Describing an episode in which Francis has taken up refuge in an abandoned church, Bonaventure writes:
“While her servant Francis was living in the church of the Virgin Mother of God, he prayed to her who had conceived the Word, full of grace and truth, imploring her with continuous sighs to be his advocate. Through the merits of the Mother of Mercy, he conceived and brought to birth the spirit of the truth of the Gospel.”
All of this is but a sampling that illustrates the spirituality of St. Bonaventure. He was a giant in his time, and he remains one for our time as well. His devotion to the Trinity, to the presence of the Creator in creation, to the sacrifice of the Savior and to the Blessed Virgin Mary are all ways in which we, who live nearly eight centuries later, can deepen our own spirituality.
DR. DICKSON is a college chemistry instructor, Lutheran pastor, and author of A Protestant Pastor Looks at Mary (Our Sunday Visitor, 1998).