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Keeper of the Franciscan flame

by
16 July 2021

Douglas Dales recalls St Bonaventure, whose feast day was yesterday

Zvonimir Atletic/Alamy

St Bonaventure and St Francis of Assisi, from the 16th-century altarpiece by Girolamo da Santacroce, in the Franciscan church in Košljun, Croatia

St Bonaventure and St Francis of Assisi, from the 16th-century altarpiece by Girolamo da Santacroce, in the Franciscan church in Košljun, Croatia

BONAVENTURE was born in about the year 1217 in Bagnoregio, near Orvieto, in Italy. He was educated at the University of Paris, where he became a Franciscan and taught alongside his friend, Thomas Aquinas, until 1257, when he was made Minister General of the Franciscans. This engaged him in the demanding task of organising, teaching, and preaching; travelling on foot across the length and breadth of Europe to supervise the growing Franciscan movement; and defending its interests in Rome.

His commitment to this vocation prevented him from accepting the post of Archbishop of York in 1265, but, in 1273, he was commanded by Pope Gregory X to become a cardinal and bishop. Bonaventure joined the Pope at the second Council of Lyons, where he died on 15 July 1274. His rapport with the Orthodox at that council was so great that his death was regarded as a great loss by all present.

Bonaventure is remembered in the Western Church as “the Seraphic Doctor” for his outstanding teaching about mystical life in Christ. In 2017, two important academic conferences were held in Rome and in New York to celebrate the eighth centenary of Bonaventure’s birth. His influence today remains strongest among Franciscans in the United States and Italy.

 

AS THE leader of the Franciscans during a difficult period in their history, Bonaventure was regarded by some as virtually the second founder of the movement. Certainly, all that he taught and wrote was intended to put the memory and legacy of Francis of Assisi on to a firm biblical and doctrinal footing.

Bonaventure was also concerned to raise standards of learning and preaching among the Franciscans, in order both to advance the mission of the gospel and to protect the growing movement from increasing criticism — in the Church, and in the universities — of its adherents’ way of life, of their shortcomings, and of the tendency of some of them to veer off into religious extremism and social radicalism.

Bonaventure was unusual in that his mind was sharply analytical and eloquently poetic in its expression. He also had a formidable memory, especially of scripture; everything he teaches is rooted in the Bible.

He distilled the wisdom of many who had gone before him — both his immediate mentors in Paris, and the great teachers of the Western Church, notably Augustine — and many rich strands of teaching flow like tributaries into Bonaventure’s thought. He conveyed the wealth of this spiritual tradition to his Franciscan hearers, while at the same time transposing and transforming it in a unique and gifted manner.

Bonaventure was a brilliant communicator, and this is most evident in the many sermons that he composed and circulated as models for use in Franciscan preaching and ministry; and also in his masterly and extensive Commentary on St Luke’s Gospel. Most of his writings are now available in good translations, and they are eminently clear, readable, and relevant to modern Christian life and prayer.

 

BONAVENTURE’s teaching about prayer, like Francis’s, focused on contemplation of the human life of Jesus: his example, his love, and his suffering on the cross. Notable, too, was Bonaventure’s empathy for Mary, the mother of the Lord, witnessing the death of her son.

His writing abounds with compassion and compunction, as in these words:

“Sweetest Jesus, pierce the marrow of my soul with the healing wound of your love, so that I may truly burn for you and desire you alone. May I hunger only for you, the heavenly Bread of Life, and thirst for you, the fountain of Life and of eternal Light. May I embrace you by seeking you, finding you, and reposing in you for ever.”

Perhaps Bonaventure’s most influential writing was his Journey of the Mind into God. This remains a classic guide to inner spiritual life, a quest for the living God as he comes to us in the crucified Jesus. Guided by the memory of how Francis had received the stigmata at Laverna, Bonaventure wrote this famous book while on retreat there. His Life of St Francis quickly became the definitive life of the saint, and has coloured perceptions and portrayals of Francis ever since. Bonaventure also had a very close friendship with Clare and Giles of Assisi, both of whom knew Francis intimately.

 

BONAVENTURE is rightly regarded as a supreme mystical theologian, in the sense that he believed and taught that experience of the transforming love of Christ is at the heart of all Christian thought and prayer.

This love constrains a person — as it did in the cases of Francis and Clare — to the point of their participating spiritually in the redeeming suffering of the crucified Christ. Then the glory of God descends to transfigure a person, deifying him or her, and revealing that the soul is, indeed, made in the image and likeness of God, and has a profound affinity with Him.

The loving call of Christ is to enable a person’s willing return to God, and this is the meaning of Christian life, thought, and prayer. For Bonaventure, love and prayer always transcended learning, and he is the most Christ-centred of theologians.

Bonaventure had a positive expectation of what could be accomplished by the Holy Spirit in human nature. He himself embodied the truth that he taught, being well-loved as an outstanding Christian, both in his own lifetime and thereafter.

He insisted that wisdom and contemplation must be motivated by a burning desire for God, for his goodness, and his love. This desire must order all other desires, and it must not be distracted by false values — moral, intellectual, or spiritual.

Bonaventure believed that Mary’s humble and loving response to the call of God remains, for all Christians, the secret to the purpose and proper ordering of each human life: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord: may it be to me according to your word.”

 

The Revd Douglas Dales is a parish priest in the diocese of Oxford, and the author of Divine Remaking: St Bonaventure and the Gospel of Luke; Way Back to God: The spiritual theology of St Bonaventure; and Truth and Reality: The wisdom of St Bonaventure, all published by James Clarke & Co, Cambridge.

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