Tuesday, July 15, 2008
St. Bonaventure (1218-1274)
Okay, here’s a quick Jeopardy quiz for you. If the “answer” is “St. Bonaventure”, which of these 'questions' is correct:
--Who was the thirteenth century Franciscan saint whose writings served as the inspiration for the doctoral studies of our present Pope Benedict XVI?
--What early Franciscan figure is said to have actually received his name from Francis of Assisi himself?
--What medieval Franciscan scholar has left generations of theology students stunned, frustrated and sometimes utterly confused by the density of his thought and frequently inaccessible language?
Right. You’ve got it. All three questions are correct. Meet Bonaventure of Bagnoregio! Today celebrate the feast of this, one of the leading intellectual figures of the Franciscan movement, a foremost proponent of its mystical tradition—and most significantly, perhaps, a man deeply devoted to Christ. It is said that Bonaventure was one of the first scholars to give the spiritual movement inaugurated by St. Francis of Assisi a solid theological and psychological basis: “His spiritual teaching, like his whole system of thought, centers about Christ. In him the tender affective love of Francis for the humanity of Christ -- a stress on love and the part played by will rather than on knowledge and the part played by intellect. He did not hesitate to teach that an idiot might love God as well as the most learned divine. For him the Incarnation and Redemption are the crowning glory of God's work, the supreme purpose of all creation and therefore, necessarily, the focus of all spiritual life. The practical goal of spiritual endeavor for all, according to his teaching, is contemplative prayer directed at union with the divine.” (ref: www.cin.org/saints/bonaventure.htmlhttp://www.cin.org/saints/bonaventure.html).
Born in Tuscany in 1218 and baptized “Giovanni”, it is said that he received the name ‘Bonaventure’ from St. Francis himself. At the request of the infant’s mother, Francis prayed for little Giovanni who was seriously ill. At the child’s healing, he purportedly exclaimed, “Oh buena ventura!—Oh, what good fortune!” (Whether true or not, it's a lovely tale).
As a student at the University of Paris, the young Bonaventure was deeply influenced by the teachings of the English scholar and don, Alexander of Hales. He eventually followed his professor into the Franciscan order and completed his studies, laying the foundations of the Franciscan school of philosophy and theology. During this time, Bonaventure was a contemporary and colleague of the celebrated Dominican friar, St. Thomas Aquinas. Both men were active in the defense of the new mendicant orders’ vision and presence at the University.
In 1257, at the age of 35, Bonaventure was elected as minister general of the entire Franciscan Order, a position he almost until his death sixteen years later. The internal situation of the Order at the time was tenuous; the Spirituales or zealots for the literal observance of the Rule were at odds with the Relaxati who sought a less rigorous interpretation. By dint of patience and perserverance, Bonaventure was able to negotiate some kind of modus vivendi between the two movements. For his tact and diligence he was aptly dubbed the 'Second Founder' of the Order. And at the Franciscans’ general chapter (formal corporal gathering) at Narbonne in 1260 he presented the Order with its first constitutions. He also organized the studies of clerics in the Order and encouraged the highly successful apostolate of popular preaching associated with the best of the medieval friars.
Much to his chagrin, Bonaventure was named first a bishop and later, in 1273, a cardinal . According to legend, when the papal legates arrived with the symbolic “red hat” for him, they found him washing the dishes. He asked them to hang the hat on the branch of a tree until he had finished. The last months of his life Bonaventure worked on the Council of Lyons—an effort aimed at achieving rapprochement between Latin and Eastern churches. He died unexpectedly at the Council on July 14th, 1274. Bonaventure was canonized in 1482 , and in 1588 named a doctor of the universal Church.
In the midst of a lifetime filled with demanding administrative responsibilities, Bonaventure nevertheless managed to write extensively on Franciscan history and spirituality, as well as more general treatises on philosophy, theology and scripture. Among them Commentary on the Franciscan Rule, his biography of St. Francis and the celebrated Itinerarium mentis in Deum (The Soul’s Journey into God) stand out as exemplary scholarly works. For a more in-depth introduction to St. Bonaventure’s philosophical work, see: http://www.franciscan-archive.org/bonaventura/index.html
For many young scholars and others, access to Bonaventure’s work has proved, initially at least, a burdensome task. As a contemporary interpreter of Bonaventure, Ilia Delio notes,”his language, rich with symbolism and the numerical patterning of his ideas, all make for difficult reading to the untrained eye. The complex medieval thought patterns that characterize Bonaventure’s writings can be either intimidating and, or frustrating, and the question is often asked, ‘what is he really saying?’”
That having been said, Delio and other contemporary Franciscan scholars, including Timothy Johnson, Charles Carpenter, and others have done a yeoman’s service in making the world of Bonaventure’s thought and prayer more “user-friendly” and accessible to the modern reader and scholar. (See, especially, Simply Bonaventure, The Humility of God, and Franciscan Prayer—all by Ilia Delio—as well as Bonaventure: Mystic of God’s Word, by Timothy Johnson.
As Delio explains, “the pattern of Bonaventure’s thought is ‘circular’—we come from God, we exist in relation to God and we are to return to God.’ (SB, p.13) . And elsewhere: “He viewed Christ less as a remedy for sin and more as the goal and center of the universe. Christ came, he said, to complete the univese as well as to save us from sin.” (Humility, p.11).
This is all just a tiny taste of a man celebrated as much for his personal holiness as for his intellectual rigor and accomplishment. Bonaventure’s writings, Delio reminds us, “reveal a fertile mind, a passionate heart, a generous spirit and a consuming passion for truth.”
The life and work of St. Bonaventure have helped to spark a contemporary revival in Franciscan thought and continue to enrich our heart-centered intellectual tradition. In the United States, St. Bonaventure University in New York state (www.sbu.edu), has served an important role in preserving that tradition since its founding in 1858. And the University’s Franciscan Institute functions as “the preeminent center in North America of teaching, research and publication on the history, spirituality and intellectual life of the Franciscan movement.” (/www.sbu.edu/FranciscanInstitute) Both the University and the Francisan Institute are closely affiliated with the Holy Name Province of our Order: www.hnp.org .
Whether one’s interests are primarily intellectual or not (and most friars, quite frankly, are more pastorally focused), we recognize with a certain amount of pride this intellectual giant in our tradition who was also an exemplar of deep faith, compassion, and humility.
Bonaventure on St. Francis of Assisi: "His attitude towards creation was simple and direct, as simple as the gaze of a dove; as he considered the universe, in his pure, spiritual vision, he referred every created thing to the Creator of all. He saw God in everything, and loved and praised him in all creation. By God's generosity and goodness, he possessed God in everything and everything in God. The realization that everything comes from the same source made him call all created things -- no matter how insignificant -- his brothers and sisters, because they had the same origins as he. --Minor Life of St. Francis
Posted by Fr. Charles Talley, ofm at 10:11 AM