Saint Bonaventure ( Italian San Bonaventura, original name Giovanni Di Fidanza; born c. 1217, Bagnoregio, Papal States—died July 15, 1274, Lyon; canonized April 14, 1482; feast day July 15) was a leading medieval theologian, minister general of the Franciscan order, and cardinal bishop of Albano. He wrote several works on the spiritual life and recodified the constitution of his order (1260). He was declared a doctor (teacher) of the church in 1587.
He was a son of Giovanni of Fidanza, a physician, and Maria of Ritella. He fell ill while a boy and, according to his own words, was saved from death by the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi. Entering the University of Paris in 1235, he received the master of arts degree in 1243 and then joined the Franciscan order, which named him Bonaventure in 1244. He studied theology in the Franciscan school at Paris from 1243 to 1248. His masters, especially Alexander of Hales, recognized in him a student with a keen memory and unusual intelligence. He was also under the tutelage of John of La Rochelle. After their deaths (1245) he studied further under Eudes Rigauld and William of Meliton. He was later probably influenced by the Dominican Guerric of Saint-Quentin.
By turning the pursuit of truth into a form of divine worship, he integrated his study of theology with the Franciscan mode of the mendicant life. In 1248, he began to teach the Bible; from 1251 to 1253 he lectured on the Sentences, a medieval theology textbook by Peter Lombard, an Italian theologian of the 12th century, and he became a master of theology in 1254, when he assumed control of the Franciscan school in Paris. He taught there until 1257, producing many works, notably commentaries on the Bible and the Sentences and the Breviloquium (“Summary”), which presented a summary of his theology. These works showed his deep understanding of Scripture and the Fathers of the early church—principally St. Augustine—and a wide knowledge of the philosophers, particularly Aristotle.
For Bonaventure, the contemplation of God involves both body and soul, the harmony of which leads to mystical peace which is the goal of union. The highest level of mysticism of the historical event is ecstasy which is union with the Crucified. Rather than drawing one out of the world, ecstatic union leads one into the heart of the world. The eschatological age of peace and the consummation of creation are contingent on union with the Crucified. The mysticism of the historical event, illumined through Bonaventure’s theology, is described as a new type of mysticism that both characterizes his doctrine of contemplation and underscores a paradigm shift from contemplation as a Neoplatonic world view to contemplation as a Christocentric world view.
Bonaventure was particularly noted in his day as a man with the rare ability to reconcile diverse traditions in theology and philosophy. He united different doctrines in a synthesis containing his personal conception of truth as a road to the love of God. In 1256 he defended the Franciscan ideal of the Christian life against William of Saint-Amour, a university teacher who accused the mendicants (friars who wandered about and begged for a living) of defaming the Gospel by their practice of poverty and who wanted to prevent the Franciscans and their fellow mendicants, the Dominicans, from attaining teaching positions. Bonaventure’s defense of the Franciscans and his personal probity as a member of his religious order led to his election as minister general of the Franciscans on Feb. 2, 1257.
Founded by St. Francis according to strict views about poverty, the Franciscan order was at that time undergoing internal discord. One group, the Spirituals, disrupted the order by a rigorous view of poverty; another, the Relaxati, disturbed it by a laxity of life. Bonaventure used his authority so prudently that, placating the first group and reproving the second, he preserved the unity of the order and reformed it in the spirit of St. Francis. The work of restoration and reconciliation owed its success to Bonaventure’s tireless visits, despite delicate health, to each province of the order and to his own personal realization of the Franciscan ideal. In his travels, he preached the Gospel constantly and so elegantly that he was recognized everywhere as a most eloquent preacher. As a theologian, he based the revival of the order on his conception of the spiritual life, which he expounded in mystical treatises manifesting his Franciscan experience of contemplation as a perfection of the Christian life. His Journey of the Mind to God (1259) was a masterpiece showing the way by which man as a creature ought to love and contemplate God through Christ after the example of St. Francis. Revered by his order, Bonaventure recodified its constitutions (1260), wrote for it a new Life of St. Francis of Assisi (1263), and protected it (1269) from an assault by Gerard of Abbeville, a teacher of theology at Paris, who renewed the charge of William of Saint-Amour. He also protected the church during the period 1267–73 by upholding the Christian faith while denouncing the views of unorthodox masters at Paris who contradicted revelation in their philosophy.
Bonaventure enjoyed especial veneration even during his lifetime because of his stainless character and the miracles attributed to him. It was Alexander of Hales who said that Bonaventure seemed to have escaped the curse of Adam’s sin. There is also the story of St. Thomas visiting Bonaventure’s cell while he was writing the life of St. Francis and finding him in an ecstasy the Angelic Doctor quietly withdrew with the comment, “Let us leave a saint to work for a saint.”
Bonaventure united in himself tender piety and profound learning. These two qualities shine forth conspicuously in his writings. The Commentary on the Sentences remains Bonaventure’s greatest work; all his other writings are in some way subservient to it. While the Breviloquium derives all things from God, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Soul into God) proceeds in the opposite direction, bringing all things, both matter and spirit, visible and invisible, back to their Supreme End, which centuries later Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point. Bonaventure was undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages. He always remained a faithful disciple of Augustine and always defended the teaching of that Doctor; yet he by no means repudiated the teaching of Aristotle.
Bonaventure adopted the hylomorphic theory of matter and form, and he speculated on the possibility of creation from eternity, but rejected that idea. His dogmatic teaching is found chiefly in his Commentary on the Sentences and in his Breviloquium. His proper place is beside his friend St. Thomas Aquinas, as they are the two greatest theologians of Scholasticism. Thomas was the Christian Aristotle; Bonaventure the true disciple of Augustine. Thomas was the teacher of the schools; Bonaventure of practical life. Thomas enlightened the mind; Bonaventure inflamed the heart. Thomas extended the Kingdom of God by the love of theology; Bonaventure by the theology of love.
Bonaventure took the position that creation is reflectively self-conscious in human beings, and in an imperfect way, humans reflect God’s being in a heightened manner because of their spiritual faculties of memory, intellect, and free will, which are signs of God’s indwelling presence. Contemporary thinkers such as Karl Rahner have revived many aspects of Bonaventure’s mystical theology of the centrality of love at the center of the cosmic mystery.
Bonaventure’s wisdom and ability to reconcile opposing views moved Pope Gregory X to name him cardinal bishop of Albano, Italy, in May 1273, though Bonaventure had declined to accept appointment to the see of York, England, from Pope Clement IV in 1265. Gregory consecrated him in November at Lyon, where he resigned as minister general of the Franciscans in May 1274. At the second Council of Lyon he was the leading figure in the reform of the church, reconciling the secular (parish) clergy with the mendicant orders. He also had a part in restoring the Greek church to union with Rome. His death, at the council, was viewed as the loss of a wise and holy man, full of compassion and virtue, captivating with love all who knew him. He was buried the same day in a Franciscan church with the pope in attendance. The respect and love that was held for Bonaventure is exemplified in the formal announcement of the council: “At the funeral there was much sorrow and tears; for the Lord has given him this grace, that all who saw him were filled with an immense love for him.” His exemplary life as a Franciscan and the continual influence of his doctrine on the life and devotion of the Western church won for him a declaration of sanctity by Pope Sixtus IV; he was designated a doctor of the church by Sixtus V.
Modern scholars consider him to have been one of the foremost men of his age, an intrepid defender of human and divine truth, and an outstanding exponent of a mystical and Christian wisdom.
For an elaboration on Bonaventure’s mysticism (intriguingly compared to that of the great Sufi mystic Farid Ud-Din Attar), by Matthew Totonchy, see the following online essay:
Mystical Prayer in the Holy Spirit, taken from St. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God:
“Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant, and the mystery hidden from the ages. A man should turn his full attention to this throne of mercy, and should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a pasch, that is, a passing-over. Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulchre, as if he were dead to things outside. He will experience, as much as is possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung beside Christ: Today you will be with me in paradise.
For this passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostle says that this mystical wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit.
If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervour and glowing love. The fir is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardour of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: My soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God, for it is certainly true that: No man can look upon me and live.
Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: It is enough. We may hear with Paul: My grace is sufficient for you; and we can rejoice with David, saying: My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage for ever. Blessed be the Lord for ever, and let all the people say: Amen. Amen!”
Additional Quotes from Bonaventure:
“To know much and taste nothing — of what use is that?”
“In things of beauty, he contemplated the One who is supremely beautiful, and, led by the footprints he found in creatures, he followed the Beloved everywhere.”
“In all your deeds and words you should look upon this Jesus as your model. Do so whether you area walking or keeping silence, or speaking, whether you are alone or with others. He is perfect, and thus you will be not only irreprehensible, but praiseworthy.”
“When we pray, the voice of the heart must be heard more than the proceedings from the mouth.”
“Since happiness is nothing other than the enjoyment of the highest good and since the highest good is above, no one can be happy unless he rises above himself, not by an ascent of the body, but of the heart.”
“In God alone is there primordial and true delight, and in all our delights it is this delight that we are seeking.”
“In beautiful things St. Francis saw Beauty itself, and through His vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace Him who is utterly desirable. If you desire to know … ask grace, not instruction; desire, not understanding; the groaning of prayer, not diligent reading; the Spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness not clarity; not light, but fire that totally inflames and carries us into God by ecstatic unctions and burning affections.”
“Three things are necessary to everyone regardless of status, sex, or age, i.e., truth of faith which brings understanding; love of Christ which brings compassion; endurance of hope which brings perseverance. No adult is in state of salvation unless he has faithful understanding in his mind, loving compassion in his heart, and enduring perseverance in his actions.”
“The life of God – precisely because God is triune – does not belong to God alone. God who dwells in inaccessible light and eternal glory comes to us in the face of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Because of God’s outreach to the creature, God is said to be essentially relational, ecstatic, fecund, alive as passionate love. Divine life is therefore also our life. The heart of the Christian life is to be united with the God of Jesus Christ by means of communion with one another. The doctrine of the Trinity is, ultimately, therefore a teaching not about the abstract nature of God, nor about God in isolation from everything other than God, but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other.”
“In everything, whether it is a thing sensed or a thing known, God Himself is hidden within.”
“The absolute is a sphere whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere.”
“Creation is a song that God freely desires to sing into the vast spaces of the universe.”