Wednesday 15 July marks the feast day of St Bonaventure, a classic figure in Western Christianity and Doctor of the Church. Bonaventure was an influential Italian medieval Franciscan, a scholastic, mystic theologian and philosopher, and close friend of St Thomas Aquinas.
He was born in Tuscany around 1220AD. Baptized Giovanni de Fidanza, he received the name Bonaventure (‘good fortune’) when as a child, he suffered from a life threatening bowel disease, and was restored to health following prayers to St Francis of Assisi.
Bonaventure became a prolific writer, writing several books of theology, a ‘Poor man’s Bible’ and two biographies about his predecessor St Francis.
Known for his emphasis on humility and for his poetic sensibilities, Bonaventure had a great love and respect for the experience and faith of everyday people. ‘The proud demons flee before the lofty virtues of the humble,’ Bonaventure wrote in The Life of Saint Francis.
This is perhaps best demonstrated in Piers Plowman, the 14th century narrative poem by William Langland, where the author recounts an episode where a companion of St Francis, Br Giles, once posed the question to St Bonaventura: ‘Can a poor ignorant fellow be saved?’
The saint replies: ‘Of course, if he love God.’
Knowing very well he is speaking with one of the greatest theologians of the era, Giles explores the matter further: ‘Can he love God as much a great scholar?’
‘Any old woman can love God better than a doctor of theology,’ is Bonaventure’s reply.
This story illustrates what makes him so endearing a figure: his lack of interest in the acclaim of others, and the belief in the core dignity not only of the person but of all creation. ‘Every creature is a divine word because it proclaims God.’
This only becomes more significant considering his surrounds: Bonaventure stood at the pinnacle of the Christian and academic world, as a bishop and cardinal, advising Pope Gregory X, preaching in the court of Louis IX and studying and teaching at the University of Paris alongside St Thomas Aquinas. None of that was as important as humility and a simple love of God.
The high Middle Ages era gave rise to two new forms of monastic orders, preaching and mendicant, meaning living a life of poverty. When in 1269, Parisian theologians challenged the mendicant form of religious life, St Bonaventure responded by writing Apologia Pauperum, his defence of voluntary poverty and the imitation of Christ.
The argument for or against poverty came down to one thing: ‘As “pride is the beginning of all sin,” (Eccl. x, 15) so humility is the foundation of all virtue. Learn to be really humble and not, as the hypocrite, humble merely in appearance.’ This emphasis on the virtues of humility and compassion guided him through his life. For Bonaventure, a spiritual union with God can and should be for everyone who desires it.
It was his focus on the personal experience of God that informed Bonaventure's views while facing one of the greatest academic challenges facing the Christian world at the time: the rediscovery of the complete works of Aristotle, thought lost to history. It was for many, an entirely new and often jarring system of thought and philosophy. Owing to Aristotle’s resurgence, rationalism dominated the theology of his contemporaries and the interplay between reason and faith became known as the ‘eternal conversation’.
For Bonaventure, knowledge was not an end in itself but rather something that strengthens faith and leads to an experiential encounter with God. He wrote extensively about how faith should be exalted above reason and argued for the necessity of revelation and a spiritual union with God. Reason was a gift for people to interpret God’s ongoing revelation to give meaning to human life.
Pope Sixtus V, in his work Triumphantis Hierusalem, was effusive in his praise of the saint writing, ‘there was in St Bonaventure something preeminent and unique so that he stood out not only in subtlety of arguing, in facility of teaching, in cleverness of defining, but he excelled in a certain divine strength of thoroughly stirring up souls … he would prick the heart with certain seraphic stings and it would pour forth with a wonderful sweetness of devotion.’
Pope Benedict XVI was no less generous in his admiration. ‘As well as being a seeker of God, St Bonaventure was the seraphic poet of creation.’
As a poet, Bonaventure knew the intellect could only take someone so far. Christian life was something to be experienced. ‘To know much and taste nothing-of what use is that?’
As a teacher, he comes across as compassionate and wise, and explaining that even Doctors of the Church needed a moment to unwind. ‘Come, let us give a little time to folly … and even in a melancholy day let us find time for an hour of pleasure.’
And it never mattered whether someone felt good or holy enough to seek God; Bonaventure was accepting of people who were aware of their own imperfections. ‘Although you feel tepid, approach with confidence, for the greater your infirmity the more you stand in need of a physician.’
For Bonaventure, God was not distant and disinterested, but rather an infinite, dynamic fountain of love who is both the source of our lives and our ultimate goal.
A prayer of St Bonaventure
Pierce, O most Sweet Lord Jesus, my inmost soul with the most joyous and healthful wound of Thy love, with true, serene, and most holy apostolic charity, that my soul may ever languish and melt with love and longing for Thee, that it may yearn for Thee and faint for Thy courts, and long to be dissolved and to be with Thee.
Grant that my soul may hunger after Thee, the bread of angels, the refreshment of holy souls, our daily and supersubstantial bread, having all sweetness and savor and every delight of taste; let my heart ever hunger after and feed upon Thee, upon whom the angels desire to look, and may my inmost soul be filled with the sweetness of Thy savor; may it ever thirst after Thee, the fountain of life, the fountain of wisdom and knowledge, the fountain of eternal light, the torrent of pleasure, the richness of the house of God.
May it ever compass Thee, seek Thee, find Thee, run to Thee, attain Thee, meditate upon Thee, speak of Thee, and do all things to the praise and glory of Thy name, with humility and discretion, with love and delight, with ease and affection, and with perseverance unto the end.
May Thou alone be ever my hope, my entire assurance, my riches, my delight, my pleasure, my joy, my rest and tranquillity, my peace, my sweetness, my fragrance, my sweet savor, my food, my refreshment, my refuge, my help, my wisdom, my portion, my possession and my treasure, in whom may my mind and my heart be fixed and firmly rooted immovably henceforth and for ever. Amen.