Br. Joshua Critchley, O.F.M., Ave Maria University
St. Bonaventure is truly one of the greatest minds of the scholastic Church. He was a brilliant theologian in the style of his day, while at the same time being a truly spiritual man and earnestly wanting to communicate it to others. St. Bonaventure was a man passionately in love with Jesus Christ, and he wanted to share with people how to journey into the love of Christ. In Bonaventure’s works, a theme emerges: St. Francis is the model of what it means to be a Christian. He eventually joined the Friars Minor, the community founded by St. Francis of Assisi. This man, Francis, was inspirational to Bonaventure. He included him as an example in many of his works, especially his later ones, when he was Minister General of the Friars Minor. For St. Bonaventure, St. Francis is the height of holiness, as proven by the stigmata that he received. St. Francis is the key to unlocking Bonaventure’s thought as to how one grows in holiness and discovers the love and joy of Christ, particularly Christ Crucified. For Bonaventure, St. Francis is the Christian teacher par excellence, and Bonaventure is convinced that every Christian can grow in virtue by looking at his humble life.
In order to show why this is the case, I will highlight some of the most pivotal works by Bonaventure where he discusses St. Francis is shown as the key to getting at the heart of Bonaventure’s theology. The works I will highlight in particular are St. Bonaventure’s Sermons on St. Francis of Assisi, the Legenda maior, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, and the Tree of Life, but I will also pepper throughout my study other works of the Seraphic Doctor. All of these works feature St. Francis in a special way and his centrality for Bonaventure. As I examine Bonaventure and Francis, I will also explore important points of Bonaventure’s theology that connect back to Francis. I will begin by defining what I mean first by saying that Francis was influential for Bonaventure.
Francis is an incredibly important figure in Bonaventure’s various works. I have selected the four works mentioned because they illustrate my argument. In these Bonaventure is either discussing the life of Francis directly or defending the new form of religious life that Francis was inspired to start. What I am not arguing is that Francis is the sole person of import in the theology of Bonaventure or even his only influence. Three distinct theological virtues coalesce in the theology of Bonaventure: Augustine and the Victorines representing the West and Pseudo-Dionysius representing the East. He was also heavily influenced by the School of St. Victor.
From St. Augustine, Bonaventure became convinced of a central idea in his theology, namely that “Rational arguments will not produce faith.” We must begin with the conviction that our faith is real and that it is grace, and then seek to understand it. Related is the Augustinian concept of wisdom (sapientia) as a union of mind and heart, (intellectus and affectus). Rout says, “When these combine what is produced is not just intellectual knowledge but wisdom-sapientia.” This wisdom is the aim of theology itself. According to Shannahan, “Wisdom, for Bonaventure, is the ideal of the human search for ultimate peace. In its highest form, wisdom is knowledge of God by experience, mystical union with God, which is knowledge by tasting.” Wisdom serves a purpose; it is meant to grant us peace, we are meant to experience peace. Theology as a discipline helps one to arrive at this peace. For this reason, both Augustine and Bonaventure claim that there is no separation between faith and reason, theology and philosophy.
From Pseudo-Dionysius, Bonaventure received the theological theme that all life is simply an exitus and a reditus, a leaving and a returning to God. “This return is to be completed through a journey which both affirms the goodness and the diversity of God’s creation and yet at the same time moves beyond this to the origin and destiny of all created realities-the life of God.” This idea of theology as a journey to God will be central in all of his works, and theologically is how Bonaventure views the life of Francis.
From St. Victor and the Victorines Bonaventure would be inspired by their focus on symbols. Rout says, “A symbol is more than a sign. It confronts those who encounter it and provides food for thought.” For example, the ocean could be used as a symbol to talk about God. In this examination, we do not actually learn anything about God or the ocean directly. But the images that come to us from the ocean about God are endless. Because of the symbolic character of the created order, Bonaventure discerned God speaking through creation, another key element of his theology. Rout summarizes, “If we approach the created world in a spirit of prayer and contemplation, allowing that world to engage our imagination, we shall be able to discern the traces of God’s footsteps which will lead us to the One whom our hearts desire.” The world viewed from a symbolic perspective is very influential in the development of Bonaventure’s own theology.
Each of these traditions played a huge part in the theological thought of Bonaventure. A standard exercise for an aspiring medieval theologian such as Bonaventure would be to comment on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, another influential theological influence for him. I briefly provided some of these other voices to give the reader a sense of how Bonaventure was influenced by other theological thinkers and schools.
St. Francis was born in the year 1182 in the town of Assisi in central Italy. His father was a wealthy clothing merchant. As such, Francis was a member of the rising middle class, in between the nobility and the peasants. He had aspirations to be a knight. He was the center of the social life in town. That all changed after he was captured in a regional war between Assisi and Perugia. He was in prison for a year while his father worked to pay his ransom. After he returned home, he was sick for a year. When he recovered, he began to have a series of visions from the Lord that called him to a new way of life, one where he would rebuild churches and serve lepers. Eventually, others became attracted to his way of life, and soon the new Order numbered thousands. The Rule was officially promulgated in the year 1223 which Franciscans follow to this day. Francis died a few years later in 1226 in Assisi.
St. Bonaventure was born in the year 1217 in the Italian town of Bagnoregio. He would go on to do studies at the University of Paris. His teacher and mentor there was Alexander of Hales, who eventually entered the Order of Friars Minor. Bonaventure would follow him as a young student. There is a story that his devotion to St. Francis goes back a long way before his entrance into the Order, to his birth. His mother asked for the intercession of Francis at Bonaventure’s birth due to an illness and he attributed his survival to the saint’s intercession. Bonaventure writes in the Legenda Minor, “When I was still only a child, I became seriously ill and my mother made a vow to Saint Francis, so that I was snatched from the jaws of death and restored to perfect health and strength.” A strong devotion to Francis can already be seen here. Eventually he would become a master at the University of Paris (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) and become a teacher himself. As Armstrong notes, “Throughout these years of teaching…Bonaventure’s appreciation for the Franciscan ideal was manifested as he strove to imbue his students with the vision and inspiration of the saint of Assisi.” He would serve the Order as Minister General from the years 1257-1274, critical years where he helped shape the Order in a very profound way. It was during this period that he composed some of his most famous works, including the Itinerarium and gave his sermons on Francis. He was named a Cardinal by Pope Gregory X in 1273 and died while attending the Council of Lyons in 1274. Bonaventure was canonized a saint in 1482 and made a doctor of the church in 1588.
- Sermons on St. Francis of Assisi
Five sermons from Bonaventure are devoted to St. Francis. I will initially give some background information on them in general, and then go through each one in particular. Together these sermons represent Bonaventure’s vision of the founder of his Order. “They are the reflections of a splendid preacher and humble friar who stood before his brethren and, drawing on all his learning, holiness and love of St. Francis, presented to them the beauty and attractiveness of his gospel discipleship.” In these beautiful sermons one will be immediately struck by Bonaventure’s use of Scripture. He begins each sermon with a central scripture quote that he then connects to various aspects or virtues represented in the life of Francis. Bonaventure’s extensive use of scriptures illustrates his mastery of the biblical text. As Doyle notes, “There was no separation for him between the teacher of theology and the preacher of the Gospel.” Bonaventure recognizes that the scriptures have their root in divine revelation, and he acknowledges the necessity of faith in order to penetrate the meaning of Scripture. After all Scripture was written that we might believe and come to inherit eternal life. This emphasis on faith is something that reflects Bonaventure’s Augustinian roots. Paul Rout says, “It was Augustine who wrote: ‘Believe in order to understand.’ Faith necessarily comes first and understanding later. This does not mean that people who profess to have faith do not need to reason about their faith. There was to be no separation between the concerns of religious faith and the concerns of everyday life.” These words show how important faith is to Augustine and Bonaventure; it is the beginning of our entire life with Christ! It is indeed a life, there is not meant to be any separation from our lives in church and our lives outside of church. It is this belief that guided Bonaventure’s theology and explains why he made such frequent use of the biblical texts. As Minister General in his sermons, Bonaventure is attempting to inspire the friars to a greater faith in Jesus Christ by highlighting how Francis is the perfect disciple of Christ. What can be said of Christ in the Scriptures can also be said of Francis. This relates to the second point that Doyle makes about the sermons, that they were meant to challenge the brothers! He says, “He draws on Scripture in such multifarious ways, to enlighten the hearers on the central place of Christ in God’s plan, to unfold the mystery of St. Francis’ perfect discipleship of Christ, and to inspire them to strive for perfect holiness.” The sermons call the hearers to something greater, to a better life than the one they are currently living. Bonaventure is recognized as an incredible preacher who was able to bring great crowds to absolute silence. The beauty of these sermons coalesce in these two details, Bonaventure’s masterful use of Scripture and his ability to preach it well and effectively.
In the wider sense, all the sermons of Bonaventure, “Are undoubtedly the product of lectio divina and thus offer a lead in the performance of that venerable exercise, the analysis of the biblical text, during which ‘the mind is in the heart.’” In many sermons preached by Bonaventure, even ones not explicitly about St. Francis himself, it is possible for the reader to “Glimpse that Christian idea of following the Master that dawned afresh in the dynamism initiated by St. Francis’ following the vestigia of Christ and his realizing the Lord’s ‘aromatic’ words.” In a sermon that is about being made clean interiorly, it is still possible to see Bonaventure as ‘Brother Bonaventure,’ speaking to the Friars about imitating Francis who imitated Christ in such an exemplary way.
The medieval sermon has four basic parts. The first is the theme, which is an introductory scripture passage. Second is the protheme, which is another scripture passage that connects the initial prayer with the theme. Third is the initial prayer where the preacher calls upon divine help. Fourth is the subdivision of the theme where the original scripture is repeated and then its parts are explained, further developing the theme of the sermon. Three of Bonaventure’s sermons follow this method exactly: 2, 4, and the sermon on the transferral. Sermons 1 and 3 go immediately from the initial scripture to the subdivision of the theme. Sermon 2 was preached in the evening, in addition to the second part of sermons 1 and 4.
The first sermon was preached at Paris on October 4th, 1255, the feast of St. Francis. In this sermon specifically, St. Bonaventure is concerned with defending Francis as a model of gospel holiness and establishing the fact that the stigmata really happened. The Scriptural theme for this first sermon comes from Mt 11:29: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Bonaventure starts off his sermon forcefully: “These words from St. Matthew’s Gospel were spoken by the greatest Teacher in the world. They could also be the words of that perfect follower of Christ, St. Francis, and they are taken from the Gospel which is read on his feast day.” Bonaventure clearly lays the groundwork so that the brothers can apply these words to both Jesus and St. Francis. Because Francis was a perfect follower of Christ much can be learned from meditating on his life. The sermon is broken into two sections: the first concerns encouragement and is based on the words “learn from me” and the second is meant to inspire “for I am meek and humble of heart.” This second part Bonaventure discussed in the evening portion of the sermon.
St. Francis can say these words of Christ, “learn from me,” because he has fulfilled true discipleship by his evangelical virtues, such as obedience and poverty. Further, this can be said because St. Francis received everything that was taught to him by the most high directly through divine revelation, as was the case with St. Paul. Bonaventure encourages the brothers to be diligent with their studies here by explaining, “Though the Lord himself chose to teach St. Paul and St. Francis, it is his will that their disciples be taught by human teachers.” Francis and Paul received a unique grace, but we all need to study diligently to learn the same things that they perfectly received from the Most High.
As evidence that this teaching was blessed by God, St. Francis received the stigmata. The stigmata is incredibly important to Bonaventure’s understanding of St. Francis. Doyle remarks, “In confirmation of the Rule and teaching of St. Francis, God sealed his body with the marks of Christ’s stigmata. This not only proves that the Rule and teaching of St. Francis are acceptable to God, but also that they have a divine origin.” The stigmata sealed the wounds of Christ upon Francis; they also divinely sealed his entire blessed life as well as the Rule and Order that he founded. Bonaventure stresses in all of his sermons on Francis that he spoke to eyewitnesses who saw the stigmata personally. The stigmata serves for Bonaventure as a divine attestation that Francis who can be emulated and his pathway to holiness safely followed. These wounds were declared to be legitimate by the Roman Curia, therefore if anyone doubts their legitimacy they are cutting themselves off from the faith! A very strong statement indeed. For Bonaventure belief in the wounds of the Poverello was a credential. Bonaventure describes the wounds in detail:
“There was a wound in his side from which his holy blood flowed, yet without applying bandages to it, the Saint of God went on living and continued untiringly in his works…for his hands had no open wounds nor were they injured, which would have been the case had iron or wooden instruments been used. On the contrary, the nails came up out of the flesh, the heads on one side and the points bent over on the other, quite above the surface of the skin and distinct from the rest of the flesh of his hands and feet.”
These are remarkably detailed accounts which Bonaventure received from people who saw it. He is concerned to establish the legitimacy of this miracle, because it is God blessing not just Francis, but all the brothers who put on the habit of the Friars Minor. In these latter days, Francis received the stigmata to show the world that he is the leader in living a life of gospel perfection. This is Bonaventure expanding the importance of Francis. He is not just someone for the brothers to emulate, but every Christian. God blessed the entire Christian people through the stigmata of Francis. They are blessed because God has blessed Francis, showing the incredible importance of this event not just in the life of Francis but the thought of Bonaventure.
At this moment, I would like to pause in looking at the Sermons and look specifically at the stigmata that Francis received. The wounds of Christ that Francis received upon Mt. LaVerna in 1224, two years before his death, is a major lens through which Bonaventure will view theology, as he himself preached to the brothers which I just described above. Bonaventure will focus heavily on the stigmata that Francis received because, according to Muscat, “Most probably, it was the experience of Francis himself which played a major role in Bonaventure’s elaboration of the notion of Verbum Crucifixum, as seen as an integral part of his theology on the Verbum Incarnatum.” He explains that Francis, and specifically his experience of the stigmata, is how Bonaventure would develop his theological notion of the Cross as being at the center of theology, and how he would understand the Incarnation itself. Bonaventure will see,
“In the poverty of His Incarnation Christ reveals God. Moreover He opens the way for mankind’s return to God through His Passion and Death on the Cross. Christ is the Crucified Word of the Father, drawing all creation back into harmony through grace, which flows from the cross. This Bonaventurian approach to Christology leads us to conclude that the Seraphic Doctor is not merely concerned with a theologia crucis, but rather with an affective theology based upon an experentia crucis.”
One can see how Francis’ experience of the Crucified influenced Bonaventure’s entire Christology. Muscat powerfully goes so far as to say, “In his passing over (death) Francis realises this grace to the point of becoming himself a means of the grace which Christ confers upon those who come into contact with the Poverello’s crucified flesh, and are led to open their spiritual vision and believe in order to be saved.” One must understand the stigmata to truly understand what is in Bonaventure’s mind when he is preaching to the Friars, elaborating on their importance.
Francis is thus a true model of holiness. He received all of these remarkable divine revelations and graces, but they did not make him proud. Indeed, he was truly “meek and humble of heart,” which concerns the second part of the first sermon. Bonaventure makes a radical claim in this section. According to him, to be meek is to be a brother to everybody and to be humble is to be lesser than everybody. In other words, a true Friar Minor is meek and humble. Since these are universal calls for the Christian, every Christian is called to live out these virtues and in that sense to be a Friar Minor! According to Doyle, “In respect of St. Bonaventure’s reply to the attacks on the Mendicant way of life, and specifically on the Franciscans, this was a masterly stroke. He summarized the entire Gospel and every form of spirituality, in the two words which make up the Order’s name!” Not only does Bonaventure demonstrate the importance of having St. Francis as a model of holiness for all, but he also defends the mendicants from those who are attacking them.
The scripture theme for the second sermon is from Mt 24:30: “Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven.” This sermon was given on October 4, 1262. In this sermon we once again find the stigmata featured prominently. Bonaventure links the tropological meaning of this miracle with the scripture: “It (the sign of the Son of Man) refers to the stigmata of the Lord Jesus which appeared on the body of St. Francis.” Francis lived a life so close to Christ that even his physical body was made into a sign conforming to Christ’s own. Bonaventure then makes a beautiful connection using the stigmata. He says, “For at the very time St. Francis sought approval of his Order from the pope, the stigmata of our Lord were imprinted on his body. This was God’s approval, not man’s for men can be deceived. And so not only did a human being issue a bull approving poverty, the Lord himself issued his own bull approving poverty by imprinting the stigmata of his passion on the poor and humble St. Francis.” Bonaventure wants to make it very clear that the Order of Friars Minor was willed by God. It was confirmed through the ordinary human means within the Church, by the Pope approving the Order. But it was also directly approved by Christ Himself. As the Pope put his physical seal on paper, approving the Order, so Christ put his own seal on the body of Francis via the stigmata.
The theme of the third sermon is from the prophet Haggai, “I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, and make you like a seal, for I have chosen you.” This sermon was preached October 4, 1266. Francis is compared to Zerubbabel who led the people from Babylon and helped rebuild the Temple. Francis led the people out of their captivity to sin and he founded an order to the glory of God. This sermon is in three parts. First, Bonaventure speaks of Francis’ service of God. It was pleasing to God for several reasons. Firstly, for his humility. Bonaventure says, “St. Francis was so humble that he also served lepers. Because of his great humility he was taken to the heights of knowing divine mysteries.” He was also pleasing for his mortification of the flesh, then for his fidelity in observing the Gospel. The second part of the sermon concerns the extraordinary holiness of St. Francis. He has been remade and the sign of this is the stigmata. Francis perfectly points the way of salvation by virtue of this unique grace. Next, Bonaventure lists the signs that prove that Francis is among the elect of God. They number seven. They are: reverence for the name of God, love of bodily purity, graciousness of natural compassion, joy in voluntary poverty, humility of a devoted heart, humanity of inherent gentleness, and the help of heavenly grace.
In a special way in this sermon, Bonaventure is linking poverty with joy. He says, “…Joy in voluntary poverty whether the poverty was chosen or inflicted initially.” Bonaventure is once again widening the vision of Francis beyond just that of the Friars Minor he is preaching to. The brothers freely choose their poverty and that is a source of joy for them, following after the poor Christ. But those who do not choose their poverty, who have it inflicted upon them for whatever reason, also have the supreme privilege of experiencing the poverty of Christ. For everyone who is poor, the model of St. Francis can once again be held up before the whole world; for in the poor Francis learned to see true joy.
This fourth sermon was given by Bonaventure on October 4, 1267. The theme can be found in Is 42:41: “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations”. Once again, these words apply firstly to Christ, but can also be applied to St. Francis, and indeed all the faithful people of God. The holiness of St. Francis was unique and perfect. Bonaventure examines its root, loftiness and radiance. The root is Francis’ deep humility; it was his humility which sustained him. The loftiness of his perfect holiness is demonstrated by his well-trained virtue. According to Bonaventure, “There are three reasons why St. Francis is to be accounted as chosen by God and of well-tried virtue: his perfect observance of the Law and Gospel, his indomitable zeal for the Christian faith, and his exceedingly fervent love of the Crucified Savior.” These three points allow the faithful to look to Francis and see a most perfect way for themselves to imitate. Bonaventure especially holds up the poverty of Francis as a reason why he was able to live a life of such heroic virtue. In the evening portion of the sermon, Bonaventure explores the radiance of Francis’ holiness. This is linked to his consummate love. From this love, St. Francis was able to bring forth justice to the nations, as the prophet Isaiah says.
The final sermon given by Bonaventure on St. Francis is given on the Feast of the Transferral of the Body of St. Francis on May 25, 1267 around the scriptural theme, “Friend, go up higher” from Lk 14:10. These are the words of the master to his guests in the Gospel parable who initially took the lower place at table and then were invited higher up. This title of friend is applied to St. Francis. As Doyle points out, “The word ‘friend’ symbolizes the presence of grace in St. Francis.” He is called a friend for four reasons: his humility, purity of heart, his serene contemplative soul, and the stigmata. The words “go up higher” Bonaventure interprets to mean pass from grace to glory. This Francis indeed did, and now after a virtuous life, is glorified with the Son of God forever.
Throughout each of these five sermons, one can find highlighted in a dramatic way just what Bonaventure thought of St. Francis. He saw him as a perfect road to holiness, which ended with Jesus Christ. The sermons highlight beautifully how central Francis was not just for the Friars Minor but for every Christian. From here, I will explore portions of the life of St. Francis written by St. Bonaventure that will continue to explore the centrality of Francis in Bonaventure’s work.
- The Legenda maior
St. Bonaventure wrote several biographies about St. Francis. In this paper, I will focus only on the Legenda maior, the Major Legend by St. Bonaventure. Before I begin to discuss the text itself, some background is necessary. Bonaventure was elected Minister General of the Friars Minor on February 2, 1257. The context of his appointment to this position is of some note. The General prior to him, John of Parma, submitted his resignation of the position at the Chapter of Rome in 1257. The exact reasons for his resignation are unknown, but it was likely caused by several factors, all of which are important notes for the early Franciscan Order. The first reason John may have offered to resign is because of his support, however small it might have been, of the mystical writer Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202). Joachim eventually was condemned for his radical idea of salvation history. According to his thought, each Person of the Trinity corresponded to a unique period in time. The time period of the Father is basically the Old Testament, from creation to the Incarnation. The Age of the Son is from the Incarnation to the year 1260. The Age of the Holy Spirit will last from 1260 until the end of time and corresponds with a spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures. There would be a new order that would emerge to begin the Age of the Holy Spirit. Joachim, and many contemporary Friars, would see this as the Franciscan Order. This idea that Francis was ushering in a new age was an attractive idea to many. This influence within the Friars may have been what led Pope Alexander IV to ask John to resign and the Friars to appoint a new General.
A second factor in his resignation may have been the fierce debate raging at the time at the University of Paris between the new Mendicant Orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and the secular clergy. This was indeed a heated dispute, which involved strikes of all university classes and even stone-throwing! John of Parma went to Paris in 1253 to try and make peace between the two groups. Armstrong says of this moment that John “…Addressed both the masters and students. Apparently his sermon did mollify the intensity which was not only typical of John but also characteristic of the friars.” However, the controversy continued to brew with growing strength between the two groups. It is possible that eventually John felt that the conflict was beyond him and decided to resign. Upon the announcement of his resignation at the Chapter, the brothers asked him to name his successor, which clearly shows how highly the brothers regarded him. John of Parma nominated Bonaventure to be his successor as the next General. Into all of this mess of the early Order now steps Bonaventure!
While he was teaching at the University of Paris, Bonaventure had already written several defenses of the Order, such as De valido mendicante. He saw Mendicant Orders as being a beautiful addition to the religious life of the Church. But he also saw the many failures of the brothers, which he mentions in the first letter he wrote as General. Among these are, “…A feverish pace of activities has led the friars to seek money for their support; too much association with seculars; an affluence and comfort in the manner of living; a style of life which is neither active nor contemplative.” These were all abuses which Bonaventure obviously wanted to remove as much as possible from the Order.
The Chapter of Narbonne (1260) commissioned Bonaventure to write a new life of St. Francis. At this time, there were already several lives of Francis in circulation among the Franciscans. Most prominent were works by Bl. Thomas of Celano, written over a 24 year period; these are the Vita prima, the Vita secunda, and the Tractatus de miraculis. There was also the life by Julian of Speyer, titled Vita Sancti Francisci. As can be imagined, it was difficult to have a whole image of Francis from any of these works, drawn from multiple sources. Armstrong notes, “Furthermore, we can easily imagine that the friars were tired of hearing the embellished and ornate style of these works as they were read during the meals. The works were filled with repetitions when they were taken as a whole…” Very typical of the Friars, they wanted something that was easier to listen to and more concise! The desire for a new life of Francis is very much from the brothers, and Bonaventure reluctantly takes the task up, feeling unworthy to do so.
As Bonaventure agreed to write the biography, his own motives began to show. Writing as Minister General, he realized that the emerging tensions in the Order could only be solved by looking at the life of the Poverello. He was primarily concerned with the life of the fraternity that Francis had founded. It is also very personal for him as well; he is writing about the man who he credits with saving his life from illness when he was an infant. Bonaventure also details how he visited the sites where Francis lived to talk with people who knew him personally, thus providing legitimacy to his work.
One last note about the Legenda maior, and indeed all the medieval lives that we have of Francis. While it is indeed a life of St. Francis that St. Bonaventure wrote, it is not a biography by our modern standards. As I noted above, a big motivation for this life was that the Friars wanted a concise life of Francis. Bonaventure used the existing lives and basically created a synthesis of them, adding a few additional details of their own. Even the older lives that Bonaventure used belonged to the literature called hagiography. This was a form of medieval writing about the lives of the saints. While there are historical events that the texts contain, their primary use is not as a chronological list of dates and events. Armstrong notes, “…The Legenda maior is the work of a profound speculative and mystical theologian who carefully weaved together these earlier works in a synthesis of Franciscan spirituality. The data of history became of secondary importance as the architectonic skill of an astute, reflective theologian molds them into a biography of the spiritual life.” The lives of Francis are to best be understood as works of profound theology; the authors presenting Francis to the audience, trying to show his holiness using an existing template according to the piety of the time. In Bonaventure’s work, chapters one and two, three and four, and fourteen and fifteen are primarily historical. Chapters five through thirteen describes the virtues of Francis. Even in the breakdown of the Legenda one can observe that Bonaventure was not primarily concerned with exact history but rather with presenting Francis as a truly holy man. Because Bonaventure’s work is hagiography, the modern reader can draw theological conclusions from Francis and show a call to imitate the example of Francis according to Bonaventure.
Now that I have given a brief historical background of how Bonaventure came to write the Legenda maior, I will now delve into the text itself. I will focus on the Prologue of the work, then discuss the conversion of Francis, his living of the holy Gospel, and finally his passing from this world into the next.
The Prologue expresses very clearly just how Bonaventure viewed Francis. It “Forms a collage of images and symbols which express the person and mission of Francis in the language of the Biblical writers.” He is drawing on images already presented by Bl. Thomas of Celano and Br. Elias, (the General immediately after Francis) but Bonaventure adds some significant ones of his own.
The first such image is from Titus 2:11: “The grace of God our Savior has appeared in these last days in his servant Francis to all who are truly humble and lovers of holy poverty.” This passage from Titus is one which Bonaventure uses often when he is writing of the mystery of salvation in Christ. By making this connection, he is placing Francis within a framework of the history of salvation; Francis is able to appear as a symbolic representation of grace, that is best perceived by the poorest. It is by embracing the holy poverty of St. Francis that one can learn to reject worldly passions, live in conformity with Christ, and to thirst after hope of eternal life. Another image that Bonaventure uses is from Ecclesiastes 50:6: “Like the morning star in the midst of clouds.” He is once again communicating that Francis came as a light into the darkness to manifest the Lord’s covenant to His people. There are many such images that Bonaventure uses to make this same point throughout the Prologue. Among all these images, three stand out with special prominence: Francis is linked with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the Angel of the Sixth Seal.
According to Bl. Thomas of Celano in the Vita prima, Francis called himself the Herald of the Great King. The link with John the Baptist is natural then, as he was the forerunner to Christ Himself. Bonaventure “Describes the saint fulfilling his mission in imitation of the Baptist, preaching penance and preparing a way for the Lord ‘in the desert of most holy poverty.’” Francis came to show people how to meet the Lord in the desert of poverty and he preached repentance by his word and example, as the Baptist did. Bonaventure also links Francis to the prophet Elijah. He is called here a “hierarchic man” (in Latin, vir hierarchicus). This is a technical term that Bonaventure uses to refer to the process of the soul being completely restructured to its proper place in God’s design and to its true image, in proper relationship to all creatures above and below it. Because his soul was in perfect harmony, he was worthy to be lifted up in the same chariot that came for Elijah. They had a similar mission: a restoration of man’s spiritual desires and a call to penance and a return to God. Both men were indeed seen by their followers being taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot. According to Armstrong, “…Elijah would appear again and would announce…the Day of the Lord. Thus Bonaventure suggests an eschatological dimension of the Franciscan mission in this comparison.” This leads to the third image, the Angel of the Sixth Seal. This angel is found in the book of Revelation and is one of the Angels who open the seals to unleash a plague upon the earth. At this moment in Revelation, another angel appears, with the seal of the living God (7:2). The faithful are then marked with this seal, identifying them as God’s servants. There are two dimensions between Francis and the Angel: the first is his call to penance, the second his use of the sign of the cross. In a special way, the sign of the cross, the Tau, is the symbol of those who embrace this life of penance. Indeed even today, Franciscans say that our habits are in the shape of the Tau, the cross, to remind each Friar of his need for constant conversion and penance. Armstrong beautifully summarizes this, “Thus anyone who would embrace the manner of life taught by the Poverello would live in a state of expectancy of the Day of the Lord, but he would be consoled with the knowledge of the salvation which was his through the cross.”
Using these rich scriptural images which I have described above, Bonaventure is suggesting for the reader a general outline of the spiritual life which will appear throughout other works of his as well. The first step is to empty oneself by following a life of penance, meaning a life of poverty and humility. This penitential life leads one to closer conformity to Christ. And this conformity to Christ leads one to hope, a true eschatological expectancy. This is the pattern for the Legenda maior that Bonaventure uses. He presents Francis as the best model to arrive at Christ and live a good Christian life.
In discussing the conversion of St. Francis Bonaventure highlights two specific aspects of his conversion. One is his deep spirit of humility. The other dimension is his awareness of the mystery of Christ Crucified. Bonaventure holds him up as a model of both, for the two are closely connected.
As already highlighted in his sermons on St. Francis Bonaventure sees humility as one of the key virtues that Francis lived in his life. This started in his conversion to the Lord. This becomes evident from the title of the first chapter of the Legenda maior, Saint Francis’s Manner of Life in the Attire of the World. The word in Latin that Bonaventure uses for ‘manner of life’ is conversatio. In most medieval literature, including Bonaventure, this word referred to “The life-style of a person who is unworldly and, therefore, concerned with a virtuous manner of living.” At the beginning of his life of the saint, Bonaventure right off the bat wants to associate Francis with the virtuous life that he is now renowned for, specifically humility. That is why he makes reference to this concept of conversatio, which at the time would generally be taken to mean entry into religious life, usually a monastery, after a conversion. He is using this post-conversion word to describe Francis, pre-conversion. As Bonaventure notes in the Legenda, “There was to be sure, growing with him from his infancy divinely implanted in the heart of the young Francis.” His desire to assist the poor out of a sense of humility was present even as he was intent on making a profit as a merchant. A very concrete way that Bonaventure exhibits Francis’s humility is through clothing. One of the first examples we have of this is Francis, after he recovered from a long illness, passed by a poor knight on the street. Moved out of a sense of piety and wanting to assist the poor, he took off his own clothes and gave them to the knight. This demonstrates that Francis, even before he left the world, was already caring about the poor. Francis was indeed beginning to clothe himself with a sense of humility.
Clothing features prominently in the famous story of Francis and his father standing in the public square in Assisi before the bishop. It is important to note that Francis’s father represents a true man of the flesh, who is holding Francis back, he has no redeeming qualities. He was outraged when Francis began all of his charitable giving and began walking around begging for stones to rebuild churches outside Assisi. He even bound and threw his son in prison! Armstrong says, “…Bonaventure saw the abandonment of the values of his father and the subsequent sufferings which were inflicted on him as the final stage of Francis’ conversion.” This would reach a pinnacle when they both go before the bishop. His father dragged Francis before the bishop, demanding restitution for what Francis had stolen from him. Francis responded by proclaiming that he had only one father, Our Father who art in Heaven. Then he stripped off his clothes in front of the bishop, showing that he was naked completely before God. The bishop, deeply moved, used his own outer garment to clothe the naked Francis. Bonaventure notes in his description of the event, “…Thus the servant of the Most High King was left naked that he might follow his naked crucified Lord, whom he loved.” In this explanation one can see Bonaventure’s appreciation of a spiritual nakedness, which was an identification with the Crucified Christ who was truly humble as He hung on the cross for our sins. Bonaventure is highlighting this dramatic story to show the deep connection between the naked Francis and the naked Christ, both role models of true Christian humility.
It was after the experience of encountering the poor knight that Francis had his first powerful experience of Christ Crucified. This was a dream that Francis had where he saw military arms emblazoned with Christ’s cross. The point of the vision according to Bonaventure was that because Francis had shown the poor knight great mercy, all these arms that Francis saw would be for him and his knights (future friars). Similarly, after the famous story where Francis showed mercy to a leper, he once again had a powerful experience of the Crucified. This time, Bonaventure recounts that Christ appeared to him on the cross. From that time on, Francis could not contemplate the cross without great tears and sighs, so struck was he by the sacrifice of Christ. The two keys that Bonaventure wanted the brothers to gather from this early stage of the life of Francis is the importance of humility, which he demonstrates by Francis learning how to be merciful to the poor, and a love of Christ Crucified, which was present in Francis from the very beginning of his conversion.
The next two chapters in the Legenda maior are about the birth of the Order. From the example of Francis in this work, two important theological themes in Bonaventure can be seen. These are his theology of the Word and his doctrine of imitation of Christ. It is worth going through these in detail, starting with the theology of the Word.
For Bonaventure, the Word of God, referring to Sacred Scripture, is the primary text in any theological discussion. As Etienne Gilson notes, “Therefore it is in Scripture and only in Scripture that we must seek the source of knowledge.” Scripture represents the highest knowledge that man can attain because it is directly revealed by Christ. He further states, “…Let a man know the Bible well and he can easily do without learning, for in fact he will possess it.” This does not mean that Bonaventure is against reason, mankind indeed needs to engage with the natural world, with sense experiences. But in terms of arriving at Christ, nothing is more important than Christ’s self-revelation found in Sacred Scripture.
His perception of Sacred Scripture also ties in with the concept of Light found in St. Bonaventure. According to De Marco, “For Bonaventure, light shines so powerfully throughout the universe and upon the human soul, that it is no more possible to deny the truth it impresses on that soul than it is to deny its presence in the physical world.” Bonaventure discusses Light on a spectrum from translucent to opaque in reference to the six days of creation. Our Knowledge of creation is also connected to Light. He has this knowledge of Light divided into four categories: The Exterior Light, The Inferior Light, The Interior Light, and The Superior Light. As De Marco says, “The Superior Light is the light of the Scriptures (of theology), which is directed to the truths of salvation.” The highest understanding of Light corresponds to the highest form of knowledge that we receive as human beings, namely the light of Sacred Scripture and theology.
The Scriptures are at the apex of the various sources of how man knows about God. It is important to keep in mind that the Word is not just the written Scripture for Christians, but is firstly a person, Jesus Christ the God-Man. Bonaventure sees this reality reflected in the life of Francis. As Paul Rout notes, “It is significant that Francis’ religious journey began as he knelt alone in prayer before the Crucifix of in the Church of San Damiano. It was here that Francis heard the words which were to motivate his life.” It is in Francis that Bonaventure saw a man who perfectly not just read but listened to the Word, and from that Word received the call to live a life of poverty and penance which others would eventually become attracted to live themselves.
Bonaventure, uniquely among all the biographers of Francis, places a special emphasis on how receptive Francis is to the Word of God. Bonaventure writes at the beginning of chapter three, “In the church of the Virgin Mother of God, her servant Francis lingered and, with continuing cries, insistently begged her who had conceived and brought to birth the Word full of grace and truth, to become his advocate.” The Scripture passage in italics is from John 1:14. It is only Bonaventure who makes this reference. This addition shows how deeply Francis lived a Gospel life and how inspiring Bonaventure found him as a theologian and a Friar. This Word of grace and truth, “Summarized for the Seraphic Doctor the place of Christ within the Triune Life of God and within the creation that flows from that life.” This Trinitarian Life is the pattern of creation and redemption, fully alive and dynamic. God first expressed Himself in the generation of the Son and the spiration of the Holy Spirit. In terms of Jesus as the Word, He is the expressed and expressing likeness of the very mystery of the Godhead, thus the very center of Trinitarian life. He is “One with the Father through the Mutual Bond of Love, the Holy Spirit. From this relationship all creation flows…” Thus, Christ as the Word is the glue that holds all creation together. This specific idea Bonaventure terms ‘exemplarism’. The Trinity is the eternal exemplar, the eternal model of all creation. Therefore, “all created realities contain, in some way, likenesses of the Trinity.” And from our contemplating these works of art, we are able to learn something of the Artist, a piece of the artist is ‘expressed’ in the work.
As already noted above, Francis in his own life lived out the Gospel. Bonaventure writes, “Seeing that the number of brothers was gradually increasing, Christ’s servant wrote for himself and his brothers a form of life in simple words in which, after he placed the observance of the holy Gospel as its unshakable foundation…” The Gospel is the primary concern of the fraternity in the early days and is so today. The first man to join Francis in his way of life was a man named Bernard. Francis wanted to seek assistance with this new development, so he went to a church and opened the book of the Gospels three times. Each time the passage related to poverty. So that is what Francis settled on as the life that he and Br. Bernard should live. In the life of Francis, it is evident to see a man who took seriously living a Gospel life, centered on Christ. Bonaventure is simply drawing upon the holy life of Francis in his theology of the Word.
Concerning the doctrine of imitation found in the Legenda maior, we find it in the context of Francis hearing the missionary discourse found in the Gospel of Matthew. According to Bonaventure’s account, Francis immediately knew what the Lord was asking of him. Armstrong notes, “There was a total response in which Francis surrendered his material possessions and put aside all the cares and anxieties of his heart in order to give himself completely to the Gospel life.” This ability of Francis to respond to the call of Christ in perfect imitation was hugely influential in Bonaventure’s own thought on this topic.
Basically, for Bonaventure, his doctrine of imitation is based on the new life that is given to the Christian in Baptism. It is in Baptism where the Christian for the first time finds himself more than the imago Dei, able to be formed into a supernatural likeness to Christ. This is Bonaventure’s version of theosis, becoming Godlike, the process of divinization. It is the gift of Baptism that “Renders him capable and worthy of entering into fellowship with God. Thus Bonaventure’s doctrine calls men to emulate the example which the Word Incarnate has left for him and to conform or to bring his life into harmony with this new life of Christ which has been given to him.” In other words, as man was given the gift of becoming like God, we in turn need to strive ourselves to act in accord with God’s grace and imitate Him who has given every good gift to us. Thus in Christ, we are able to not just read what we should do (Scripture), but also the very way in which we are called to walk and follow after that Word. In his Sermo II de Navitate, Bonaventure beautifully writes summarizing this idea, “He comes to us…to show us what God desires of us: that we should not do other than Christ did, or suffer other than Christ suffered, or pass through this world other than He did.” The call of the Christian is to strive to imitate Christ in all things, for that is the path leading to salvation. In the mind of Bonaventure, Christ was the sole teacher of Francis. His ability to perfectly listen to the Word allowed him to become a true imitator of Christ, and as such to set a perfect example for every Christian to follow. Since he was a perfect imitator of the Word, the Holy Spirit dwelling within him allowed him to gain a richer insight into the meaning of the Gospel. Since Francis was able to imitate Christ so perfectly, others were quickly attracted to him and the Order was born. Once again, it is clear to see that Francis was a huge influence on Bonaventure’s theology.
The Legenda maior ends with an account of the final years of Francis and his transitus, his passing from this world into eternal life. In this section too, one may find important insights into the thought of St. Bonaventure regarding his eschatology. Bonaventure presents Francis as a prophetic man, someone who is announcing the Lord’s coming to men. This is especially pronounced in Francis being compared to John the Baptist, Elijah, and the Angel of the Sixth Seal, as I discussed above. As Armstrong notes, “These Scriptural allusions of the Legenda maior provide insights into the scope of Franciscan eschatology. Bonaventure proposes a realized eschatology in which the seeds of future glory have been implanted within the Poverello, but needed the proper cultivation in order to produce an abundance of fruit.” It is important to note here that Francis has to grow into this vision, it is not something that happens naturally. To have a true eschatological perspective one needs to embrace Christ who teaches the cultivation of virtues. Francis became the Baptist, Elijah, and the Angel because of his imitation of Christ. This idea can especially be seen in the image of light. Francis was made into a light, in order to lead others to the light of Christ, a true prophet. Using this image, “…Bonaventure realized the eschatological implications of Francis’ mission as he witnessed to the mystery of Christ, the efficacy of salvation, and the newness of redeemed mankind.” Francis truly lived his life in this light which pointed to others what the ultimate end of mankind is, to be perfectly united with Christ. He thus became the “new creature” that St. Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5:17. As a result of this true eschatological faith that Francis had, his passing from death to life was truly a transitus where he became a new creation in Christ.
Bonaventure’s description of the transitus of Francis shows us more broadly the journey that every soul must make, from the values of earth to the eternal truths of heaven. This passage is threefold, according to Armstrong: “1. To journey from vice to penance; 2. To pass from penance to wisdom; and 3. To travel from wisdom to eternal life.” Throughout the Legenda maior one may observe this overall approach to Francis. Chapters one and two correspond with the initial conversion of Francis, from vice to penance. Chapters three and four show penance to wisdom. Chapters fourteen and fifteen, which describe the transitus, demonstrate Francis passing from wisdom to eternal life. The transitus, then, is the fulfillment of the entire journey of St. Francis. Francis carried out the mission entrusted to him by Christ with the utmost effectiveness. As Armstrong notes “In his death as in his life, Francis had become a practitioner, a leader and a herald of the Paschal Mystery through which all men are brought to the Kingdom of God.”
In examining Bonaventure’s Legenda maior I have shown how Bonaventure was clearly inspired by the life of Francis and how he used his inspirational life to develop his own theological thought. From here, I will now move onto examining another work where Francis is featured prominently, the Itinerarium in Mentis Deum.
- The Itinerarium Mentis in Deum
Perhaps the work that Bonaventure is most famous for is his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, The Soul’s Journey into God. This is a great work of mystical theology. From the very beginning of the work, Bonaventure makes it very clear that he is basing this ascent to God upon the life of St. Francis. In the Prologue he writes beautifully,
“…I recalled, among other things, that miracle which the blessed Francis himself had experienced in this very place, namely the vision of the winged Seraph in the form of the Crucified. As I reflected on this, I saw immediately that this vision pointed not only to the uplifting of our father himself in contemplation but also to the road by which one might arrive at this experience. For those six wings can well be understood as symbols of six levels of uplifting illuminations through which the soul is prepared…to pass over to peace through ecstatic rapture of Christian wisdom.”
He makes it abundantly clear that the vision that St. Francis had of the winged Seraph on Mt. LaVerna is his key to understanding these six steps that all must pass through on the way to holiness. Bonaventure describes the experience of Francis on LaVerna in the Legenda Minor:
“Francis saw a seraph with six fiery and splendid wings descending from the highest point in the heavens. When the vision in swift flight came to rest in the air near the man of God, there appeared in the midst of the wings the image of a man crucified, with his hands and feet stretched out and nailed to a cross. Two of the wings were raised above his head and two were stretched out in flight, and two shielded his body. Seeing this, Francis was overwhelmed, and his heart was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He was overjoyed at the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the form of the seraph, but the fact that he was nailed to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow…As the vision disappeared, it left his heart burning with a marvelous ardor and impressed upon his body an image of the signs which was no less marvelous. There and then the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them in his vision of the crucified man.”
It is worth quoting this story at length because Bonaventure is composing the Itinerarium on Mt. LaVerna himself. He desired to have the inspiration on the holy mountain that Francis had, and indeed he did. Kissinger says, “When Bonaventure ascends Mount LaVerna, in the footsteps of St. Francis, he experienced the same miraculous vision of the crucified seraph; a six-winged angel, whose three pairs of wings came to symbolize for him the three major phases of the soul’s ascent to God.” Indeed, Mirri notes, “…the most diffused (words) in the works of Bonaventure are the words ‘ascensus’ and ‘via,’ that can be considered nearly a synonym of ‘itinerarium.’” Bonaventure’s theology in the Itinerarium can be considered an ascent; in following the map he provides one might arrive at Jesus Christ who is above all things. He desired to imitate the steps of ascent of St. Francis who found peace in his own life.
In many different ways, Bonaventure was inspired by Francis to have him as the model of the Itinerarium. One aspect that Bonaventure highlighted is the fact that Francis was a true pilgrim and stranger in this world. After he felt the Lord call him, “His body found no permanent dwelling place anywhere, and his mind felt no longer at home here upon earth.” This world became truly a place of exile for the saint who yearned for the heavenly homeland. What better model for Bonaventure who describes the six steps as an ascent? Francis in his earthly life demonstrated those steps for all to imitate.
Despite the fact that Francis yearned for his heavenly homeland, he is also well known, both in our time and the time of Bonaventure, as having a tender care and love for creation. Francis “Discovered nature, unspoiled by human greed and selfishness, as it had been on the morning of creation.” Thus, the natural world became a series of signposts, pointing back to the Lord who had created the entire order of nature. At the same time, this did not take away from Francis always feeling a yearning for heaven. All of these realizations stemmed from a kind of realized, infused mysticism that he did not have to ever study formally, as I pointed out above (if only I could be so fortunate!). The climax of his deep union with Christ was the event of the stigmata, which means that “His union with Christ became union with the Crucified.” The Crucified became imprinted on creation in Francis.
This union with the Crucified is central to understanding this work of Bonaventure. This treatise “Starts with the love of the Crucified, the only safe way, and ends with the mystical falling asleep with Christ on the Cross.” The entire work is rooted in Christ Crucified as the one who ultimately allows us to grow in holiness and ascend to His Holy Cross in stages.
Another important theme that Bonaventure took from the life of Francis is the importance of desire. Francis desired peace, not just the peace of the world but ecstatic peace, the peace that comes uniquely from Christ. To spark in his own heart that desire for peace, Bonaventure himself went to Mt. LaVerna where Francis received the stigmata. Bonaventure wanted this work to be the fruit of his own prayer, his own desire for peace. Bonaventure knew that, “Men and women of desire would not fail to rest for at least a few moments in the peace which is not of this world.” With this work, Bonaventure wants to help pilgrims on their way to the Heavenly Jerusalem, to help all those who desire true peace attain it.
The historical background is also worth noting in brief in which this work was written. Bonaventure is at the crossroads of new emerging theological and spiritual trends. Many tensions existed during this period. The old monastic tradition was being transformed by scholastic theology heavily influenced by Aristotle. Aristotle, according to Kissinger, “encouraged a more critical approach to human knowledge…offered different ways of developing ideas and thought through logic, physics, metaphysics, ethics, and so on.” This new style of theology was heavily based around universities, not necessarily monasteries. It focused heavily on a study of pure theoretical knowledge. It sought to have a complete, unified vision of the world and of human spirituality. One can see this unification in the works of many scholastics, among them Bonaventure and Aquinas.
As I mentioned above, there are distinctions between Francis and Bonaventure, and the Itinerarium is a useful work to look at these differences and thus see how Bonaventure was inspired by Francis genuinely and ways that he made the inspiration of Francis his own. St. Francis spoke to the little ones, such as lepers, of the Kingdom of God. He cared for the poor and wanted to show others their importance in the eyes of Christ. St. Bonaventure “Would help especially those to whom Providence has allotted the vocation of learning. They too, although less unsophisticated and so often in danger of pride and vainglory, may aspire to the mystical peace and may taste how sweet the Lord is by means of their scientific culture.” Bonaventure, as a learned man, a university professor, had an education that Francis did not. He was able to use much more sophisticated language to lead other learned men to mystical union with God.
Even with these beautiful theological concepts that Bonaventure describes that set him apart from Francis, there is still a certain complementarity between the two. Bonaventure “Is less in so far as originality and immediacy of life are concerned…on the other hand, Saint Bonaventure is more because of his philosophical and theological learning, which, however, in comparison with Saint Francis’ own richness, is only a substitute.” In other words, Francis had the initial idea that inspired all Friars after him, including Bonaventure; Bonaventure was able to communicate the inspiration in a new way to a different audience. He truly captured in his own unique way the spirit of St. Francis, and this work is the result of his prayerful meditation upon it. On Mt. LaVerna, Bonaventure brought with him all of his learning and was able to submit it to the Franciscan spirit. In the midst of the differences the two saints had in their approaches, one can see clearly the deep unity that exists between the two of them.
Where does the Itinerarium fit into Bonaventure’s overall scheme of mystical theology? In brief, in another work of his, titled De Triplici Via, he outlines the three ways of mystical life. These three ways are the purgative, illuminative, and perfective or unitive. In the purgative way, the soul is chiefly concerned with its own misery and sinfulness. The purpose of prayer here is to transform meditation into weeping and asking mercy for sins committed, thus allowing the soul to be purified and know mystical peace. In the illuminative way, the soul is concerned with understanding truth. Illuminative prayer asks for mercy, and finally leads to the contemplation of the truth that is found in imitating Christ, allowing the faithful pilgrim to embrace the Cross. Finally the perfective or unitive way is principally concerned with charity, becoming one with God in the fire of love. According to Boehner and Hayes, the proper place of this particular work is the illuminative way, but the end of the illuminative way, merging into the unitive way. These ways are divided into six steps. Each of these steps are called uplifting illuminations by Bonaventure, indicating clearly where he viewed the place of this work as a guide for the mystical life.
All six of the steps Bonaventure describes are the chapter headings in his treatise. In brief, these six steps are 1. Speculation on God through the vestiges that are in the universe. This says that men should put their sense knowledge at the service of the mystical ascent. All sciences, even history, are meant to be put at the service of this union. 2. The speculation on God in the vestiges in the world of sense realities. In this step, the imagination turns its powers to sense data and sees vestiges in all things of the Trinity. Sense-psychology and mathematics are now at the service of the mystical ascent. 3. The speculation on God through the image reformed by the gifts of grace. In this step, the enlightened soul now turns inward, looking upon itself in the image of God. It beholds here a reflection of the Trinity in whose image the human mind was formed. This step involves the psychology of cognition and all philosophy, putting these sciences at the service of mystical ascent. 4. The speculation on God through the image reformed by the gifts of grace. Here, the enlightened mind goes to the dwelling place of God in the soul; Bonaventure calls this return to supernatural likeness similitude. The entire beauty of the soul is displayed at this stage and the soul puts on the virtues, regaining for itself spiritual senses and putting itself in conformity with the celestial hierarchy. 5. The speculation on the divine unity through God’s primary name, which is Being. This is a still higher stage. Here the soul is ready to transcend itself and enter the Holy of Holies. The soul has gathered all the sense data from the world and turns to the idea of being itself. The soul realizes that there can be no reality unless it is conceived as being; Being in its purity begins to be understood. Metaphysics is put to its ultimate purpose here; it is no longer dry metaphysical terms but actually put to the purpose of mystical union and to the realities to which they point. 6. The speculation on the most blessed Trinity in its name, which is God. At this stage, as the soul is contemplating the idea of being, it realizes that being is also good. This goodness is indeed self-communicating love, present in the Trinitarian Persons. It is to this point that speculative theology guides the contemplative mind, and the mind reaches its highest perfection. As Boehner and Hayes summarize beautifully, “It looks at the perfect image of the Father-at Christ, who, in one Person, unites the highest and the lowest, the center and the circumference, the divine and the human nature.” At this point, after all the stages have been traversed, true sleep in peace is possible. The soul rests completely in the Crucified and only love is awake, for love reaches further than the intellect, love is the eternal bind between God and the experience of God’s love. Christ Crucified is both the beginning and the end of this mystical journey.
A very important rhetorical tool that Bonaventure uses to help explain the soul’s journey is paradox, using contradictory images of God in the same passage. This will also feature prominently in the Tree of Life and I will explore it more later on. An example from the Itinerarium of this paradoxical language can be found in Chapter 7:
“But if you wish to know how these things come about,
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 the fire
that totally inflames and carries us into God
by ecstatic unctions and burning affections.”
This quote highlights the importance of paradoxes; indeed it shows the goal of the Itinerarium itself-being able to rest completely in God. This passage is both a roadmap and a promise for the faithful pilgrim. This final goal is beyond the soul’s ability to grasp itself, it is the stage of “Repose and illumination by supreme wisdom made possible through Christ as mediator.” It is pure grace, not something that one can work toward oneself.
This division of the mystical life into three general ways was common since the time of St. Augustine. Bonaventure is presenting something unique in further separating the illuminative way into six steps. No other writer before him presents them in the same way as Bonaventure does. These six ways are very well thought out: “The six stages of ascent correspond to the six stages of the soul’s power through which the ascent is made: sense, imagination, reason, intellect, intelligence, and the illumination of conscience.” All of these lead to the final goal, the seventh step of complete mystical rest in Christ, which is beyond human comprehension. The six correspond to a specific human faculty that we are called to put at the service of the mystical journey. Mirri says, in speaking of this seventh step, “The itinerarium, it is worth saying, proceeds from grace, not from the work of man.” The entirety of this mystical journey, from start to finish is the ultimate work of Jesus Christ, and we are called to cooperate with His grace in this journey.
It is quite natural to conclude that this presentation is “Inspired by the miracle that happened to Saint Francis, that is, by the apparition of the Seraph with six wings in the image of the Crucified. It is the Franciscan inspiration which, in spite of the apparently artificial scheme, governs the arrangement and the matter of contemplation on the various steps.” From this quote, the reader can see the clear connection once again between Bonaventure and Francis. The latter was truly the inspiration behind this beautiful work on mystical life. Bonaventure turned the raw inspiration of Francis into one of the greatest works on the mystical life in the history of the Church. As Paul Rout says, “It could be argued that it is because of the later events in Paris that the medieval spirit of Assisi survives…”
- The Tree of Life
Bonaventure’s Tree of Life is a good text to examine because in a sense it is putting into practice the mystical contemplation that Bonaventure is describing in the Itinerarium. The Scripture that Bonaventure bases his meditation on is from Galatians 2:19: “With Christ I am nailed to the Cross.” It has as its focus the humanity of Christ, which was a particular focus of Christian spirituality in the West in the Middle Ages. This spirituality was meant to foster in the soul a sense of true union with Christ, especially a feeling of compassion in his suffering. Bonaventure is writing as a true medieval with this text. However, there are also Franciscan elements that are present in this text. Francis became the highest expression of a Christian who literally gave up everything to follow Christ. Bonaventure tapped into this Franciscan devotion to the humanity of Christ in this work, “From tender love of the infant Jesus, expressed in his producing the crib at Greccio, to his identification with the suffering Savior, expressed in his austere asceticism, and finally in his receiving the stigmata.”
This element is best expressed in Bonaventure’s view on creation. Saint Francis is known especially for his love of creation, as already expressed. It is creation as it truly is meant to be appreciated, as being a reflection of Christ. The Franciscan vision must be lived in the world, but not of the world. Rout says, “The Franciscan way to God is not to flee from the world. It is, rather, to be immersed in reverent contemplation of the world, awake with patient desire, so as to be drawn to the Source who is God.” Francis was in awe of God’s creation. For it is through creation that we learn about God. Bonaventure advises we approach the world through a spirit of prayerful contemplation. It is said that the Franciscan cloister is not outside the world but is within the world itself. The Tree of Life is Bonaventure’s meditation on all of these elements. I will draw out these elements and highlight how these correspond to true Franciscan ideals, and prove how this text can be considered to be inspired by both the life of Christ and Francis.
According to Martignetti, there is a discernible Franciscan character to this work which stands in contrast to the monastic theology of the age; there is something unique about it. He says, “Although appealing to the affections of the individual, monastic theology was often detached from the concrete situation in which the monks found themselves.” The monks, who were in the cloister and literally removed from the world, did not have to be present to those concrete situations as deliberately. They focused on an ideal world, free from any kind of interruption of the world outside the monastery. Not to say monks did this exclusively or that this is even necessarily a bad thing. Francis and his brothers had a different approach, however, one which rebelled a bit from this monastic model. They sought to come to God through this world, not in spite of it! The special Franciscan tone here refers to the incarnational focus of this work, found in two concrete ways. The first is the living presence of the Word right here in our world; second is the real humanity of Jesus Christ. This reality is what enamored Francis and his followers would chase after that initial intuition, including Bonaventure. In fact, “…The Franciscan tradition played a major role in the awakening of devotion to the humanity of Christ.” Bonaventure would inherit this love for the humanity of Christ and incorporate it in this work and many others. There is also a deep Trinitarian theology present in both these men as well, not just devotion to the humanity of Christ. As mentioned above, Bonaventure systematized the thought of Francis regarding the life of Christ. This work is the fruit of his own pondering of the Gospels and the life of Christ.
From St. Francis, Bonaventure will get three images that he will make special use of in reflecting on the Cross. These images are fire, tears, and nakedness. Francis was a man on fire according to Bonaventure; a Seraphic fire. Bonaventure uses this image for Francis to describe someone who was completely consumed by Christ Crucified. This metaphor is meant to show a complete absorption into Christ, passion, the eros love of God who seeks out His people.
For many people, tears are not something that they consider when they think of St. Francis. Bonaventure highlights it as something that is essential to meditating upon the Cross. According to Dreyer, “The symbol of tears is linked above all with redemption. Bonaventure asks readers to weep for their sins and for others, to weep at the sufferings of Christ, indeed to join their tears to those of Christ.” It is a call to weep for one’s own sins. This is something that Francis did in abundance. He was after all a penitent, always in deep mourning for his sins. Bonaventure notes that his weeping was so constant that it eventually contributed to his blindness. Tears lead to the Crucified; it is a call to conversion. When weeping for one’s sins, these tears bring healing, as Dreyer notes, “As it is natural for a wound to bleed so it is natural for Christians to weep for their sins and for the suffering Christ.” This brings a whole new dimension to penance as it brings one to a true understanding of what Christ did for us. Tears are important for the Christian to employ when meditating upon the Cross.
Nakedness is another important factor to focus on to approach the mystery of the Cross. Nakedness is something that featured very prominently in the life of St. Francis. I described above the famous scene where Francis strips off his clothes in front of his father and the bishop of Assisi. This nudity is associated with the poverty of renunciation, of willingly giving up worldly possessions, to follow Christ more perfectly (the religious vow of poverty). This nakedness, however, is meant to allow the believer to be clothed by Christ Crucified, “…Francis was clothed in body and soul with Christ Crucified. The nudity of the disciples is hidden by the glorious clothing of the cross.” An accurate understanding of nakedness can lead the believer to a fuller understanding of the Cross according to Bonaventure.
Like the Itinerarium, the Tree of Life is a mystical writing of Bonaventure. The work is divided into twelve fruits, which are the chapters of the work. Each chapter is divided into three groups of four using the categories of Christ’s origin, Christ’s passion, and Christ’s glorification. Christ’s passion, as the middle group, is meant to be the core of the work. This is once again highlighting the importance that Bonaventure places on the Cross of Christ. It should be the center of our lives. All of the fruits are ordered to this end, an encounter with the love of Christ, especially Christ Crucified. According to Martignetti, “…Bonaventure had two goals in mind for his spiritual or mystical writings: he hoped to stimulate the mind of the reader, teaching about the saving work of Christ; and enflame the heart of the reader, with passionate words that allowed the reader to personally encounter and draw closer to the very human Jesus Christ.” To achieve this end, Bonaventure invites the reader to make special use of the imagination. This is essential for our prayer lives in his mind. He invites the reader of this work to imagine himself with Christ, directly witnessing the events of his life, death, and resurrection. The imagination is meant to be a tool that shows us what Christ is all about. He writes in the Tree of Life:
“Because imagination assists understanding, I have arranged in the form of and imaginary tree the few passages selected from many, and have disposed them in such a way that, in the first or lower branches, the Saviour’s origin and life are described; in the middle branches, his passion; and in the top branches, His glorification.”
The very outline of the work, a tree, is meant to engage the imagination, and help one to better reflect on the Cross.
One tool that will assist the reader in understanding the Tree of Life is considering it as a work of Lectio divina. While the reader might be familiar with this way of praying with Scripture, Bonaventure added some unique twists to it to make it his own, and uniquely Franciscan. I will briefly describe the steps in order to help the reader understand what Franciscan lectio looks like.
The first step is simply to have a piece of Scripture in front of them and to read it, or listen to it. This is then followed by the next stage of lectio, which Bonaventure uniquely joins to the first, meditation. This meditation is simply “Pondering what we have received through lectio.” The person makes good use of the text that has been just read or listened to. Meditation has two different modes for Bonaventure. It can either look at human deeds, which focuses heavily on human motives and what one ought to do or not do; or divine acts, which think about how much God has given to humanity and the greatness of God’s love and mercy. Meditation is meant to foster either or both of these aspects. One way of doing this is by using the faculty of the imagination to picture the Biblical scene before you and maybe place yourself there and imagine things like what the bread would have tasted like at the Last Supper. In later centuries, this would be called the “composition of place”. Martignetti, quoting Bestul, says that “This technique…is especially important in Franciscan spirituality.” He further says, “we allow the historical event to come alive for us once again that we may tap into its spiritual power…we should find that these deepen our love and affection for Christ.” Through “composition of place”, we can experience in our souls the life of Christ in a deep way. Lectio divina for Bonaventure is a way of deepening the soul’s desire for Christ.
The next step in lectio is prayer. It is considered prayer when “The heart has been appropriately moved by experience…when this occurs, when meditatio moves us to this kind of honest conversing with God from the heart, this is oratio.” It is being honest with God, spurred on by the Scriptural text that we have meditated upon. In another work already mentioned, the De Triplici Via, Bonaventure outlines three different forms of dialogue that can make up our prayer. He says, “You should know that in prayer there are three levels or parts. The first consists in deploring one’s miseries, the second in imploring mercy, and the third in offering worship.” Ideally, our prayer should have all three of these present in some way, for all three help us to acknowledge who we are before God and to have that honest conversation with Him.
The final stage of Lectio divina is contemplation. In this stage, according to Bonaventure, one is finally able to get beyond the limitations of the mind. This contemplation is a “Deeper, more intensive form of prayer, not concerned with various topics, images or Biblical stories. Contemplation is prayer that goes beyond words and images…a free gift from God that cannot be forced.” It is completely being wrapped up in God, resting completely with Him. It thus goes together nicely with the final step of mystical union found in the Itinerarium, which is resting in God, just as God rested on the seventh day after He had made the heavens and the earth. This is what Bonaventure upholds as perfect prayer. Martignetti quotes Blastic who says, “Thus, far from being otherworldly, or cutting one off from the world, contemplation turns one toward the world. Franciscan contemplation is “horizontally ecstatic.” That is, it takes one out of oneself and into the other; contemplation de-centers, making one receptive to the revelation of the truth of the other.” This contemplation is indeed transcendent, ultimately you cannot find it in any theology book. But Blastic is saying that the Franciscan idea of contemplation leads you not within in a selfish way, but rather without, to your neighbor, the other. This is what Francis discovered in his own life when he reached out and hugged a leper because he had learned to see Christ in someone whom the world despised. After many years, through his own mystical contemplation, Francis literally became a prayer, referring to the stigmata. He so perfectly lived out the idea of “composition of place” that he became mystically united to Christ Crucified physically, in his own body. This experience clearly made him the model of contemplation for Bonaventure. As I have already discussed, Bonaventure saw this event as important in the life of Francis and one can see it throughout his own mystical writings.
Another tool to help the reader understand the Tree of Life is what is called the “coincidence of opposites.” This concept is primarily about language. As human beings, our language is limited. This is a simple fact. This becomes problematic when trying to talk about God. “Human beings have always struggled when trying to speak about God and many theologians and philosophers throughout the ages have realized that the limited words of a finite being could never hope to capture the God who is unlimited and infinite.” This is a struggle that Bonaventure had, as every theologian has.
It is important to note that Bonaventure did not actually use the phrase “coincidence of opposites.” That was Nicholas of Cusa, who lived in the 15th century, who officially coined the phrase. According to Cousins, “It should be seen as the key to understanding the theologian’s entire system of thought.” This again is very Franciscan. Bonaventure would have been very familiar with the famous story of the call of Francis where he was praying before the Crucifix of San Damiano and he heard the voice of Christ say to him “go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.” The Cross of San Damiano is a perfect image for the “coincidence of opposites.” On the cross, Christ is nailed but erect and confident. He is crucified and already risen. He is in pain and yet majestic. The Cross stands as the ultimate sign of opposites which somehow Christ makes whole in his own person. Francis would embody this well. How could he call poverty holy? Why is his name in Italian, il Poverello, the little poor one, a name of such high esteem? Out of these opposites, present in both the lives of Christ and Francis, one can see why this idea of the “coincidence of opposites” is such an important one to understand the Tree of Life, and indeed all the various works of Bonaventure.
Briefly, there were five principal ways that Bonaventure expressed the “coincidence of opposites” in his works, according to Cousins. 1. within God as Trinity, 2. between God and creation as creatures are brought into being, 3. within the Word Incarnate, 4. between good and evil, 5. between creation and God as creatures return to God. Keeping each of these in mind the reader can more fully appreciate this mystical work.
I will now look at brief passages from each of these principal sections of this work and make the Franciscan connection prominent. The first section Bonaventure titles “On the Mystery of Origin” and is about Christ being co-eternal with the Father and His coming into the world in the Incarnation. The passage I will focus on is specifically about his birth of the Virgin Mary. Bonaventure writes,
“When nine months had passed since his conception, the King of Peace like a bridegroom from his bridal chamber, came forth from the virginal womb. Although he was great and rich, he became small and poor for us…now, then, my soul, embrace that divine manger; press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.”
Bonaventure is very focused on Christ, the Eternal Word, choosing to enter into our poverty. Christ became poor for our sake. He was born in the poverty and simplicity of a manger because there was no room for him at any inn. We are told to embrace and kiss that manger. That manger, a symbol of poverty, has actually become one of greatness through Christ.
This theme of self-emptying is the primary one of this reflection for Bonaventure. Martignetti notes, “This movement of self-emptying which we find in the Incarnation, our great and rich God becoming small and poor for our sake, is a uniting of opposite extremes that seems to have stirred Bonaventure to prayerful reflection…” This theme of self-emptying of Christ is also what entranced Saint Francis. There is the very famous story of Francis coming up with the first living Nativity scene at the small Italian town of Greccio. This story is found in the Legenda maior. In it, Francis desires to commemorate with special solemnity the birth of Christ. He prepares a place with hay and animals and has Friars and people gather around and celebrate liturgy at this special place that is meant to remind them all of Christ’s birth. This reflects the Incarnational theology that is at the heart of Francis and his movement. Bonaventure is very much in league with this in the Tree of Life. The poverty of Christ is something to be deeply in awe of and a cause for contemplation rather than of aversion for the faithful Christian.
The next section in the work is “On the Mystery of the Passion.” As I indicated above, this is the central portion of the work and it concerns Christ’s Passion. The section I will focus on in this part concerns Peter’s rejection of Jesus. Bonaventure writes,
“There in response to a maid servant he denied with an oath that he knew Christ and repeated it a third time. Then after the cock crowed, his kind Master looked upon his beloved disciple with mercy and grace. O whoever you are…remember the passion of your beloved Master and go out with Peter to weep most bitterly over yourself.”
We see here the deep sorrow of Peter at his rejection of Christ, and our own rejection of Him as well, hence why we are called to weep with Peter. This weeping is critical, for it is by sorrow for our own sins that we arrive at Christ more fully, beginning to understand what He did for us. There is a similar story of Saint Francis that applies here. Francis, in the biography by Thomas of Celano, is recounting to another friar just what true and perfect joy entails. According to Francis, it is being rejected by this world. He even says that if they were to show up at a friary, the brothers not recognize them, and they were turned out into the cold like beggars, this would be true and perfect joy. Joy in this situation comes from being able to unite your sufferings to the Cross of Christ. In the moment of sorrow for Peter, described by Bonaventure, it was then that Peter learned the love of Christ. With Francis too we can see that in rejection there is a deep union with Christ who leads us to true joy. In the Passion section, it is clear that Bonaventure can be seen to be inspired by stories from the life of Francis.
The final main section of the Tree of Life is titled “On the Mystery of the Glorification.” This section is critical to the work and is of equal length with the other two. Martignetti says, “…The Seraphic Doctor has taken the reader on a journey that could not possibly stop at the death of the Lord. Bonaventure’s entire theology of the mystical journey is based on the call to pass through Christ crucified into the glory that awaits us.” This section is the final goal that we are all aiming at as Christians. We are striving to pass through the needle of the Cross to get to Resurrection and eternal life in Christ. The pertinent section I will look at is where Bonaventure discusses Jesus being given dominion over the earth. He says,
“…Jesus Christ, the Son of the mighty Father, lives and reigns like another Joseph and a true Savior not only in the land of Egypt but also in every place where the eternal King has dominion.”
Jesus is like Joseph in the Old Testament because his brothers did not expect him to be alive, yet he is alive in Egypt. Jesus Christ too is alive and is King not just in Egypt but of the whole world. We hear a similar story of Saint Francis. A brother had a vision one night of thrones in heaven. A voice said to him that one throne that was particularly radiant belonged to one of the fallen angels and was being reserved for the humble Francis. This shows that Francis was going to share in the reign of Christ, enthroned in Heaven. All Christians one day hope to share in this same glory with Christ. Bonaventure knew of this story of Francis and he likely would have had it in mind when writing of Christ’s throne in heaven. The Tree of Life is a thoroughly Franciscan text where the influence of Francis upon Bonaventure shines forth brightly.
In this paper, I have shown how Saint Bonaventure was deeply influenced by Saint Francis in his own theological thought. I have examined four specific works where the spirit of Francis shines forth most brilliantly: Bonaventure’s various sermons on Saint Francis, the Legenda maior, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, and the Tree of Life. In all these works, one can see a theologian who is deeply in love with Christ and who wants to bring all men to Christ. At the same time, he is deeply in love with the Saint of Assisi and is strongly encouraging all the faithful to follow his example as a sure way to arrive at Christ. This paper is an invitation to all to continue their journey, to see in Bonaventure “A brilliant rhetorician and a learned theologian, but (containing) something more that throbs and pulses through his works…the reader might well follow (the) invitation to take pleasure in the unresolved text, the ending that opens up rather than closes down.” I hope that the reader, after reading this paper, will be inspired to look to the life of Saint Francis and the writings of Saint Bonaventure as a tool in their own journey with Jesus Christ.
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