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Seasonal Reflection: The Journey of the Heart into Wisdom

by F. Edward Coughlin, OFM

coughlinNo matter the audience, St. Bonaventure, whose feast is celebrated on July 15, “urged everyone to … become enflamed with the love of the triune God,” says F. Edward Coughlin, OFM. In this reflection, the St. Bonaventure University administrator reflects on the writings of this Doctor of the Church.

In the person of St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan spiritual tradition has been blessed with a gifted guide toward understanding what it means to live in the presence of God day after day. Each of his works, whether categorized as theology, asceticism, spirituality or mysticism, invites the reader to make the spiritual journey into the wisdom that comes through true experience as envisioned by this great Franciscan saint.

Bonaventure is a Doctor of the Church, a title given to individuals who are recognized by the Church as having been of major importance, particularly regarding their contribution to theology or doctrine.

Despite the diversity of Bonaventure’s works, the variety of forms they take and the different audiences to which they were first addressed — friars, sisters, laity — he urged everyone to believe, understand, contemplate and become enflamed with the love of the triune God.

Bonaventure’s works are steeped in the richness of the Christian tradition. Later generations of scholars and spiritual pilgrims would subsequently find in him a significant theologian of the past to be a partner in conversation; a partner whose efforts may help shed light on our present situation.

When he entered the Franciscan Order in Paris sometime between 1238 and 1243, Bonaventure was quickly recognized as one of the most intellectually outstanding followers of St. Francis of Assisi. He went on to play a significant role in the early development of the Franciscan theological tradition.

bonaventure1Bonaventure was also an outstanding teacher and preacher. Following in the footsteps of some of the Franciscan Order’s earliest masters, he began lecturing on the Bible in 1248, and later on other major theological works. As regent master at the Franciscan house in Paris, he was charged with the threefold responsibility of reading Sacred Scripture, disputing theological questions, and preaching before the university body. His formal teaching career abruptly ended in 1257, when he was elected the seventh General Minister of the Order.

As a creative pastoral leader, Bonaventure put the depths of his own faith experience and the theology of the schools in the service of the pastoral needs of the rapidly growing Franciscan movement. For example, as General Minister, he played a significant role in the organization and subsequent chapter approval of the Constitutions of Narbonne (1260). According to Provincial Vicar Dominic Monti, OFM, these constitutions and his Major Life of St. Francis (1263) would shape the “ideals and life of the brotherhood for generations to come.”

In his other writings, Bonaventure addressed critics who questioned openly the Order’s Mendicant-Franciscan identity and even its existence. He involved himself in some of the most significant theological-philosophical questions of his time with clarity and theological insight.

Bonaventure’s creative pastoral leadership is perhaps most evident in his works of spiritual, ascetical and mystical theology. He seemed eager to take advantage of different opportunities to instruct and encourage people to open themselves to God’s grace-filled presence in their lives, to know through experience God’s wisdom, and to strive to live in the love that is God as best they could. Many of these texts were afforded normative status as classics toward which successive generations of Franciscans and others turned in search of wisdom and understanding.

— Br. Ed is interim director of the Franciscan Institute and vice president of Franciscan Mission at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y. He is also a member of Holy Name’s Provincial Council. This reflection, excerpted from Introduction, Works of St. Bonaventure X: Writings on the Spiritual Life also appears in the Summer 2011 issue of Be A Franciscan newsletter.