A friar based at a university named for the Franciscan scholar writes about his long connection to St. Bonaventure, whose feast is commemorated on July 15.
This time of year, as we approach the feast of St. Bonaventure, often makes me think about my family and how I came to know the place where I have lived and worked for three decades. Surprisingly, my association with St. Bonaventure and the Olean, N.Y., area began years before I was born. After my Aunt Ruth graduated from high school, she worked for several years and then she felt the call to religious life. She explored several congregations of sisters, but not the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany who, subsequent to her own elementary schooling, had begun teaching in our parish grade school, St. Mary’s in Rome, N.Y.
When she consulted with the parish priest who was acting as her vocation guide, he suggested that she consider the Allegany Sisters because he thought theirs was a good congregation. She followed his recommendation and thus began her more than 65 years as an Allegany Franciscan. For the last 28 of those years before her death in 2013 at age 99, she resided at the Allegany motherhouse, less than a mile from my ministry at St. Bonaventure University. I was blessed to have many long talks with her.
During my youth, Sr. Miriam Regina (alias Aunt Ruth) was stationed at St. Francis Hospital in Olean. We visited her several times, including a memorable stay in the maternity ward at St. Francis. When my brother Richard was a senior in high school, he was planning to go to a local college because my parents could not afford a more expensive school. At the last minute, he received a Regents science scholarship from New York State. This opened up new options for Richard, but it was, by then, very late in the application cycle. But Aunt Ruth spoke to the friars at St. Bonaventure, and my brother was accepted into the university. My family went to campus for family weekends and my brother’s graduation. I always found it a peaceful and fascinating place, which I now attribute to the Franciscan spirit and the legacy of the friars’ ministry.
Interest in Religious Life
In elementary school, I thought about becoming a priest, but those thoughts faded in high school. Because of my memories of my brother’s time at St. Bonaventure, I applied to the university and was accepted. My thoughts of a religious vocation were still hidden, and I did not spend much time with the friars. But I was deeply touched by the compassion of the late Gervase White, OFM, and Hugh Eller, OFM, in the confessional and the homilies of Conrad Harkins, OFM. The late 1960s and early ‘70s were times of great upheaval on college campuses, and St. Bonaventure University was no exception. Several of my female classmates to this day speak of the compassion and wise guidance that Hugh gave to them.
One Sunday during my senior year, I walked along the corridor of the friary (now Doyle Hall) to go to Mass in the University Chapel, as students still do today. I noticed some vocation literature on a table in the hallway and took it with me. After graduation from St. Bonaventure, I studied for my PhD in the medical school at the University of Vermont. Over my six years in graduate studies, I lived in three different apartments. Somehow, the vocation literature stayed with me (I am a pack rat!).
Toward the end of graduate school, I began to think again about religious life, drawn by fond memories of the friars and their ministry at St. Bonaventure. I filled out the old vocation form that I’d had since my Bona’s days and submitted it to Holy Name Province. The vocation director could not imagine where I had gotten it. The suggestion of the parish priest at St. Mary’s (twice removed, via my aunt and my brother) had yielded a second Franciscan vocation.
Besides my teaching in the biology department at St. Bonaventure University, I have often taught The Intellectual Journey course, the beginning class of our core curriculum, Clare College. This course is a frosh seminar whose outline is based on St. Bonaventure’s writing, “The Journey of the Mind to God.” While he was Minister General, Bonaventure went on retreat to Mt. Alverna. While there, he recalled the six-winged seraph who appeared to St. Francis at the same location. This gave him the idea of a series of steps on the spiritual journey to God.
For Bonaventure, the first six steps are based in reflection on human knowledge: two steps related to creation around us, two steps related to the human person, and two steps related to the attributes of God. The seventh step moves one beyond human knowledge to the contemplation of God. In the Intellectual Journey course, a wide variety of classic texts are placed in this framework. The vital topics presented in the texts become the starting points for discussion. I have learned so much from students in these discussions. The students are introduced to the Franciscan heritage of the university, and learn the important skills of critical reading, writing, and speaking. In his writing, Bonaventure exemplifies the Catholic principle that there is “one truth.” The different fields of academics begin from different starting points and use different methods, but we believe that they will ultimately converge on the one truth of God. This is quite a challenging proposition in a postmodern culture. Sharing in this course has helped in my own spiritual journey of uniting my whole life in my faith in Jesus Christ. Teaching and biological research can become steps on my journey to God. It is a wonderful ideal, but I am only a beginner on the journey.
Geography and Spirituality
Ever since I read Belden Lane’s “Landscapes of the Sacred” and Kathleen Norris’ reflections on the Great Plains, I have been fascinated by the relationship between geography and spirituality. I have twice had the opportunity to visit St. Bonaventure’s hometown of Bagnoregio. Others have said that the view from the mountaintop old city of Bagnoregio shaped Bonaventure’s worldview. St. Bonaventure University sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. I am sure that this geography has shaped me. I feel close to God when I am close to nature on bicycle rides in the summer and cross country skiing at Allegany State Park in the winter.
Eight years ago, I went backpacking in Denali National Park in Alaska with my brothers Joseph Kotula, OFM, Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, and Dan Sulmasy, then a friar. One night, we were camped on a plain above a wide glacial river. The low angle sunset of the far north beautifully illuminated mountains on the other side of the river. Spontaneously and without a word, all four of us moved to sit on the edge of the valley to witness this gorgeous scene. We sat there for an hour, without a word of speech, deeply aware that we were in the presence of sacred mystery. The mountains stretched on to the horizon in a seemingly endless row. I thought of my favorite image from St. Bonaventure.
Medieval philosophy teaches that goodness is self-effusive; it spreads outward from its source. Bonaventure speaks of God as “a fountain fullness.” The goodness of God overflows from the Trinity into all of creation like water overflowing from a fountain, like mountains stretching into the distance in the light of an Alaskan sunset. St. Bonaventure’s idea of God’s fountain fullness is an apt image for my life as a friar – God’s goodness overflowing into my life: a priest’s intuition that leads to two Franciscan vocations, including my own; my relationship with my aunt; my experience of the compassion of the friars during my undergraduate days at St. Bonaventure University; my long and winding road to become a friar; my experience of my friar brothers at St. Bonaventure and my backpacking brothers in Alaska; my experience of God in the discussions of The Intellectual Journey Course and in biological research; and seeing God in the overflowing beauty of creation.
— Fr. Peter, who in 2009 marked his 25th anniversary of first profession as a friar, is an associate professor of biology at St. Bonaventure University, where he has ministered for 30 years. He is also a health professions advisor and a minister-in-residence in Shay Hall.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com. The newsletter’s previous seasonal reflection, by Eric Carpine, OFM, was about the Feast of St. Anthony.