Remembering Bonaventure’s Mystical Theology of Love

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

Editor’s Note: As we approach the feast of St. Bonaventure on July 15, Stephen Lynch provides details about the saint’s life and his impact on Christians today.

Born in Bagnoregio, a town in central Italy, St. Bonaventure tells us in his book, The Life of St. Francis, that as a child, he was preserved from death through the intercession of St. Francis.

There is no evidence, however, that this cure took place during the lifetime of St. Francis. He entered the Order of Friars Minor in 1238 or 1243; the exact year is uncertain. It is certain that Bonaventure was sent from the Roman Province to complete his studies at the University of Paris under Alexander of Hales, the great founder of the Franciscan School.

In 1248, Bonaventure received the licentiate, which gave him the right to teach publicly as Magister regens. He continued to lecture at the University of Paris until 1256, when he was compelled to discontinue, because of the violent outburst of opposition to the Mendicant orders of the secular professors. The Holy See bestowed the degree of doctor on St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas at the university on Oct. 23, 1257.

Leaders of the Order of Friars Minor
In 1257, Bonaventure, though not yet 36, was elected Minister General of the Friars Minor. This was an office of peculiar difficulty because the Order had internal dissensions between the Spirituales and the Relaxati. The former insisted upon the literal observance of the original Rule, especially in regard to poverty, while the latter wished to introduce innovations and mitigations.

On June 23, 1273, Bonaventure, much against his will, was created Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, by Gregory X. It is said that the pope’s envoys that brought him the cardinal’s hat found the saint washing dishes outside a convent near Florence, and were requested by him to hang the hat on a tree nearby until his hands were free to take it.

Bonaventure continued to govern the Order of Friars Minor for the next 17 years until 1274, when at the General Chapter of Lyons, Jerome of Ascoli, afterwards Nicholas IV, was elected to succeed him.

Meanwhile, Bonaventure had been charged by Gregory X to prepare the questions to be discussed at the 14th Ecumenical Council, which opened at Lyons May 7, 1274. While the council was still in session, Bonaventure died. The exact cause of his death is unknown, but it is rumored that he may have been poisoned.  The funeral oration was delivered by Pietro di Tarantasia, OP, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, afterwards Innocent V, who reminded his listeners that Bonaventure was a man of “eminent learning and eloquence, and also a man of personal holiness, kindness, approachableness, gentleness and compassion.” On the following day during the fifth session of the council, Gregory X spoke of the irreparable loss the Church had sustained by the death of Bonaventure, and commanded all prelates and priests throughout the whole world to celebrate Mass for the repose of his soul.

Learning and Theology

Bonaventure enjoyed especial veneration even during his lifetime because of his stainless character and the miracles attributed to him. It was Alexander of Hales who said that Bonaventure seemed to have escaped the curse of Adam’s sin. There is also the story of St. Thomas visiting Bonaventure’s cell while he was writing the life of St. Francis and finding him in an ecstasy the Angelic Doctor quietly withdrew with the comment,  “Let us leave a saint to work for a saint.”

Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis was completed in 1266. His advice was much in demand by the popes of the period. In 1482, Bonaventure was canonized by Sixtus IV, and in 1557, he was made a Doctor of the Church by Sixtus V in 1588. His feast is celebrated on July 15.

Bonaventure united in himself tender piety and profound learning. These two qualities shine forth conspicuously in his writings. The Commentary on the Sentences remains Bonaventure’s greatest work; all his other writings are in some way subservient to it. While the Breviloquium derives all things from God, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Soul into God) proceeds in the opposite direction, bringing all things, both matter and spirit, visible and invisible, back to their Supreme End, which centuries later Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point. Bonaventure was undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages. He always remained a faithful disciple of Augustine and always defended the teaching of that Doctor; yet he by no means repudiated the teaching of Aristotle.

Bonaventure adopted the hylomorphic theory of matter and form, and he speculated on the possibility of creation from eternity, but rejected that idea. His dogmatic teaching is found chiefly in his Commentary on the Sentences and in his Breviloquium. His proper place is beside his friend St. Thomas Aquinas, as they are the two greatest theologians of Scholasticism. Thomas was the Christian Aristotle; Bonaventure the true disciple of Augustine. Thomas was the teacher of the schools; Bonaventure of practical life. Thomas enlightened the mind; Bonaventure inflamed the heart. Thomas extended the Kingdom of God by the love of theology; Bonaventure by the theology of love.

To the minds of his contemporaries impregnated with the mysticism of the Middle Ages, the spirit that breathed in Bonaventure’s writings seemed to find its parallel only in the lives of those that stand nearest to the Throne, and the title of Seraphic Doctor bestowed upon Bonaventure is an undeniable tribute to his all-absorbing love for God. This title seems to have been first given to him in 1333. He was made a cardinal in 1273.

Unity of Franciscans
St. Bonaventure has been called the second founder of the Franciscan Order.  During his 17 years of government, he was exactly the Minister General the Order needed at the time because he provided both intelligent and conciliatory leadership that shaped the fundamental direction of the Order for generations. He succeeded in gaining everyone’s goodwill by his personal reputation for learning and virtue, by his tact and good judgment, by his ability to combine his passionate love for Francis of Assisi with his enthusiasm for the splendid position which the Order had achieved. He also reconciled his admiration for the old hermitages where he loved to spend long periods on retreat, sharing the life of the Zelanti friars, with his justification of urban settlements.

Under his administration, the Order felt united and secure. Franciscans were admired and respected by the outside world and called by the Holy See to carryout important missions on behalf of the universal church. Bonaventure played a leading role in the election of Pope Gregory X, which ended the long papal vacancy.  He also had a significant role in the planning of the Second Council of Lyon (1274).

Bonaventure took the position that creation is reflectively self-conscious in human beings, and in an imperfect way, humans reflect God’s being in a heightened manner because of their spiritual faculties of memory, intellect, and free will, which are signs of God’s indwelling presence. Contemporary thinkers such as Karl Rahner have revived many aspects of Bonaventure’s mystical theology of the centrality of love at the center of the cosmic mystery.

Fr. Stephen, director of evangelization at St. Francis Chapel and City Ministry Center in Providence, R.I., writes frequently for religious  and secular publications.