St. Bonaventure: Seeing the World in the Right Perspective

So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you,
Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future:
all things belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.
I Cor. 3.21-23

St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), the “Seraphic Doctor,” has much to teach the contemporary Church about seeing, as she navigates her way through a “secular age” with its plurality of this-worldly perspectives. Before considering the enduring significance of Bonaventure’s life and work, it is worth starting with an all-too-brief biographical sketch to get a sense of how Bonaventure learned to see and what he saw once he learned how. 

Biographical Background

St. Bonaventure was born in 1217 in Bagnoregio, a small Umbrian hill town between Viterbo and Orvieto (about seventy miles north of Rome). His father, John of Fidanza, was a physician. We know very little about his family and childhood, apart from one vivid recollection that he included in the introduction to his biography of St. Francis (The Legenda Maior).  “When I was a boy, as I still vividly remember, I was snatched away from the jaws of death by his [St. Francis’s] invocation and merits.”

In 1234 Bonaventure traveled to Paris to study under Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), the renowned English scholar and Master of Theology at the University of Paris. In 1236, one year after Bonaventure arrived in Paris, Alexander of Hales gave all his possessions to the poor and entered the Franciscan Order. It would be another seven years before Bonaventure entered the Order (1243-44). Bonaventure succeeded his mentor, Alexander, as head of the Franciscan school in Paris, and he eventually obtained a chair on the theology faculty at the University of Paris. In some respects, Bonaventure’s career at the University of Paris followed the typical course of a thirteenth-century Master of Theology – lecturing and writing commentaries on Scripture and Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the theological “textbook” that all theologians had to master. But these were extraordinary times, for it was during Bonaventure’s years at Paris that scholars were recovering and assimilating the full corpus of Aristotle’s writings, raising questions in the minds of many scholars about the compatibility of faith and reason – whether it was possible to think with the Church and account for the discovery of new knowledge.

Bonaventure’s career at the University of Paris came to an end in 1257, when he was chosen Master General of the Franciscan Order, a position he held until 1274, just shortly before his death. It was during this period that he brought his theological training to bear upon questions concerning St. Francis’s life of radical poverty, hoping to forge a model of piety that could unite an Order that was growing more deeply divided in its interpretation of the practices and ideals of its founder. The fruit of these efforts find expression in Bonaventure’s “mystical theology,” articulated in several classic works, including his biography of St. Francis (Legenda maior), The Soul’s Journey into God, The Triple Way, and The Six Days of Creation.

Saint Bonaventure’s work as a theologian, his piety, and the steady, competent hand with which he guided the Franciscans through a turbulent period made him among the most highly respected churchman of his day. Pope Gregory X elevated him to the cardinalate in 1273. He played an important role at the Council of Lyons (1274), which saw the brief reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. He died on July 15, 1274, just weeks after the Council ended. On April 14, 1482, the Franciscan pope, Sixtus IV (1471-1484), canonized Bonaventure, proclaiming July 15 as his feast day. On March 14, 1588, another Franciscan pope, Sixtus V (1585-1590), declared St. Bonaventure a Doctor of the Church. In 1890, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) named him the prince of mystical theology.

Bonaventure’s World and Worldview

Bonaventure lived in extraordinary times. States that would dominate the European stage for the next eight hundred years were just beginning to emerge. It was an age that saw the revival of urban life and the early formation of market economies. For the first time in almost a millennium, lay urban classes became a center of dynamism and creativity in all spheres of life.  Energized by waves of reform (papal, monastic, and clerical) stretching back almost two centuries, lay piety was in ferment, drawn simultaneously to dynamic reform movements in the Church – most notably, the Franciscans and Dominicans – and to heretical sects fueled by varying mixtures of lay and clerical frustrations with the Church. In the world of learning, the recovery of the full corpus of Aristotle’s writings challenged traditional knowledge with new, powerful concepts and ways of knowing that would revolutionize the study of the liberal arts, theology, law, and medicine.  In the midst of all this, the world seemed to swell and to take on a greater density and complexity. These were but the early birth pangs of the modern world.

There was never a moment in Bonaventure’s career when he was not caught in the powerful and turbulent crosscurrents of these transformations. While we do not have the luxury of space to examine the conflicts and debates into which Bonaventure was drawn – the assimilation of the “secular reason” of Aristotelian metaphysics into Christian theology, the place of the new mendicant orders in the traditional institutional structures of the Church, how to interpret St. Francis’s radical call to poverty, the role of learning in Franciscan piety, history and Joachite eschatology – it is worth taking a brief look at one particular event that provides important insight into the way Bonaventure navigated through these difficult times with such clarity of vision.   

In September 1259, as Bonaventure wrestled with the problem of guiding a deeply divided Order, he retreated to La Verna (about fifty miles east of Florence), where St. Francis had received the stigmata just twenty five years earlier. There he spent several weeks in prayer and meditation on the stigmata and, more generally, on St. Francis’s imitation of Christ in a life of radical self-giving and self-emptying. These meditations proved to be an important catalyst in the development of St. Bonaventure’s profoundly Christocentric and Trinitarian “mystical theology.”

The centrality of Christ – this is the guiding principle of the masterful synthesis that Bonaventure worked out over the course of his career. Christ is the center of all reality, and this, in a twofold sense.  First, in the circular dynamic of giving and receiving that constitutes the divine circumincessio of the Trinity, Christ is the center, inasmuch as his origin is in the Father and, along with the Father, he is the origin of the Spirit. Second, in the order of creation, Christ is the center, for in him all things were created (John 1.3; Col. 1.15-16) and through him all things will return to the Father (I Cor. 3.21-23; 15.28) – all of this in the freely chosen acts of self-giving that constitute the orders of creation and redemption. Because Christ is the origin, exemplar/pattern, and destiny of the created order, the world is dynamic to its core, bursting with potential, for, like Christ, its pattern/exemplar, the created order is imbued with the fecundity of self-giving love.  (For a wonderful, and far more complete account of Bonaventure’s thought, see the entry in the New Catholic Encyclopedia by J. M. Hammond).

Bonaventurian Optics & the Contemporary Church

Implicit in Bonaventure’s magnificent synthesis is a law of optics that is all too easily forgotten in contemporary Catholicism.  If Christ is the center of all things, as Scripture and Tradition proclaim, then he is the point of perspective from which reality, in all its creative dynamism and movement, must be viewed. Because we human beings are embodied, and, therefore, situated in particular places and times, we are prone to illusions of perspective that lead us to err in judgments about scale and movement. To use two rather mundane analogies, if I hold a pencil sufficiently close to my face, a mountain or skyscraper in the distance will appear small by comparison. As beings situated on the earth, it appears to us as if the sun travels around the earth, when, in fact, just the opposite is true. Our fallen nature, which Bonaventure, following Augustine, describes as a curving in on ourselves, serves only to exacerbate and mask these illusions of scale and movement.

From the time of Saints Bonaventure and Aquinas, and continuing up to the present day, new discoveries have afforded an ever deepening appreciation of the world’s density and complexity, (mis)leading some to conclude that the created order is larger and more real than God. From this conclusion, there followed another  –  the proper task for human beings is to work for a this-worldly flourishing through a mastery of the real (i.e., physical and social) world. Such a task would require a new, more reliable inner-worldly point of perspective if we hoped to chart our movement through time and space more successfully than previous generations. Thus began the modern project in the West – a centuries-long quest to find a sure foundation for knowledge and action – reason, empiricism, enlightened self-interest, class, emotion/self-expression, will to power, critique etc.  However one chooses to judge the various secular projects of modernity, I think it is fair to say that the world, as it stands on this feast day of St. Bonaventure, 2012, was neither the intended destination, nor on the itinerary of the enlightened ones who planned the journey. Each attempt seems to have mysteriously curved from its destination.

Interestingly enough, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Bonaventure speaks a “yes” to all of these endeavors and points of view, offering to gather them, in Christ, into the Trinitarian circumincessio in which all particular goods and truths find the life-giving peace of order. Herein lies the ultimate question for Catholics in the twenty-first century. Can we seriously and in good conscience maintain the priority of Christ in the public spaces of our modern, pluralistic world?

There is a particularly memorable scene from the popular T.V. show, The Simpsons, which, as an analogy, frames the question in a somewhat provocative manner. In this episode, the writers used Mr. Burns, Homer’s boss, as a prop for a spoof on Howard Hughes.  In the course of the episode, as Mr. Burns gradually loses his sanity, he builds a small wooden airplane – about a foot in length – called the Spruce Moose (a spoof on the famous “Spruce Goose,” built by Hughes Aircraft in 1947). Having lost touch with reality (and all sense of scale), Mr. Burns thinks his model airplane is real.  At a critical moment in the plot, Mr. Burns decides that he must get back to his office. He picks up his plane, turns to Mr. Smithers, his assistant, and says, “we’ll take the Spruce Moose. Hop in!” Puzzled and at a loss for words, Smithers can only stammer, “B…B…But, sir.” Mr. Burns then pulls out a gun and says, “I said, hop in.”

Such is the image of the Church held by not-a-few contemporary Catholics, some of whom hold prominent positions in public life. Has not the pope gone mad? Has he not lost all sense of movement and scale with his retrograde demands that Catholics hop in to his “model church,” which cannot but seem small and distant to those with a close, intimate knowledge of the world?  Were it possible to travel to St. Bonaventure’s grave and pose these questions to him, the master of optics would, no doubt, turn and say, “it all depends on your point of view.”

St. Bonaventure, pray for us, who are bent toward the earth, that we may see all things from Christ, the center.

David Foote

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David Foote is Associate Professor of History at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His teaching and research focuses on medieval church and society, especially the role of the church in the development of the Italian city-states.

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