Why read Bonaventure?

"The Prayer of St. Bonaventura about the Selection of the New Pope" (1628–29) by Francisco de Zurbarán

“The Prayer of St. Bonaventura about the Selection of the New Pope” (1628–29) by Francisco de Zurbarán

Since I am teaching Medieval & Renaissance Literature, I feel obliged to understand the Medieval world picture. To that end, I have read C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, where he persuaded me to take up The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a 6th century Roman scholar, philosopher, and statesman. Lewis says Boethius’ work, perhaps more than any other, helps the reader “to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.” That is as strong a recommendation as I need. But a philosophical orientation to the Middle Ages is not enough. I also want to gain a spiritual orientation.

Enter the 13th century Franciscan theologian Bonaventure. In his introduction to Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis, scholar Ewert Cousins seized my attention when he described The Soul’s Journey, which is Bonaventure’s masterpiece, as “an extraordinarily dense summa of medieval Christian spirituality.” Here is why we should read Bonaventure today:

In the history of Western spirituality, Bonaventure holds a central and pivotal position. The 13th-century friar, professor of the University of Paris, minister general of the Franciscan Order, cardinal and adviser to popes, played a major role in the spiritual ferment of the high Middle Ages. Viewed within the religious context of the Middle Ages as a whole – when Islamic, Jewish and Christian spirituality were flourishing – he produced one of the richest syntheses of Christian spirituality. Although cosmic in scope, it was distinctively Christian in its content, grounded on the doctrine of the Trinity and devotion to the humanity of Christ. Within Christianity he achieved a striking integration of Eastern and Western elements. Living at a time when the rift between the Greek East and the Latin West was not yet so radical, he integrated the distinctively Greek spirituality of the Pseudo-Dionysius with the emerging Franciscan devotion to the humanity and passion of Christ, which was to give a decisive direction to the spirituality of Western Europe for centuries.

* * *

In the 13th century he flourished during the brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated. It was still possible for him to produce a speculative system with spirituality at its core and a spiritual synthesis enhanced by theoretical reflection. With 13th-century genius for speculative synthesis, he produced a type of spiritual summa that integrates psychology, philosophy, and theology. Grounding himself in Augustine and drawing from Anselm, he brought together the cosmic vision of the Pseudo-Dionysius with the psychological acumen of Bernard of Clairvaux and Richard of St. Victor. And he balanced a richness of Biblical symbolism with abstract philosophical speculation. In no other medieval Christian spiritual writer were such diverse elements present in such depth and abundance and within such an organic systematic structure. In a certain sense, Bonaventure achieved for spirituality what Thomas did for theology and Dante for medieval culture as a whole.

Cousins draws a memorable analogy between the structure of Bonaventure’s thought and a Gothic cathedral:

Scholastic thought in the Middle Ages has been compared to a Gothic cathedral, especially in the architectonic form it took in the great summae. This comparison is particularly apt in the case of Bonaventure’s spirituality, for he provides an overarching structure for the elements of the Christian spiritual tradition. If we were to apply the comparison, we could see that his theology and philosophy provide the equivalent of this structure, especially his treatment of the Trinity, creation and Christology. This theological speculation is comparable to the nave, towers and apse of the Gothic cathedral. More specifically, the movement of the stone as it reaches up toward heaven reflects the ascent through creation which Bonaventure describes in The Soul’s Journey, and the light streaming through the stained glass windows reflects the downward movement of God expressing himself in the variety of creatures and in his gifts of grace. The crossing of the axes of the design at the center, where the nave and the transepts intersect, suggest the cross of Christ, and together with the focus of the eye on the altar, suggests the convergence of all creation on Christ the center, which is a major theme in Bonaventure’s later writing. All of these themes are developed in The Soul’s Journey.

In addition to the superstructure, which reflects a cosmic design, the Gothic cathedral also contains a historical dimension. Depicted in sculpture on the portals, as well as in the stained glass windows, is the history of salvation from the creation of the world, through the drama of sin and redemption, from the kings and prophets of the Old Testament to the saints of the New and the later history of the Church, finally to the last judgment, which was usually depicted on the west portal at the entrance of the cathedral. Bonaventure’s meditation on the life of Christ in The Tree of Life and his biography of Francis correspond to this historical dimension. By progressing along the various stages of the spiritual journey described in these three treatises, the reader enters ever more deeply into the cathedral, as it were, from its outer portals of salvation history to its inner focus on the altar and then from the altar up to God. In fact, this is the very image used by Bonaventure in the latter part of The Soul’s Journey, where the reader proceeds through the symbol of the tabernacle or temple ever more deeply into the holy of holies, where he perceives Christ symbolized by the Mercy Seat. In meditating on Christ as the greatest coincidence of opposites, one is drawn up like Francis to the heights of union with God.

In a nutshell, Cousins summarizes Bonaventure’s Franciscan spirituality:

The person of Francis, in the concrete events of his life, leads to meditation on the humanity of Christ and imitation of his virtues which, in turn, energize the soul on its journey into God, as it is drawn along the stages of the ascent by the reflection of God throughout creation. The spiritual vision is articulated by Bonaventure with a remarkable combination of speculative penetration, symbolic power and poetic sensibility.


One thought on “Why read Bonaventure?

  1. Pingback: Bonaventure’s Tree of Life | Bensonian

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