On St. Bonaventure’s Concept of History

“The Richness of the Word of Christ Is Inexhaustible”

[Catechesis in Paul VI Hall]

Dear brothers and sisters,

Last week I spoke of the life and personality of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. This morning I would like to continue with the presentation, reflecting on part of his literary work and his doctrine.

As I already said, among various merits, St. Bonaventure had that of interpreting authentically and faithfully the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he venerated and studied with great love. In a particular way, in the times of St. Bonaventure a current of Friars Minor called “spiritual” held that there was a totally new phase of history inaugurated with St. Francis; the “eternal Gospel” had appeared, of which Revelation speaks, which replaced the New Testament. This group affirmed that the Church had now exhausted her historical role, and in her place came a charismatic community of free men guided interiorly by the Spirit, namely, the “spiritual Franciscans.” At the base of the ideas of this group were the writings of a Cistercian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202. In his works, he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm of history. He considered the Old Testament as the age of the Father, followed by the time of the Son, the time of the Church. To be awaited yet was the third age, that of the Holy Spirit. The whole of history was thus interpreted as a history of progress: from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative liberty of the time of the Son, in the Church, up to the full liberty of the children of God, in the period of the Holy Spirit, which would have been also the period of peace among men, of the reconciliation of peoples and religions. Joachim of Fiore aroused the hope that the beginning of the new time would come from a new monasticism. It is thus understandable that a group of Franciscans thought it recognized in St. Francis of Assisi the initiator of the new time and in his order the community of the new period — the community of the time of the Holy Spirit, which left behind it the hierarchical Church, to begin a new Church of the Spirit, no longer connected to the old structures.

There was, hence, the risk of a very serious misunderstanding of the message of St. Francis, of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church, and such a mistake implied an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole.

St. Bonaventure, who in 1257 became minister-general of the Franciscans, found himself before serious tension within his own order due, precisely, to those who espoused this current of “spiritual Franciscans,” which aligned itself to Joachim of Fiore. Precisely to respond to this group and to give unity again to the order, St. Bonaventure carefully studied the authentic writings of Joachim of Fiore and those attributed to him and, taking into account the need to present correctly the figure and message of his beloved St. Francis, he wished to show a correct view of the theology of history.

St. Bonaventure addressed the problem in fact in his last work, a collection of conferences to monks of the Paris studio, which remained unfinished and which was completed with the transcriptions of the hearers. It was titled “Hexaemeron,” that is, an allegorical explanation of the six days of creation. The Fathers of the Church considered the six or seven days of the account of creation as a prophecy of the history of the world, of humanity. The seven days represented for them seven periods of history, later interpreted also as seven millennia. With Christ we would have entered the last, namely, the sixth period of history, which would then be followed by the great sabbath of God. St. Bonaventure accounts for this historical interpretation of the relation of the days of creation, but in a very free and innovative way. For him, two phenomena of his time render necessary a new interpretation of the course of history:

The first: the figure of St. Francis, the man totally united to Christ up to communion of the stigmata, almost an alter Christus, and with St. Francis the new community created by him, different from the monasticism known up to then. This phenomenon called for a new interpretation, as a novelty of God which appeared in that moment.

The second: the position of Joachim of Fiore, who announced a new monasticism and a totally new period of history, going beyond the revelation of the New Testament, called for an answer.

As minister-general of the Order of Franciscans, St. Bonaventure had seen immediately that with the spiritualistic conception, inspired by Joachim of Fiore, the order was not governable, but was going logically toward anarchy. For him there were two consequences:

The first: the practical need of structures and of insertion in the reality of the hierarchical Church, of the real Church, needed a theological foundation, also because the others, those who followed the spiritualist conception, showed an apparent theological foundation.

The second: although taking into account the necessary realism, it was not necessary to lose the novelty of the figure of St. Francis.

How did St. Bonaventure respond to the practical and theoretical need? Of his answer I can only give here a very schematic and incomplete summary in some points:

1. St. Bonaventure rejected the idea of the Trinitarian rhythm of history. God is one for the whole of history and he is not divided into three divinities. As a consequence, history is one, even if it is a journey and — according to St. Bonaventure — a journey of progress.

2. Jesus Christ is the last word of God — in him God has said all, giving and expressing himself. More than himself, God cannot express, cannot give. The Holy Spirit is Spirit of the Father and of the Son. Christ himself says of the Holy Spirit: He “…will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26), “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15). Hence, there is not another higher Gospel, there is not another Church to await. Because of this, the Order of St. Francis had also to insert itself in this Church, in her faith, in her hierarchical order.

3. This does not mean that the Church is immobile, fixed in the past and that novelties cannot be exercised in her. “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt,” the works of Christ do not go backward, do not fail, but progress, says the saint in the letter “De tribus quaestionibus.” Thus St. Bonaventure formulates explicitly the idea of progress, and this is a novelty in comparison with the Fathers of the Church and a great part of his contemporaries. For St. Bonaventure, Christ is no longer, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, the end, but the center of history; history does not end with Christ, but a new period begins. Another consequence is the following: prevailing up to that moment was the idea that the Fathers of the Church were at the absolute summit of theology, all the following generations could only be their disciples. Even St. Bonaventure recognizes the Fathers as teachers for ever, but the phenomenon of St. Francis gave him the certainty that the richness of the word of Christ is inexhaustible and that also new lights can appear in the new generations. The uniqueness of Christ also guarantees novelties and renewal in all the periods of history.

Certainly, the Franciscan Order — so he stresses — belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the Apostolic Church, and cannot build itself on a utopian spiritualism. But, at the same time, the novelty of such an order is valid in comparison with classic monasticism, and St. Bonaventure — as I said in the preceding catechesis — defended this novelty against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris. The Franciscans do not have a fixed monastery, they can be present everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. Precisely the break with stability, characteristic of monasticism, in favor of a new flexibility, restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.

At this point perhaps it is useful to say that also today there are views according to which the whole history of the Church in the second millennium is a permanent decline; some see the decline already immediately after the New Testament. In reality, “opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt,” the works of Christ do not go backward, but progress. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, of the Franciscans and Dominicans, of the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so on? This affirmation is also valid today: “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt,” they go forward.

St. Bonaventure teaches us the whole of the necessary discernment, even severe, of the sober realism and of openness to new charisms given by Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to his Church. And while this idea of decline is repeated, there is also the other idea, this “spiritualistic utopianism,” which is repeated. We know, in fact, how after the Second Vatican Council, some were convinced that everything should be new, that there should be another Church, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and that we would have another, totally “other” Church. An anarchic utopianism! And thanks be to God, the wise helmsmen of Peter’s Barque, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on one hand defended the novelty of the council and on the other, at the same time, defended the uniqueness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.

4. In this connection, St. Bonaventure, as minister-general of the Franciscans, took a line of government in which it was very clear that the new order could not, as a community, live at the same “eschatological height” of St. Francis, in which he saw the future world anticipated, but — guided, at the same time, by healthy realism and spiritual courage — had to come as close as possible to the maximum realization of the Sermon on the Mount, which for St. Francis was the rule, though taking into account the limits of man, marked by original sin.

Thus we see that for St. Bonaventure, to govern was not simply a task but was above all to think and to pray. At the base of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions resulted from reflection, from thought illumined by prayer. His profound contact with Christ always accompanied his work of minister-general and that is why he composed a series of theological-mystical writings, which express the spirit of his government and manifest the intention of guiding the order interiorly, of governing, that is, not only through commands and structures, but through guiding and enlightening souls, orienting them to Christ.

Of these his writings, which are the soul of his government and show the way to follow either as an individual or a community, I would like to mention only one, his masterwork, the “Itinerarium mentis in Deum,” which is a “manual” of mystical contemplation. This book was conceived in a place of profound spirituality: the hill of La Verna, where St. Francis had received the stigmata. In the introduction, the author illustrates the circumstances that gave origin to his writing: “While I meditated on the possibility of the soul ascending to God, presented to me, among others, was that wondrous event that occurred in that place to Blessed Francis, namely, the vision of the winged seraphim in the form of a crucifix. And meditating on this, immediately I realized that such a vision offered me the contemplative ecstasy of Father Francis himself and at the same time the way that leads to it” (Journey of the Mind in God, Prologue, 2, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici / 1, Rome, 1993, p. 499).

The six wings of the seraphim thus became the symbol of six stages that lead man progressively to the knowledge of God through observation of the world and of creatures and through the exploration of the soul itself with its faculties, up to the satisfying union with the Trinity through Christ, in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi. The last words of St. Bonaventure’s “Itinerarium,” which respond to the question of how one can reach this mystical communion with God, would make one descend to the depth of the heart: “If you now yearn to know how that happens (mystical communion with God), ask grace, not doctrine; desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of the letter; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness not clarity; not light but the fire that inflames everything and transport to God with strong unctions and ardent affections. … We enter therefore into darkness, we silence worries, the passions and illusions; we pass with Christ Crucified from this world to the Father, so that, after having seen him, we say with Philip: that is enough for me” (Ibid., VII, 6).

Dear friends, let us take up the invitation addressed to us by St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, and let us enter the school of the divine Teacher: We listen to his Word of life and truth, which resounds in the depth of our soul. Let us purify our thoughts and actions, so that he can dwell in us, and we can hear his divine voice, which draws us toward true happiness.

[Translation by ZENIT]

St. Bonaventure 3

by Pope Benedict XVI

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This morning, continuing last Wednesday’s reflection, I would like to study with you some other aspects of the doctrine of St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. He is an eminent theologian who deserves to be set beside another great thinker, a contemporary of his, St Thomas Aquinas. Both scrutinized the mysteries of Revelation, making the most of the resources of human reason, in the fruitful dialogue between faith and reason that characterized the Christian Middle Ages, making it a time of great intellectual vigour, as well as of faith and ecclesial renewal, which is often not sufficiently emphasized. Other similarities link them: Both Bonaventure, a Franciscan, and Thomas, a Dominican, belonged to the Mendicant Orders which, with their spiritual freshness, as I mentioned in previous Catecheses, renewed the whole Church in the 13th century and attracted many followers. They both served the Church with diligence, passion and love, to the point that they were invited to take part in the Ecumenical Council of Lyons in 1274, the very same year in which they died; Thomas while he was on his way to Lyons, Bonaventure while the Council was taking place.

Even the statues of the two Saints in St Peter’s Square are parallel. They stand right at the beginning of the colonnade, starting from the façade of the Vatican Basilica; one is on the left wing and the other on the right. Despite all these aspects, in these two great Saints we can discern two different approaches to philosophical and theological research which show the originality and depth of the thinking of each. I would like to point out some of their differences.

A first difference concerns the concept of theology. Both doctors wondered whether theology was a practical or a theoretical and speculative science. St Thomas reflects on two possible contrasting answers. The first says: theology is a reflection on faith and the purpose of faith is that the human being become good and live in accordance with God’s will. Hence the aim of theology would be to guide people on the right, good road; thus it is basically a practical science. The other position says: theology seeks to know God. We are the work of God; God is above our action. God works right action in us; so it essentially concerns not our own doing but knowing God, not our own actions. St Thomas’ conclusion is: theology entails both aspects: it is theoretical, it seeks to know God ever better, and it is practical: it seeks to orient our life to the good. But there is a primacy of knowledge: above all we must know God and then continue to act in accordance with God (Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 1, art. 4). This primacy of knowledge in comparison with practice is significant to St Thomas’ fundamental orientation.

St Bonaventure’s answer is very similar but the stress he gives is different. St Bonaventure knows the same arguments for both directions, as does St Thomas, but in answer to the question as to whether theology was a practical or a theoretical science, St Bonaventure makes a triple distinction he therefore extends the alternative between the theoretical (the primacy of knowledge) and the practical (the primacy of practice), adding a third attitude which he calls “sapiential” and affirming that wisdom embraces both aspects. And he continues: wisdom seeks contemplation (as the highest form of knowledge), and has as its intention “ut boni fiamus” that we become good, especially this: to become good (cf. Breviloquium, Prologus, 5). He then adds: “faith is in the intellect, in such a way that it provokes affection. For example: the knowledge that Christ died “for us’ does not remain knowledge but necessarily becomes affection, love (Proemium in I Sent., q. 3).

His defence of theology is along the same lines, namely, of the rational and methodical reflection on faith. St Bonaventure lists several arguments against engaging in theology perhaps also widespread among a section of the Franciscan friars and also present in our time: that reason would empty faith, that it would be an aggressive attitude to the word of God, that we should listen and not analyze the word of God (cf. Letter of St Francis of Assisi to St Anthony of Padua). The Saint responds to these arguments against theology that demonstrate the perils that exist in theology itself saying: it is true that there is an arrogant manner of engaging in theology, a pride of reason that sets itself above the word of God. Yet real theology, the rational work of the true and good theology has another origin, not the pride of reason. One who loves wants to know his beloved better and better; true theology does not involve reason and its research prompted by pride, “sed propter amorem eius cui assentit [but is] motivated by love of the One who gave his consent” (Proemium in I Sent., q. 2) and wants to be better acquainted with the beloved: this is the fundamental intention of theology. Thus in the end, for St Bonaventure, the primacy of love is crucial.

Consequently St Thomas and St Bonaventure define the human being’s final goal, his complete happiness in different ways. For St Thomas the supreme end, to which our desire is directed is: to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary.

Instead, for St Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness.

Along these lines we could also say that the loftiest category for St Thomas is the true, whereas for St Bonaventure it is the good. It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith: one, in the diversity of its expressions.

Let us return to St Bonaventure. It is obvious that the specific emphasis he gave to his theology, of which I have given only one example, is explained on the basis of the Franciscan charism. The “Poverello” of Assisi, notwithstanding the intellectual debates of his time, had shown with his whole life the primacy of love. He was a living icon of Christ in love with Christ and thus he made the figure of the Lord present in his time he did not convince his contemporaries with his words but rather with his life. In all St Bonaventure’s works, precisely also his scientific works, his scholarly works, one sees and finds this Franciscan inspiration; in other words one notices that his thought starts with his encounter with the “Poverello” of Assisi. However, in order to understand the practical elaboration of the topic “primacy of love” we must bear in mind yet another source: the writings of the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius, a Syrian theologian of the 6th century who concealed himself behind the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite. In the choice of this name he was referring, to a figure in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 17: 34). This theologian had created a liturgical theology and a mystical theology, and had spoken extensively of the different orders of angels. His writings were translated into Latin in the ninth century. At the time of St Bonaventure we are in the 13th century a new tradition appeared that aroused the interest of the Saint and of other theologians of his century. Two things in particular attracted St Bonaventure’s attention.

1. Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of nine orders of angels whose names he had found in Scripture and then organized in his own way, from the simple angels to the seraphim. St Bonaventure interprets these orders of angels as steps on the human creature’s way to God. Thus they can represent the human journey, the ascent towards communion with God. For St Bonaventure there is no doubt: St Francis of Assisi belonged to the Seraphic Order, to the supreme Order, to the choir of seraphim, namely, he was a pure flame of love. And this is what Franciscans should have been. But St Bonaventure knew well that this final step in the approach to God could not be inserted into a juridical order but is always a special gift of God. For this reason the structure of the Franciscan Order is more modest, more realistic, but nevertheless must help its members to come ever closer to a seraphic existence of pure love. Last Wednesday I spoke of this synthesis between sober realism and evangelical radicalism in the thought and action of St Bonaventure.

2. St Bonaventure, however, found in the writings of Peusdo-Dionysius another element, an even more important one. Whereas for St Augustine the intellectus, the seeing with reason and the heart, is the ultimate category of knowledge, Pseudo-Dionysius takes a further step: in the ascent towards God one can reach a point in which reason no longer sees. But in the night of the intellect love still sees it sees what is inaccessible to reason. Love goes beyond reason, it sees further, it enters more profoundly into God’s mystery. St Bonaventure was fascinated by this vision which converged with his own Franciscan spirituality. It is precisely in the dark night of the Cross that divine love appears in its full grandeur; where reason no longer sees, love sees. The final words of his “The Journey of the Mind into God”, can seem to be a superficial interpretation an exaggerated expression of devotion devoid of content; instead, read in the light of St Bonaventure’s theology of the Cross, they are a clear and realistic expression of Franciscan spirituality: “If you seek in what manner these things occur (that is, the ascent towards God) interrogate grace, not doctrine, desire, not understanding; the groan of praying, not the study of reading… not light, but the fire totally inflaming, transferring one into God” (VII 6). All this is neither anti-intellectual nor anti-rational: it implies the process of reason but transcends it in the love of the Crucified Christ. With this transformation of the mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius, St Bonaventure is placed at the source of a great mystical current which has greatly raised and purified the human mind: it is a lofty peak in the history of the human spirit.

This theology of the Cross, born of the encounter of Pseudo-Dionysius’ theology and Franciscan spirituality, must not make us forget that St Bonaventure also shares with St Francis of Assisi his love for creation, his joy at the beauty of God’s creation. On this point I cite a sentence from the first chapter of the “Journey”: “He who is not brightened by such splendours of created things is blind; he who does not awake at such clamours is deaf; he who does not praise God on account of all these effects is mute; he who does not turn towards the First Principle on account of such indications is stupid” (I, 15).

The whole creation speaks loudly of God, of the good and beautiful God; of his love. Hence for St Bonaventure the whole of our life is a “journey”, a pilgrimage, an ascent to God. But with our own strength alone we are incapable of climbing to the loftiness of God. God himself must help us, must “pull” us up. Thus prayer is necessary. Prayer, says the Saint, is the mother and the origin of the upward movement – “sursum actio”, an action that lifts us up, Bonaventure says. Accordingly I conclude with the prayer with which he begins his “Journey”: “Let us therefore say to the Lord Our God: “Lead me forth, Lord, in thy way, and let me step in thy truth; let my heart be glad, that it fears thy name’ ” (I, 1).

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