Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
O blessed doctor, Saint Bonaventure,
light of holy Church and lover of God’s law,
pray to the Son of God for us.
We join our Franciscan brothers and sisters today in celebrating the feast of one of their greats, St. Bonaventure. Tradition calls Bonaventure the “Seraphic Doctor,” a title that recalls the unusually mystical form of his theological writing.
Born in Viterbo, just north of Rome, Bonaventure entered the Franciscan Order in his late teens. Though a member of the Roman Province, he was sent to study at the University of Paris, which at the time was Europe’s premier school for theology. Bonaventure excelled at his studies, eventually becoming a prominent member of the Paris faculty.
At the age of 36, Bonaventure was elected minister general of the Franciscans, and for the rest of his life he worked to settle the ongoing disputes that plagued the Friars Minor after their founder’s death. Bonaventure refused the Archbishopric of York when it was offered to him, but later he was obliged to take the See of Albano, for which he was made a cardinal. Bonaventure died in 1274 while attending the Council of Lyons.
St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas were contemporaries at the University of Paris. As teachers, they shared opinions on many topics, but they disagreed on one crucial and fundamental point. Whereas St. Thomas spent himself organizing a system and method of theology built on the metaphysics of Aristotle, which he took in large part to be true, St. Bonaventure remained leery of putting so much trust in unaided reason. Following the greater Augustinian tradition, the Franciscan doctor insisted on the necessity of grace to discover truth, even truths of the natural world, at least in discerning their connection to God, from whose eternal truth they flow and become known. Hence, Bonaventure chastised the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, for their folly and pride, mocking their confidence in the half-truths they cobbled together without the light of faith. St. Thomas, on the other hand, confident in the power of unaided reason to glean real truth from the natural world, trusted philosophy to serve as a greater aid to the science of theology than Bonaventure would allow.
This disagreement, among others, led to no small rivalry among their students and disciples. Legends arose as to which saint was the true master of the other. Even artists entered the fray. Take, for example, the following image. In it, St. Bonaventure reveals to an astonished Aquinas the true secret of Christian wisdom.
I’m not sure that St. Thomas needed reminding that Christ Crucified is the true revelation of God’s wisdom and love, but you get the point, at least from the Franciscan point of view.
The Dominicans, however, were not to be outdone. While studying in Italy, I saw hanging in a Dominican priory an immense tapestry that depicts St. Thomas sitting at his desk writing the texts for the Corpus Christi liturgy. In the doorway of Aquinas’s room, Bonaventure is seen peering over Thomas’s shoulder and tearing up his own texts, having realized their inadequacy. Again, you get the point, this time from the Dominican point of view.
I rather like the following image, which depicts a scene from Dante’s Paradiso. In it, St. Bonaventure is introducing Dante and Beatrice to St. Thomas and other saints enthroned in glory. Those familiar with the scene in Canto XII will know that this isn’t exactly what happens in the text. Nevertheless, the image gives us a clear indication as to which of the two doctors plays second fiddle in the communion of saints. (Again, from the Dominican point of view.)
Click here for access to Bonaventure’s works in Latin, French, and English.
may we who celebrate the feast of Saint Bonaventure
always benefit from h is wisdom
and follow the example of his love.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.