Italy and France
St Bonaventure is one of the great medieval Doctors of the Church. Though we know little about his family and his early years, we know that he was born in Viterbo in Italy in 1221 and that he joined the Franciscans around the year 1240 (some say 1238, some say 1243). He then studied at the University of Paris, where he received a licentiate to teach in 1248. He became an eminent lecturer at the University until 1256, when some of the older academics conspired to have the newly founded Franciscans and Dominicans removed from teaching.
In 1257 Bonaventure was elected Minister General (or Superior General) of the Franciscans and set himself to reconciling the various factions that had developed in the order. In 1273 he was given an even greater reforming task: he was created a Cardinal and charged by Pope Gregory X with preparing the preliminary papers for the Fourteenth Ecumenical Council, to be held at Lyons in France in 1274, and which was set to address the schism between the Roman and Greek Church. While the Pope presided at the Council, he left Bonaventure to direct its progress. Bonaventure had addressed the Council twice, and then died suddenly on 15 July 1274. According to Bonaventure’s secretary, he may even have been poisoned.
St Bonaventure was an exact contemporary of St Thomas Aquinas, and his writings were almost as numerous. The two were known to be friends and to visit each other, and both used Greek philosophy in the shaping of their theology. While rigorous in its learning and its respect for tradition, Bonaventure’s writings are more spiritual in their tone and, in some instances, more mystical. Aquinas became known as the ‘Angelic Doctor’ and Bonaventure as the ‘Seraphic Doctor’. Bonaventure wrote, for example:
When we pray, the voice of the heart must be heard more than the proceedings from the mouth.
If you desire to know … ask grace, not instruction; desire, not understanding; the groaning of prayer, not diligent reading; the Spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness not clarity; not light, but fire that totally inflames and carries us into God by ecstatic unctions and burning affections.
Because of God’s outreach to the creature, God is said to be essentially relational, ecstatic, fecund, alive as passionate love. Divine life is therefore also our life. The heart of the Christian life is to be united with the God of Jesus Christ by means of communion with one another.