A sermon preached at Convocation for the Feast of St Bonaventure
St Bonaventure, the seventh Minister General of the Order of St Francis, is said to have followed his master in all things except one - Francis’ dislike of academic learning and his instruction not to own books. Commentators on the theology of St Bonaventure usually divide his career into two - the first half as a scholastic theologian who studied at the University of Paris under the great Alexander of Hales, and who wrote so many words on the Trinity and creation that his complete works won’t be fully translated into English for a while yet - and the Franciscan half in which Bonaventure proved himself an able administrator, a mystic and a peacemaker between the Western and Eastern Church. The writings of the second half of Bonaventure’s career are normally described as Christocentric - focussed on Christ whom he sees as the centre of the Trinity, the midpoint between heaven and earth and the centre of created reality - I prefer to see this focus which becomes explicit in the teachings that Bonaventure develops later in his life in the heat of his famous disputes with opponents of the Franciscan order as already present in his earlier scholastic theology.
Bonaventure during his lifetime would have been regarded as a conservative - following the old neo-Platonic metaphysics rather than the newly rediscovered thought of Aristotle, the spiritual philosophy of the 5th century Dionysius and an understanding of the persons of the Trinity influenced by theologians of the Eastern rather than the western Church. As the star of his friend and rival, the Dominican St Thomas Aquinas, began to rise in the decades following his death, so St Bonaventure’s theology faded from view after his death even for Franciscans. Forgotten for almost seven hundred years, Bonaventure’s theology began to be read again with fresh eyes in the 1970s. For our time, as the Church learns to speak the language of ecospirituality, Bonaventure provides a perspective on creation that is fresh and new, that puts theological structure on the lived spirituality of St Francis.
Bonaventure begins from the insight of the mystic Dionysius who insists that goodness is not static, not content to be sufficient to itself, but is characteristically self-communicative. In other words, it is the nature of goodness to give of itself. So God who is Being must also be Being-For, or Being-Toward - God is on the move! The 12th century mystical writer, Richard of St Victor, goes further by insisting that the highest good is love, and that God who is Being-Towards must also be self-emptying. God, who is the perfection of love, is also the perfection of giving Godself away in love! For Richard, and for Bonaventure, that means that the unity of God must also be a plurality because the highest form of love must be the love that gives itself away to an Other - the Father who is the Source, and the Unoriginated Origin, must be eternally flowing into an Other who receives all that the Father can be. That Other, who receives everything that the Father can be, is the perfection of the Father’s self-expression and so is called the Word. The Father and the Word are so intimately united in self-emptying love that they breathe forth love in a single will, which is the Spirit of God. The Word is the midpoint of the flow of self-giving love that is the Trinity - the focus of the Father’s self-gift, the One who receives the fullness of the creative possibility of the Father and who returns that love and creative fullness in the breath of the Spirit.
Sr Ilia Delio invites us to pause at this point and reflect that for Bonaventure, when we say that God is love, we don’t just mean that God is loving but that God is, in fact, love - and that love is God.Delio, The Humility of God, 2005, St Anthony Press Cincinnati OH, 41 God is not only the source and origin of love but the desire to share love most fully. In his Letter to the Philippians St Paul uses the Greek word, kenosis, or self-emptying, to speak of the divine divesting of power in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ - but Bonaventure sees that God’s very being is kenotic - the fullness of love whose very character is to be self-giving. Bonaventure also speaks of this fullness of love as humility or poverty, the essence of God that gives itself away. This, of course, is the essence of love that Francis experiences, and teaches us to imitate.
But the divine love that gives itself away is also exhuberant and inexhaustible. Like other medieval theologians Bonaventure is at pains to insist that God does not need to create the world - the completeness of love expressed in the divine dance of love that is the Holy Trinity is already the perfection of God’s nature. But to give form and life, while perhaps not necessary to the God who is love, is certainly a characteristic flourish! And God delights in creation, and the story of God’s engagement with creation shows that God has something at stake here - to use a modern expression God certainly has skin in the game!
And here the Word, the self-expression of God who receives the fullness of the Father’s creative possibility and who is the midpoint and pivot of the Trinitarian life of God, also becomes the midpoint of creation as a finite expression of the divine goodness. What this means is that we are not just a project that God engages in to keep from getting bored, we are not something external to God’s own life, not something separate from God but grounded in the Word of God, and unfolding within the Trinitarian life of love. The Word, who Bonaventure names as the Wisdom of God, is both the self-expression and the creative expressiveness of God. What this means is that while creation is not identical to God, neither is creation separate, or entirely other from God. Instead, creation is an analogy of the life of God and all created things have their truest identity, their Source and destiny, in the Word and Wisdom of God. This brings Bonaventure’s scholastic theology of the Trinity back to the claim of St John the Evangelist, that all things have their being in him, and without him was nothing created that was created. And to St Paul, who claims that in him all things come together. It also means that for Bonaventure creation is related to the Incarnation, since not only Christ but the whole created order is dipolar - both other from God and at the same time sharing through the divine Word in the life of the Trinity.
Bonaventure’s trinitarian theology expresses the insight of St Francis that the whole of creation is diaphanous with the light of Christ - and that in every creature we have the opportunity to love and serve Christ - because Christ the Word is the ground and centre of all reality. Incidentally it is precisely because Bonaventure’s neo-Platonic philosophy was old-fashioned in its own time that he has the language to express the fundamental insight of creation that is Franciscan spirituality - in our own time the connection between the life of God and the life of creation is being rediscovered by ecotheology.
So what does it mean for the Christian? It means creation is hard-wired for God - in a sense the Incarnation, God taking on created flesh - is not just what happens in Jesus of Nazareth but in everything that draws breath. You are a unique, though finite Word of God! In you, God delights and God suffers, to use the daring, possibly heretical language of modern process theology God grows in and with you. In you God knows the exhuberance of birth and the joy of love, the alienation of grief and the agony of dying - and in the paradox of finite creation and infinite divine life that is the Word made flesh all that you are is gathered home at the last into the love that is God.