Humility and Poverty in Bonaventure: A [Very] Brief Look

Today is the feast day of the great Seraphic Doctor of the Church, Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. Born in a small town near Orvieto in Italy, Bonaventure became a leading figure in the medieval Church. His life can be thought of as a synthesis of deep theological insight, saintly piety, and consistent charity. In fact, a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican scholar used to say that the only time he questioned original sin was when he spent time with Brother Bonaventure.

There is a plethora of remarkable insights within Bonaventure’s theological and philosophical texts. His understanding of the Trinity, Christ, love, the Crucifixion, grace, mysticism, and the virtues is simply fascinating. In this brief post, I would just like to highlight Bonaventure’s insight into humility and poverty as highlighted in the work of Zachary Hayes, O.F.M.

However, it is hard to separate any one part of Bonaventure’s theology because his whole theological structure is so interconnected. The consistency found within his writings is beautiful. For-instance, it is essentially impossible to talk about Bonaventure’s concept of poverty without talking about his Christology. Yet, his Christology cannot be looked at without considering his structure of the Trinity. This is so because, for Bonaventure, his theology is radically trinitarian. But precisely because of its trinitarian source for departure, Bonaventure’s theology is deeply Christocentric. This is so because, for Bonaventure, Christ is the center of the Trinity.

Pope Benedict XVI, in a series of Wednesday audiences on Bonaventure, said that the element of synthesis within Bonaventure is “the primacy of love”. This is, to be sure, the nucleus of Bonaventure’s thought: Christianity is about a God who is love. The relational character of the Trinity means that theology itself must be satiated with a hermeneutic of love, relationship, charity. As Benedict XVI says, “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”.

Amidst all of this, let us stay true to the title of this post and take a quick look into Bonaventure’s insight regarding humility and poverty. Hayes writes:

Bonaventure sees [poverty and humility] as the foundation of Christian perfection with charity as the summit, the fulfillment, and the bond of perfection…[which is] a life-process. It begins in humility and poverty and breaks out into love–the active love of neighbor and the contemplative savoring of God in ecstatic love; and it moves to a love so profound that it willingly embraces trials and tribulations out of love for God…Humility and poverty are always the door-way to God and Christ and thus the doorway to love. Following the teaching of St. Paul, Bonaventure writes that there is strictly but one foundation for Christian life, namely the person of Christ. But Christ is accessible only to the humble person. This foundation, Christ, takes our minds into the captivity of faith and our wills into the captivity of love. Thus Christian life is “faith which works through charity.” [1]

Bonaventure emphasizes poverty and humility because they are the mold of the Christ’s saving actions. From the Cross flows the blood which saves and cleanses mankind; there is the opening of Christ’s side which flow the sacramental elements of the Church–blood and water. However, man can only receive if he himself is empty. It is through humility and poverty, through the complete abandonment of the self,  man can approach the Crucified Lord with an open heart of receptivity. This is exactly the story of Francis of Assisi, who, by his poverty and humility, which culminated into his deep love for God and neighbor, was taken into mystical union with and by the Christ, in which he himself was transformed into Christ and received the stigmata. Bonaventure preaches that: “The cross or sign of the cross imprinted on his body symbolized his love of Christ crucified and by the flame of that love he was totally transformed into Christ.” [2] Hence, too, another element of Bonaventure: that love is transformative.

Saint Bonaventure, pray for us that we may, through Christ Crucified, contemplate and love the Triune God, and in that love, be transformed into Word in our very being. Pray for us, that we may love more completely God and neighbor. Pray for us that we may journey into God, the source of our existence, where awaits man’s discovery of his truest self in Christ. Pray for us that we may, one day, accompany you in adoration and praise of the Eternal Godhead!

[1] The Hidden Center: Spirituality and Speculative Christology in St. Bonaventure. New York: Paulist, 1981. 139

[2] The Disciple and the Master: St. Bonaventure’s Sermons on St. Francis of Assisi. Trans. Eric Doyle. Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1983. 93

Note: Quotes from Pope Benedict XVI are taken from his series of Wednesday Audiences on St. Bonaventure. (March 3, 10, 17, 2010)

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