Love sees further than
On Wednesday, 17 March , at the
General Audience, held for the first time this year in St Peter's
Square, the Holy Father spoke on St Bonaventure, a contemporary of St
Thomas Aquinas and a great master of prayer for the third time. The
following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in
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
facade 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
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, Ia, 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
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.,
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
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
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, 5).
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).