The Seraphic Doctor
The title by which St. Bonaventure is most readily known was given him while he was still alive. And it is apt for several reasons. His thought is entwined with love; it quickly springs to seraphic or angelic heights. As a teacher, he gives intellectual expression to the life of the Seraphic Saint, St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis pursued a way of life that kept reaching out to God with the fullness of an ardent nature, the sternness and intensity of a logic that looked at things reduced to ultimate simplicity, and the color of a rich emotion. Everything spoke to St. Francis of God because its very nature is made by Him. Everything pointed to the Sacred Humanity of Christ, and in return the Sacred Humanity shed its glow on everything.
St. Bonaventure saw all created things as flowing in a necessary way from God: not that creation is or was necessary, but creation, once decided upon, had to mirror the perfections of God. Each part of creation according to its dignity is either a shadow, a trace, an image or a similitude of God.
Since in Christ all the stages of creation are contained as in a perfect exemplar, there is no true knowledge, understanding or wisdom if He is left out. “In Christ are contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge of the hidden God, and He is the medium for all knowledge.”
To St. Bonaventure Christ is therefore necessary for any full philosophy. There is no such thing as a philosophy based completely on reason. Faith has to enter in and present Christ as the Supreme Exemplar of all creation. If you leave out this centerpiece of creation, then not only would theology be empty, but philosophy would be weakest where it should be strongest. St. Bonaventure’s philosophy rests squarely on faith and on reason.
St. Bonaventure was by no means opposed to the arts. He has, however, said that you cannot judge them rightly unless you look at them in the light of higher values. St. Bonaventure therefore turns to the Incarnate Word “as the touchstone at which to measure the human enterprise.”
The great value of this system is that learning can proceed in the spirit of devotion. In this way, there is less chance for reason to drop into the pitfalls of rationalism, to run to the extremes of empty intellectualism. The proud spirit of man is kept more humble as it learns by tasting “in the darkness of faith” as well as by seeing in the light of reason.
“Taste and see that the Lord is sweet.” This is the invitation of St. Bonaventure to all who would delve into the secrets of the universe. You can taste “in the darkness of faith” and come to a surer knowledge than by seeing in the light of reason. When it comes to ultimate, important truths, you cannot judge by reason any more surely than you can tell whether an object is sweet or bitter by looking at it. You must taste it.
St. Bonaventure “made every truth a prayer to God and a praise of God.” He has been called “the totally religious soul.” “Multifarious, infinitely diverse and subtly shaded, his thought is but an ever-active charity, whose whole movement strives toward objects which escape our view or toward unknown aspects of those things we do in part perceive.”
Sometimes we read in the lives of holy people that they had a knowledge of natural science and of human nature that amazed learned men. The usual assumption is that this knowledge was preternaturally infused. Perhaps this knowledge was not so much infused as naturally developed from using the system of St. Bonaventure, letting faith and reason work together.
It has been said that St. Bonaventure rejected Aristotelianism. It may be more true to say that he used it as part of his eclectic system. He used it as far as he could, and then passed beyond it. He could see no sense in riding in the buggy of pure philosophy when he had the strong chariot of Christian wisdom to carry him faster and further forward – a wisdom already refined through centuries of thought. To St. Bonaventure, philosophy is a good as far as it goes, but it is too obscure on the most important questions.
St. Bonaventure has been placed on an equal footing with St. Thomas Aquinas by two different Popes. Yet he has not found general acceptance even among Catholic philosophers. Compared to St. Thomas, he remains practically unknown as a philosopher. In the future this may be different.
“What the Seraphic Doctor’s ultimate ranking as a Christian philosopher is to be, must be left to a generation which will again experience the speculative and pragmatic necessity of Christ as the center of philosophy.”
“The oft-repeated phrase is well-known: ‘Thomas is the Christian Aristotle; Bonaventure, the second Augustine.’ But this difference must not be stressed, for the two complement each other in an admirable way: Thomas is the angel of the schools, Bonaventure the master of the practical life; Thomas enlightens the intellect, Bonaventure elevates the heart. Sixtus V justly places both side by side, and grants Bonaventure the same ecclesiastical honors as Pius V granted Thomas. ‘They are,’ he says, ‘the two olive trees and the two shining lights in the house of God, who by the plenitude of their love and the light of their erudition illumine the entire Church. By the special providence of God, they are similar to two stars appearing at the same time. During their earthly pilgrimage they were intimately united by the bond of a true friendship and by the intercourse of holy labors. With equal step did both hasten toward their heavenly fatherland, that both might at the same time enter the joys of Heaven.”
– The 35 Doctors of the Church –
– Lucas G. Westman