But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the
lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh,
he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then
shalt thou have worship in the presence of them
that sit at meat with thee.
(St. Luke xiv 10)
Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Bonaventure. He was born as Giovanni di Fidanza in Bagnoregio in 1217. He was the Seventh Minister General of the Orders of Friars Minor or the Franciscans. Later he was made Cardinal Bishop of St. Albano. In 1482 Pope Sixtus IV canonized him and in 1588 Pope Sixtus V declared him to be a Doctor of the Church. He is known as the Seraphic Doctor or Doctor Seraphicus. He died on July 15, 1274, 742 years ago today, following the Council of Lyons, where he had contributed substantially in an effort to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. His death was mysterious. Some Catholic thinkers maintain that he was poisoned. What is interesting is that he died only a short time after Thomas Aquinas. Thomas died en route to the Council and Bonaventure died just after its conclusion. Both men were viewed with great suspicion and fear by the conservative Latin churchmen of their day. Their error? Both Bonaventure the Franciscan and Thomas the Dominican dared to discover in what way and to what extent Aristotle might be used in the service of the Christian religion.
Of course this problem of reconciling Aristotle to the Sacred Doctrine of the Christian religion might seem odd to us in 2016. Aristotle is probably more feared today than he was in the Middle Ages. He does, after all, demand that we use our minds in the service of the quest for rational understanding. He even insists upon the fact that the object that is waiting to be discovered by reason is already there, existing only because it is already being thought by God! So while some conservative Medieval churchmen thought that Aristotle’s reason might imperil the need for faith in what reason could not prove, the postmodern is terror-stricken by what reason can prove! For Bonaventure and his Franciscans, along with Thomas and his Dominicans, Aristotle does prove that God necessarily exists and that everything else hinges upon His being and His thinking. Because Aristotle has drunk deeply from his Master Plato’s well, he demonstrates that God is more real than anything else. And for this reason, Aristotle’s Medieval interpreters are keen to appropriate what his reason discovers about man, nature, and God in its ongoing quest for knowledge and happiness.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our problem in this Year of our Lord 2016 was: What do I do with Aristotle? It is hard to imagine, but for Medieval Latin thinkers the problem with Aristotle boils down to the problem of the relationship between faith and reason. Bonaventure concludes that reason must be purified by faith in order to be recommissioned into the service of the pilgrim journey to Heaven. He knows that Aristotle’s reason is created by God and that along with the rest of man it is made to take up its role in the economy of salvation. For Bonaventure, if reason is imaged in Aristotle then faith is illustrated in St. Francis, the founding father of the Order of Friars Minor. In fact, it is the faith of St. Francis that proves most useful for Bonaventure in the recovery of reason’s integrity. In St. Francis, reason illuminates the pilgrim soul to its own fallen ignorance. In St. Francis, faith begins to welcome the undeserved and unmerited approach of Divine Love in the suffering Crucified One. Reason reveals a love to Francis that he has never imagined and finds hard to imitate. Faith believes that the love of God is alive in the suffering heart of Jesus. Reason concludes that this union of the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit becomes a spiritual medium of the death and life that leads to salvation. St. Francis takes Aristotle and baptizes him into the service of the Church.
Bonaventure follows Francis and befriends Aristotle. In Francis, Bonaventure’s faith comes into communion with Christ’s death. But through earnest exploration faith comes to understand this death as the all-sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Faith must never cease to search out and explore the possibilities of coming to know and love God through crucifixion. As this morning’s New Testament lesson teaches us, God’s Sabbath is all about bringing new life out of man’s ongoing death. Francis must bring Aristotle to the lowest place in God’s Sabbath School, the lowest room where man humbly claims and confesses his spiritual sickness and reason’s fallen condition. When thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room. (St. Luke xiv. 10) Yet on the other side, Aristotle must be resurrected. That when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.(Ibid, 10, 11) For reason to have a place in God’s economy of salvation, it must be invited to go up higher by Christ who alone can make it well.
Yet it turns out that Francis and Aristotle need more help. Bonaventure turns to St. Anselm. Bonaventure, ever the faithful student of the Abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury, insists that for faith to seek understanding man must be conformed to the Christ who recapitulates human life into conformity with the Father’s desire. With Anselm, matter must be converted into form, potency into act, sensation into intelligence, faith into reason, and vision into love. Anselm insists that God through His Word and by His Spirit intends to elicit from our hearts and soul’s ongoing conversions that reveal our progressive participation in Divine Life. Faith is in an ongoing state of finding truth and falling short of it. The soul is enriched with illumination and then realizes its own poverty. Faith is informed by reason because reason discovers some truth about God. Then reason realizes what it does not know and so returns to faith that seeks God once more through desire. Bonaventure’s Francis and Aristotle are called to participate in Anselm’s Christ. Anselm prays:
Lord my God, you who have formed and reformed me, tell my desiring soul what you are besides what it has seen so that it may see clearly that which it desires. It strives so that it may see more . . . . In truth it is both darkened in itself and dazzled by you. It is indeed both darkened by its own littleness and overwhelmed by your immensity . . . restricted by its own limitedness and overcome by your fullness . . . . Truly this is more than can be understood by any creature. (Proslogium xiv)
Aristotle in Francis and Francis in Anselm mold and form Bonvaventure the pious pilgrim whose reason, faith, and love earnestly quest after God the Father, through God the Word, and by God the Spirit. Father Zachary Hayes tells us this about St. Bonaventure’s method:
The deepest truth about the created world is that it has within itself the potential to become, through God’s grace, something of what has already come to be in the mystery of Christ. What happened between God and the world in Jesus Christ points to the future of the cosmos. It is a future that involves the radical transformation of created reality through the unitive power of God’s creative love. (Z. Hayes, “Christ, Word of God and Exemplar of Humanity)
Bonaventure betrays the profound Medeival intellectualism that would come to know and love the restoration of the entire created order to God the Father through Christ the Word and by the Holy Ghost. Bonaventure’s method of return to God through the Word and by the Spirit involves faith’s purification of reason. Faith believes in Christ the Reconciler of Man to God. In Christ the Word man can come to know and understand how to appropriate nature into the service of salvation. Reason or Aristotle unrelated to Revelation and Christ is desperately incomplete and doomed. For Bonaventure creation is known in and through God’s Word alone. It is to be used but not enjoyed in and through Christ’s intention for man’s use of it. God’s necessary existence as Trinity, His revelation of this reality to us through the Word made flesh, and His ongoing rule and governance of the universe through the Holy Spirit are more real than all other things. For Bonaventure, man must prove or give evidence of his own dependent nature. Bonaventure is an able student of Aristotle, Anselm, and Francis; God’s thinking and being are what constitute the foundation of all reality. Man is called to discover that his existence is complete only by participating in the life of God the Holy Trinity. Man can prove and manifest his derivative nature only by entering Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. This participation alone leads to faithful mind’s journey into God.
Jesus tells us today that whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Ibid, 11) For St. Bonaventure, to be abased and humbled is takes one’s stand on the first rung of a ladder that leads back to God. Aristotle is invited to come up higher by St. Francis, and Francis is lifted up by St. Anselm. But Francis is the real mediator. In Francis, Bonaventure finds the beautiful tension of faith and reason, religion and science, and of revelation and nature. In Francis, Bonaventure finds the confluence of suffering death and joyful resurrection in the pilgrim who is converted by the beauty of God’s Grace. Bonaventure writes:
In beautiful things St. Francis saw Beauty itself, and through His vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved Christ everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace Him who is utterly desirable. (Cant. V)
My friends, today as we commemorate the life and witness of blessed St. Bonaventure, may our faith in God’s Grace inspire us to seek understanding. Let us pray that our faith may find the beauty of God in His Crucified Wounded Son. Let us pray that the curative suffering love of Jesus the Crucified will lift us up into His Resurrection, the Resurrection that leads to Ascension. And may the ensuing Glory so fill our hearts with such wonder that we shall never cease to pursue Him with a desire that believes in order to know, and knows in order to believe. Amen.