In the fall of 1259, Bonaventure, then newly appointed Minister General of the Franciscan order, found himself far from the lecture halls of the University of Paris. He was on retreat at Mt. Alverno, in the same spot where St. Francis had received the stigmata thirty-three years earlier.

stigmata: wounds matching those of Jesus' crucificied body, believed by many Christians to be given by God to a saint

Bonaventure had come seeking peace from the problems that had plagued the fledgling Franciscan Order in its first tumultuous decades. He had spent the better part of the previous two years trying to solve them.

Franciscan order: established by St. Francis of Assisi in 1208; the group of priests, nuns, and lay people who follow the set of religious standards of practice

While on the hillside, meditating on various ascents to God, Bonaventure recalled the vision which had impressed the stigmata on Francis: an image of a six-winged seraph in the form of the crucified Christ. All at once, in a “flash of insight,” it came to him how this image contained a map of the soul’s journey to God.

Bonaventure proceeded to write the Itinerarium mentis in Deum (Soul’s Journey Into God) in the space of a few days or weeks. It became one of the most well-known spiritual treatises of the Middle Ages.

Understanding Bonaventure through the Itinerarium
Bonaventure’s experience on Mt. Alverno and the Itinerarium are an ideal entrance into his thought because they capture the major currents that shaped his life and make his work distinctive. The Itinerarium is often described as a great “mystical” text. Indeed, it contains an exquisitely beautiful and spiritually profound map of the soul’s journey towards union with God.

What stands out about Bonaventure’s itinerary compared to other classics from the western mystical tradition is the intellectual nature of the journey. On the way to union with God, Bonaventure’s pilgrim traverses over the vast and complex territory of mid-thirteenth century Scholasticism. Entire disputed questions are summarized in a few sentences. Complex arguments from the Commentary on the Sentences are covered in brief paragraphs. The textual traditions of Aristotle, Augustine, Dionysius, Anselm, the Victorines, and Scripture are present in vivid specificity. Few texts can compare to Itinerarium in terms of the sheer density of its intellectual detail.

One of Bonaventure's major works

Bonaventure’s itinerary is accessible to any spiritual traveler. But it is only fully transparent to a particular sort of pilgrim – to scholars who are simultaneously trained in the rigors of scholastic thought and immersed in the richness of Christian spirituality.

Bonaventure spent twenty-three years of his life at the University of Paris. In Itinerarium he reveals the importance of that university to his work. The ease with which he shapes the branches of medieval Scholasticism into an itinerary for the soul’s union with God indicates Bonaventure’s mastery of Scholastic discourse and is a good example of the way in which the mid-thirteenth-century university climate fostered the intertwining of theoretical rigor with spiritual depth.

St. Francis’ Influence
The second aspect of Bonaventure’s life and work that the Itinerarium uniquely reveals is the centrality of the figure of St. Francis (1182-1226). The distinctive hues of Franciscan piety with its emphasis on humility, wonder at God’s creation, and burning love for the crucified Christ suffuses Bonaventure’s journey. At the same time, it reveals the changes in the Order between the time St. Francis and his small band of followers began imitating Christ’s poverty and simplicity and the time Bonaventure joined the Order while at the University of Paris (1243) and the friars numbered in the thousands across all of Europe.

One of the central issues facing this new generation was a question close to Bonaventure’s heart. How can the heady, intellectual world of the newly-formed universities, with their books and titles and honors, fit together with the poverty, simplicity, and love of Christ that marked Francis’ life? Bonaventure answered this question in his “flash of insight,” the image of the winged cruciform seraph.

In Bonaventure’s itinerary, the pilgrim travels up the six wings of the seraph in wonder contemplating the intricate traces of God in the world and the soul. The journey passes over into ecstasy through the cross in the center of the angel. It ends in luminous darkness in which the intellect rests and the pilgrim is one with Christ crucified. To Bonaventure, the same image that impressed the stigmata on Francis, held the key to the way in which the path of the intellect and the path of ecstatic love for the Crucified could be simply two parts of one whole.

Administrative Cares
Finally, the third current of Bonaventure’s life present in the composition of the Itinerarium can be seen in the administrative worries that drove him to retreat to Mt. Alverno in the first place. After some twenty-three years as a student and professor at the University of Paris, Bonaventure left his university career in order to serve as Minister General of the Franciscan Order (1257). He spent the next seventeen years of his life, until his death, negotiating the controversies that marked the Order’s increasing institutionalization.

The issues requiring resolution were not only ones of policy and regulation. There were also deeper spiritual and theological problems such as those treated in the Itinerarium. Bonaventure’s skills at reconciling opposing parties and mediating conflicts have drawn comparison with Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux. For his rescue operation during a time of great conflict, Bonaventure has often been called the “second founder” of the Order.

Bonaventure is perhaps most unique is his capacity for creative contribution of the highest order in three very different worlds of the thirteenth century – the rigorous intellectual world of the university, the ardent piety of the mendicant orders, and the administrative hierarchy of the church.

The city of Bagnoregio

Early Years
In choosing spiritual retreat on Mt. Alverno, Bonaventure was not only following in the footsteps of Francis. He was also returning close to his own home. Bonaventure was born ca. 1217, in Bagnoregio, a small town in central Italy. His father was John di Fidanza, a doctor of medicine. His mother was Maria di Ritello.

The figure of Francis exerted a strong influence on Bonaventure as a boy, although he never met Francis personally.

Bonaventure received his early education at the grammar school at the Franciscan friary in Bagnoregio. More significantly, in his biography of Francis, Bonaventure describes how he was “snatched from the very jaws of death” from a childhood illness by prayers his mother offered to Francis and by the vow she made to dedicate Bonaventure’s life to the saint.

Bonaventure says of this experience, “I recognize that God saved my life through him, and I realize I have experienced his power in my very person.”

University of Paris
Bonaventure was sent to Paris to study at about the age of seventeen, ca. 1234. It was there that he came in contact with the newly established Franciscan House of Studies. He joined the Order as a novice in ca. 1243. His teacher and mentor was the great Master, Alexander of Hales. Alexander had recently given up his wealth and honors and brought his doctoral chair and formidable intellect to the school of the Friars Minor. In this way Alexander established the school as an official part of the University of Paris.

Teacher Alexander and student Bonaventure had a relationship of mutual respect. Alexander reportedly said of Bonaventure that, “it seemed as though Adam had never sinned in him.” Like the other Franciscans in Paris, Bonaventure followed the Franciscan Rule. It mandated combining studies with:

  • poverty
  • manual labor
  • begging for alms
  • caring for the sick
  • performing menial and humble tasks like cooking, cleaning, and washing.
Franciscan Rule: the guidelines established by St. Francis as to the daily life of a member of the Franciscan Order

When Bonaventure arrived in Paris, the university was the pre-eminent intellectual community in Europe and in the thick of its thirteenth-century flowering. Students and masters came from all over Europe. Bonaventure groups them into four “nations” -- Spaniards, Germans, Lombards, and Romans -- although all conversation, reading, and instruction were in Latin.

The cathedral schools became increasingly important in the twelfth century. They were designed to train members of the increasing church hierarchy in rational analysis, logic, and debate. The University at Paris evolved out of educational reforms to the cathedral schools. It was one of several new universities at the time: Oxford, Montpellier, Salerno, and Bologna.

Universities were at first simply guilds organized by their students and teachers. Soon they became legal corporations, exempt from civil law. As such, they were guaranteed rights, privileges and exemptions. But they maintained their earlier guild-like trait of self-regulation, an important factor for maintaining academic freedom.

guild: a society of people with a common profession who band together for mutual protection and benefit

By the time Bonaventure was a student in Paris, many of the things we would recognize today as central to university education were in place. There was a set curriculum, examinations, graduation, and degrees. Bonaventure, like all students, began with a liberal arts curriculum. He studied:

  • grammar
  • rhetoric
  • logic
  • arithmetic
  • geometry
  • astronomy
  • music
Bonaventure obtained his Master of Arts in 1243. Like his fellow Franciscans, he studied theology. It was the longest and arguably most arduous course of study at the University, surpassing even law or medicine.

Following the required curriculum, Bonaventure was licensed as a bachelor of Scripture (baccalarius biblicus). He lectured on the Bible from 1248-50. Then he lectured on the Sentences of Peter Lombard from 1250-1252. In 1254, the same year as Thomas Aquinas, he became a Master in Theology and took over the leadership of the Franciscan School in Paris. There, he lectured and taught on a wide variety of topics.

In the period shortly before Bonaventure arrived in Paris and during his tenure there, Scholasticism evolved from its roots in the twelfth century cathedral schools into a highly systematic theoretical examination marked by a desire to compass entire fields of knowledge. It was conducted by professional, full-time scholars who were trained to use reason, past authorities, and logic to examine questions arising from textual authorities critically. This method led to new forms of inquiry and new genres of teaching and writing, including the lecture and disputation.

authorities: authors considered to be experts on a particular topic (auctoritates)

Disputations had their antecedents in earlier forms of oral inquiry such as Platonic dialogues and courtroom examinations. They proceeded in a debate-like format, with arguments pro and con followed by a determination (answer) of the question under consideration by the Master. The disputations of the Masters were far from dry, academic exercises, but instead often were passionate debates occupying a central place in the life of the University.

When a Master debated a question, classes were cancelled and all students, faculty, and interested persons from the church or town would file into the lecture hall to see what one scholar has likened to “academic jousts.” The many specific questions of the disputations were then gathered into larger summaries of knowledge (summa), or into condensed manuals of theology. During his time in Paris, Bonaventure disputed three sets of questions ("On the Knowledge of Christ," "On the Trinity," and "On Evangelical Perfection") and wrote one theological manual, the Breviloquium.

Mendicant Controversy
Bonaventure’s time in Paris was also marked by rising tension and controversy between the scholars who had joined the new mendicant orders on the one hand -- the Franciscans and Dominicans, who were outside the chain of promotion in the church and devoted to poverty -- and the scholars not affiliated with religious orders, known as the “seculars.”

The seculars felt threatened by the increasing popularity of the mendicant orders in their competition for royal patronage for university seats. They resented the critique of their own lifestyles implied by the mendicants’ embrace of poverty. An atmosphere of resentment and competition formed between the two groups. The seculars tried to put limits on the friars’ right to teach. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, for instance, were at first refused admission as Masters by the Faculty of Arts. They gained entrance later by papal intervention. The seculars were defeated by increasing support from the royal family, papal intervention, as well as the continuing popularity of the mendicants.

Aristotelian Influence
Perhaps the most important current of thought to feed the intellectual life of the thirteenth century was the flood of new Latin translations of Greek classics, particularly those of Aristotle, accompanied by Islamic commentaries. Aristotle’s works were both catalyst and challenge to medieval scholars whose intellectual heritage had been dominated by Augustinian and Platonic thought and Scripture.

The thirteenth century saw several waves of receptivity to Aristotle’s ideas followed by periods of hostility. Scholars wrestled with aspects of Aristotle's philosophy which appeared contrary to truths revealed in Scripture. The most famous was the challenge to the biblical account of creation, because Aristotle argued that the world was eternal.

The bulk of Bonaventure’s academic works were written in the 1250’s. It was a unique decade at the University of Paris in terms of both degree of access to Aristotelian texts and commentaries, and the attitude with which these texts were read. The 1250’s came on the heels of the period of increasing numbers of new translations (1220-1250). It was after an early period of prohibitions and book burnings, and before the atmosphere of increasing suspicion and hostility prompted by the wave of ‘radical Aristotelians’ in the 1270’s.

Exposure to Aristotle’s works was greatly expanded by scholars who worked to integrate Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology, like Albert the Great. Albert lectured in Paris during Bonaventure’s first years there, from 1240-1248. Institutional structures began to reflect the increasing presence and authority of Aristotelian texts for the academic community. In 1252, the corporation of English students at Paris promulgated new statutes making it obligatory to read Aristotle’s works, including:

  • Logica Vetus (Categories, On Interpretation, via Boethius)
  • Logica Nova (Prior and Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophistical Refutations)
  • De Anima.
Other works were listed as optional (the "Libri Naturales:" Physics, De Generatione, De Caelo, De Meteoris).

In 1255, the whole faculty at the University of Paris reorganized the curriculum and put all known works of Aristotle (including three spurious works) on the reading list. Bonaventure’s scholarly activity, then, took place in an atmosphere in which Aristotelian philosophy was considered compelling. It was still possibly suspect for the ways in which it differed from Christian theology, equally suggestive of possibilities of assimilation, particularly with Augustinian thought.

Bonaventure has sometimes been described as hostile to Aristotle by scholars who have been eager to see a sharper division between Augustine and Aristotle than Bonaventure, Aquinas, or any of their mid-thirteenth century contemporaries did. In fact his works display a consistent and creative effort to integrate Aristotelian and Augustinian philosophy.

For instance, Aristotle’s argument that “all knowledge must come from the senses” was, to Bonaventure’s mind, ripe for assimilation with the “Franciscan exemplarism." This was the belief that all of creation displays the footprints of God combined with the Augustinian view that all of sensible reality contains the forms of the eternal reasons (rationes seminales).

Later in his career as Minister General, Bonaventure returned to Paris to deliver a series of lectures that were aimed at attacking not Aristotle himself, but the “radical Aristotelians” of his day. These lectures on the Ten Commandments (1267), the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (1268), and the Six Days of Creation (1273), delineated what he saw as the theological and spiritual dangers of accepting Aristotle’s position on the eternality of the world and encouraged his contemporaries to remember the true source of all wisdom was in Christ.

Franciscan Poverty Controversy
“Accursed Paris, which has destroyed our Assisi!” Jacopone de Todi’s famous cry captures the passionate feelings of the “Spiritual Franciscans.” These were the wing of the Order that opposed the assimilation of Franciscans into university life, longed for the simplicity of the early brotherhood gathered around Francis, and instigated the series of controversies popularized recently in Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose (and the film by the same name).

On February 2, 1257 when he was elected Minister General, Bonaventure stepped into the midst of a long-running struggle between the Spirituals and the more moderate, majority party, the Communals.

In the years following Francis’s death, both Franciscans and the papacy struggled with what it meant to follow Francis and his Domina Paupertas, “Lady Poverty.” The conflict escalated on the heels of the papal bull, Quo elongati of 1230. Pope Gregory IX, rejecting the authority of Francis’s early Testament, interpreted the Rule to mean that Franciscans must renounce ownership (dominium) of goods, but could continue to enjoy their use (usus).

papal bull: an important public letter from the pope

Gregory’s ruling allowed friars like Bonaventure to enter into the life of the new universities and resulted in a great flowering of Franciscan intellectual life. However, the “Spiritual” wing of the order felt that Gregory’s ruling compromised the spirit and integrity of the order. The term spirituales itself arose from the adoption of the ideas of Joachim Fiore (d. 1202). Franciscans interpreted Fiore’s prophesy as referring to their leader, Francis. Specifically, they saw Francis as the angel of the sixth seal mentioned in Apocalypse 7:2: “having the seal of the living God” on him. Many interpreted this to be the marks of the stigmata.

Joachim Fiore: abbot, prophesied that "viri spirituales" would preach against the Antichrist and lead the church into the new era

The crisis which prompted the order to turn to Bonaventure involved John of Parma, minister general for the Order while Bonaventure was at the University of Paris, from 1247-1257. John ignored the papal interpretation of the vow of poverty and made the practice of actual “poverty of life” (paupertas vitae/usus pauper) central to his efforts. He became controversial when one of his students, Gerardo di Borgo San Domino, produced a commentary on Joachim’s writings that declared the Franciscan way of life the harbinger of a more perfect church that would triumph in the age to come. A group of secular priests who were also masters of theology imprisoned John’s student. John was asked to step down, and Bonaventure was asked to step in.

Tenure as Minister General
In the course of his tenure as Minister General, Bonaventure developed a theological justification for the Franciscan claim to follow the absolute poverty of Christ. He created a moderate form of Joachite theology of history. He was named cardinal bishop of Albano by Pope Gregory X (1273). And he was a leader in crafting the council designed to bring the Eastern Greek and Western Roman Catholic churches together, the Second Council of Lyons in 1273.

Bonaventure followed a moderate position on the numerous controversies within the Order. He encouraged Franciscans to remain true to the spirit of Francis while allowing the interpretation of the poverty question to adapt and change. He also wrote a number of significant spiritual treatises during this period in addition to the Itinerarium:

  • Lignum vitae (Tree of Life)
  • De triplica via (The threefold way)
  • Soliloquium (Soliloquy)
  • De perfectione vitae ad sorores (On the Perfect Life, addressed to the Franciscan sisters)
  • Legenda maior and Legenda Minor, officially sanctioned biographies of St. Francis.

Bonaventure died suddenly in Lyons, two days before the end of the Council in 1273. A chronicler relates that the news of his death drew “bitter tears” from all gathered at the “lamentable loss of so great a person.” He was canonized by Pope Sixtus IV in 1482. In 1588 he was named a Doctor of the Universal Church with the title “Doctor Seraphicus” (the angelic doctor) by Pope Sixtus V.