We all know that our lives can change dramatically in an instant. Without warning, all our plans and dreams for the future can be turned upside down. This is what happened to John Fidanza, known to us as St. Bonaventure, in February 1257.
John was from a small city north of Rome called Bagnoregio. Drawn to the intellectual life from early on, this son of a physician came to the University of Paris, the academic center of Europe, when he was eighteen or nineteen. He adapted right away to this stimulating environment; he was serious about his studies and was delighted with the world of ideas. When one of his favorite professors, the renowned Alexander of Hales, decided to enter the Franciscan order at the age of fifty, John felt inspired to follow him. Shortly afterward, he was admitted into the order of Friars Minor, as a follower of St. Francis of Assisi.
Idyllic Days. Now called by his religious name, Brother Bonaventure dove enthusiastically into his new life. He began to study Scripture and scholastic theology. He spent many hours listening to lectures and reading the small, cramped script of the theology books in the friary. Before too long, he was teaching at the University of Paris and working on a four-volume commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the standard theology textbook of the day. Bonaventure’s motto became “We should not spare parchment when the salvation of souls is at stake!”
Bonaventure loved the academic life. For him, as for his colleague and friend, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, intensive studies were an important part of preparing good preachers who could play a part in leading people to Christ. Bonaventure himself was a gifted preacher who knew how to fire up people with the love of God and his word. He also combined a kind and serene personality with a willingness to enter into heated debates about contentious theological issues. As a result, he sometimes found himself defending the Franciscan way of life against those who thought the friars were extreme in their poverty and their criticism of lukewarm priests.
Bonaventure also loved the atmosphere of the Paris friary. There, in the midst of his teaching, preaching, and defending, he was able to spend time in community prayer and in private meditation. He could consult the older brothers about thorny questions and help the younger brothers with their difficulties. The life suited Bonaventure perfectly, and he expected it to stay this way for many years. But as often happens, the Lord had other plans.
Into the Fray. Beyond Bonaventure’s quiet world, large and divisive issues were affecting the Church and the Franciscan order. As in our day, many people in the thirteenth century were sure that the end of the world was just around the corner. Some spoke of a new age dawning, an age of the Spirit, when the visible structures of the Church would disappear and “spiritual” leaders would be raised up. For these people, St. Francis—with his radical way of living gospel values—was a sign that this upheaval was going to happen soon. Even among some of the Franciscans, there was talk that the friars might provide this leadership and replace the Church’s hierarchy.
Because he seemed sympathetic to these controversial and sometimes heretical ideas, the head of the Franciscans, John of Parma, was asked to resign his post. A holy man, he agreed to step down for the good of the order. And when asked to suggest a replacement, he put forward only one name: Bonaventure. His suggestion was accepted immediately. Since the election took place in Rome, however, it was probably a month before the news reached Paris. Imagine Bonaventure’s surprise when he asked the messengers who had traveled from Rome, “Who is our new minister general?” and heard, “You are!”
When he received the news, Bonaventure had just been officially recognized as a doctor and master at the University of Paris. It was an important position—a mark of his skill as a teacher and theologian. To leave this quiet academic life where he had excelled would mean stepping into a job for which he felt ill equipped. He would be the chief administrator and guide for what had become a massive institution, for in the thirty years since Francis’ death, the order had grown to include thirty thousand friars throughout Europe and beyond.
Bonaventure toyed with the idea of turning down this weighty role, but in prayer he sensed that his election was God’s will. He told the friars, “I have decided to shoulder this nearly intolerable burden, trusting in the strength of the Almighty and relying on your earnest support in carrying it.”
Panting for Peace. Being minister general proved daunting indeed. Bonaventure had to both encourage and correct the friars, some of whom were living saints, while others had lost their zeal and were scandalizing people with their insistent begging. He had to try to unite various factions among the friars. The trouble was, some thought him too strict, while others complained he wasn’t strict enough!
All this must have been a great strain. Bonaventure had always found God in the cloister and the classroom. Now he began asking himself, How can I find God in the turmoil of leadership and administration? Where is God in the trials of daily life?
By 1259, after only two years as minister general, an exhausted Bonaventure felt tempted to resign. As he later put it, his soul was “panting for peace.” Knowing that St. Francis had faced similar struggles, he decided to go on retreat at Mount La Verna, where Francis had received the stigmata. In that holy place, he would seek God’s help and guidance.
A Great and Burning Love. As Bonaventure prayed there, he experienced something of the burning love for Jesus crucified that had fired up St. Francis. He came to it by reflecting on the revolutionary consequences of the incarnation. Jesus walked this earth and shared our life. He experienced everything we experience except sin. This changes everything, even the way we view the created world! Francis had delighted in the sacredness of creation, which speaks of God. Looking around at the massive rocks and towering pines of La Verna, Bonaventure, too, rejoiced that our surroundings and everyday experiences can be helps, not obstacles, for the spiritual journey: “The universe itself serves as a ladder by which we can ascend to God.”
If the very rocks proclaim God’s presence, how much more should the creatures made in his image and likeness! Yet as Bonaventure had experienced, our fellow human beings so often bring us pain. Where is God’s presence in that?
Here also the Lord helped Bonaventure see things in a new way. Infinitely more than any of us, Jesus experienced the suffering caused by others. Though he could have fled, he embraced it out of love. Bonaventure saw that he was called to do likewise. Not by escaping his struggles would he find God, but by embracing the pain of conflict and difficult relationships, as well as other everyday challenges.
Of course, bringing together the love of God and a love for others requires a balance between reflection and action—as Bonaventure put it, finding time for “devout prayer” and “a holy life of care and compassion.” He took St. Francis as a model, observing that “like the heavenly spirits on Jacob’s ladder, Francis either ascended to God in contemplation or descended for his neighbor’s benefit.”
Mount La Verna was a turning point for Bonaventure. There he experienced the love of Christ in a new and deeper way—and that experience empowered him and brought him great peace. “There is no other way to find God but through the burning love of the Crucified,” he wrote later.
Open Your Eyes! Energized and at peace with his life and duties, Bonaventure lived another fifteen exceptionally fruitful years. He faced the same difficulties, the same criticisms and stresses, as before. They still tired him, but now he found in them a way to God. He walked all over Europe, praying with and visiting all the friars. He kept up his studying and writing and produced his most profound works, including a brilliant biography of St. Francis and a spiritual guide that has become a classic, The Soul’s Journey into God.
Would Bonaventure have been half as fruitful or holy if God had never called him out of his comfort zone? You have to wonder. For it was through his time of crisis and struggling that he came to his life-giving, life-changing discovery of Jesus at his side and God in all things.
So remember Bonaventure when you experience your own world turning upside down. A sudden career change, an unexpected move, or anything that leaves you disoriented and panting for peace—difficult and faith shaking as such experiences may be, they can lead to a deeper experience of the love of God, who made all things and gave us his only Son. “Open your eyes,” Bonaventure says, “alert your spiritual ears, unlock your lips, and apply your heart, so that in all creation you may see, hear, praise, love and adore, magnify, and honor your God.”
Fr. Robert Barbato is pastor of Old Mission Santa Inés, Solvang, California.