On Bonaventure & Aquinas

October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. One of the more “famous” Franciscans was St. Bonaventure, although I have to use quotation marks because outside of the Franciscans a lot of people don’t know the guy. But he has a very important link just not within the Franciscans, but the Catholic Church and the world as a whole. I find his story fascinating, which is why today I feel like sharing it.

You see, way back a few centuries ago St. Thomas Aquinas started working on “Summa Theologica”. Pretty much everyone knows about Thomas. He’s known as the “Angelic Doctor”, he is studied in most philosophy classes at universities, and to this day Thomism is promoted in several seminaries. When it comes to philosophy, the man has few peers. The Summa was his life’s work, and he worked day and night to get it finished. He didn’t quite do it all by himself though, for a portion of it he had a hand.

Aquinas and Bonaventure were friends. And not just friends, but also co-workers. And within the workplace, they were peers and equals. As far as intellect and philosophy, they were both the best of their era. And there they were, teaching at the same place. As a result both worked on the Summa together, throwing ideas around. What is remarkable about this is the two schools of thought they had, although similar, were still different. As a result, they helped each other grow.

Primarily, Aquinas’ thought process was “faith through reason, which leads to love”. He began with an idea, developed it, then the heart is moved by truth. As a result he would have an idea, and work through it using reason, eventually leading to love. Bonaventure, however, had the process of “faith through love, leading to reason”. That is to say that he began with a movement of the heart and then proceed to use reason to explain what has happened. Bonaventure’s outlook changed Thomas as life went on, and you see that in the latter’s later writings (the infamous “staw, straw, it’s nothing but straw!” quote). We see Aquinas begin to become more introspective, with silent contemplation. More symbolic writing, more along the lines of mystical than systematic.

Within mendicant circles, we see this often, these two thought processes. Dominicans are apt to follow Aquinas (as he was a Dominicans), and Franciscans obviously study the Franciscan masters (of whom Bonaventure is one of them). Both schools have merit, and which school one follows it depends on how one approaches things and how their minds work. And that isn’t to say these are the only two schools, but lets be honest; Aquinas is taught everywhere, and Bonaventure is taught to 1.3 million Franciscans every year. Personally, I see myself as a student of Bonaventure not just due to my devotion to Holy Father Francis, but because the way he reaches conclusions is the way I try to do so as well. My heart inspires me, I get ideas from it, and I flesh out those ideas through prayer and contemplation, and they eventually lead me to reason.

Their story concludes in the following fashion; Bonaventure, being the head of the Franciscan Order at the time, could be told what to do by the group that elected him. This is despite that Bonaventure had authority over the entire Order, including the individuals on said group. The group decided that he needed to be recalled to write the definitive biography of St. Francis, as the witnesses who knew of Francis were all getting old. The Order wanted a complete biography of their Father. So Bonaventure, without raising a fuss, packed his bags and went back and worked on said biography. He spent the rest of his life working on that, and peeling potatoes on kitchen detail. This while being in charge of the entire Order! But the group that voted him to be in charge had a collective authority over him, so he obeyed.

Obedience. These days a foreign concept. It used to be a foreign concept to me. One of these days I will discuss how holy obedience works within the mendicant lifestyle, and how I live it out in my life. But if you need an example right now, look no further than Bonaventure.

Anyway, Aquinas did finish the Summa, on his own. Bonaventure wound up writing a mini-Summa, plus a biography.

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