the raging fire

July 15, Bonaventure: “The raging fire of intense fervor and glowing love”


There are two themes from the legacy of Saint Bonaventure that I want to explore briefly, and both of them are somehow able to hold the tension between seemingly disparate strains of thought––a kind of “both/and.”

The first one was Bonaventure’s argument against the so-called “spiritual Franciscans.” These are the friars who thought that Saint Francis had issued in a new totally period of history with a new monasticism that went beyond the revelation of the New Testament. Bonaventure of course argued both that there was no gospel loftier than the gospel of Jesus, and that the Franciscan order belonged to the Church. But at the same time his famous phrase was opera Christi non deficient sed proficient––“the work of Christ does not go backward but progresses.” There can be and was a tendency to think that Christ is the end of history, and one could get that impression even from the Fathers of the Church. But for Bonaventure Christ is instead the center of history, not the end; the Christ event has indeed begun a new period of history but it is still in continuity with what has gone before. This also implied that there could be growth in doctrine and growth in understanding the faith beyond the patristic era, as perennial as the teaching that comes out of that era will always be. Even though there is no gospel loftier than the gospel of Jesus, and the Franciscan order still belonged to the Church, Bonaventure saw how Saint Francis made it especially evident that there could be newness and renewal, both continuity and renewal.

This is an exciting and salient idea for many reasons in our own day and age. First there is the “new monasticism” that is being spoken about and experimented with all around the globe. We have been in good dialogue with folks from this movement. They bring us a marvelous excitement and zeal; perhaps our job is to remind them of the continuity. Then there is the call for a new evangelization that started with Pope Saint John Paul and continued with Benedict and Francis, calling for the gospel to be proclaimed with “a new ardor, new methods, and new expressions.” And especially call to mind the “new cosmology” that so many are talking about, looking back to Bonaventure as a kind of patron saint. And overall, this implies that there is a forward movement to history in general. No wonder that Franciscan theologians like Ilia Delio are so entranced with Teilhard and a kind of what detractors call an “evolutionary optimism,” but which I see more as an evolutionary hope, the hope that gets us up in the morning. This is all going somewhere, and going somewhere good.

And secondly, there is a theme from that famous reading that we hear every year on the feast of Saint Bonaventure (that I never tire of!) from his famous work called The Journey of the Mind to God. Saint Bonaventure was obviously a towering intellect before and after his entrance into the Franciscans. But his intellect is… I don’t want to say “tempered” by or “attenuated” by something else; I’d rather say that his intellect was part of something else, part of a greater spectrum of consciousness, an ecosystem that included mysticism and love (if we could even consider those two different things). Bonaventure was keenly interested in and influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, the 6th century Syrian mystical theologian who gives us the vocabulary for Christian apophatic theology. (As kataphatic as Francis was, with his emphasis n the human Jesus in his birth and death, it is notable that Bonaventure would be so taken with this apophatic theology.) According to Dionysius, in the journey into God we reach a point where the intellect can no longer see, a point of darkness. That’s why we call it the via negativa. But “in the night of the intellect, love still sees.” Love can see what reason can’t access because love “goes beyond reason; it sees further; it enters more profoundly into God’s mystery.”[1]

Bonaventure was very fond of this line of thinking about spirituality. That’s where we get those famous lines from the end of the Itinerarium Mentis:

Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of will, not in understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the Bridegroom, not the Teacher; … darkness, not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. …

How apt and fortuitous it is then to have this gospel reading today (Mt 11:25-27): ‘…although you have hidden these things from the learned and the wise, you have revealed them to the childlike.’ Could we respectfully change that to ‘you have revealed them to those who have this raging fire, this intense fervor and glowing love’? Also fortuitous to have heard the reading from Exodus 3 (1-6, 9-12) on this feast too, the story of the burning bush which Moses saw unconsumed by the flame. That’s it, that’s the raging fire for which we are meant to be vessels, like that bush.

And here is where it ties in with an evolutionary way of thinking: one of this is anti-intellectual or anti-rational, and certainly not anti-human and anti-creation. The great law of evolution and the great economy of the resurrection are one and the same: nothing is ever left behind, not our humanity, not our intellect. We always transcend and include, include everything as we transcend it, in the raging fire of intense fervor and glowing love.

[1] Pope Benedict, Great Christian Thinkers, 268.

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