A Retreat With Saint Bonaventure

My little cabin in the "woods"

My little cabin in the “woods”

This past weekend I left the world for a while. Like hermitage retreats in the past (one during postulancy and two during novitiate) I disconnected from technology, quieted my life, and spent the weekend in prayer and reflection. Unlike previous hermitage weekends, I did this one entirely on my own. No one was there to find the location or pay for the cabin (although they would have); no one was there to tell me when to leave or when to get up for prayer; no one was there to cook for me or clean up when I was done. In reality, no one told me that I had to go on a personal retreat in the first place; this one was entirely on my own initiative. And what an experience that was.

Don’t get me wrong: I love community life and have no desire to live the life of a hermit. But given the nature of formation so far, being “encouraged” to try this and that, being carted off on one trip after another, being thrown into classes, workshops, discussions, and faith sharing sessions on a regular basis, there is something positively fulfilling and extraordinarily liberating about taking control of my own formation. There was a sense of ownership in this retreat, having spent my own money; a sense of intentionality in choosing to go do something beyond requirements; a sense of confirmation in my own vocation after such a personal, intimate experience.

What, then, does one temporary professed Franciscan friar do with such liberation? I spent the weekend with one of the great doctors of the Church, St. Bonaventure. Living shortly after the time of Francis, Bonaventure acted for as the Minister General (world leader) of the Franciscans before becoming a Cardinal, and represents the beginning of the vast Franciscan intellectual tradition that largely shaped the high middle ages. Despite all of this, I knew very little about him or his theology prior to this weekend, and decided that he could be my guide.

In some ways, it definitely felt a lot like studying for my philosophy and theology courses at Catholic University given the difficulty of some of his works and the incredible intellect that he packs into each page. The difference was, unlike studying for school, I was able to spend as much time as I needed with each concept because I had no overall “objective” to complete other than to pray in the way of someone gone before me. When something troubled me, I took time to pray about it, to think deeply about its implications before moving on. When something appeared not to produce spiritual fruit, I moved on to something else, not worrying that I was missing something that might be on a test.

Space certainly does not allow for me to explain all of these concepts that tied my brain in a knot, nor do I feel like I even have a good enough grasp of his spirituality to even try, but I would like to offer two points of particular importance. (I realize that this is not for a general audience, but there is an aspect of my nurturing my own understanding in attempting to express it. I completely understand if you choose to stop reading at this point. In some ways I actually recommend it!)

The first is the way in which Bonaventure viewed the Trinity. One of the great detriments I’m finding with common spirituality is that we often talk about and pray to “God,” a homogenous, single-faceted being. In our Christian tradition, however, God consists of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unlike many others in the west that wondered how one God could be three persons, Bonaventure focused on the individuality of the three persons and asked how they could be one. These are two sides of the same coin for sure, but the nuance here is significant. That difference, as I understand it, is twofold: it emphasizes union over division (how to come together rather than split apart) and it calls the believer to a particular focus on each facet of God’s greatest, even a particular relationship with each person. God is at once father, brother, and spouse; each a different person, each requiring a different response. (This is something worth taking to prayer.)

There is quite obviously a flaw to this analogy, as in the case of all analogies: God is not male and so cannot be “Father,” “brother,” or “Son,” in the complete sense that we understand these terms. The point is the relationship, one of begetting or giving birth to another, followed by emanation. In less human terms, Bonaventure uses the analogy of speech: one is the speaker, one is the word being spoken, and one is the diffusion of that speech or the rhetoric. Which is first? Which is most important? Which actually creates, redeems, or sanctifies? Well, all of them, really. Clearly one cannot be speaking without the word spoken, which naturally diffuses, and the word cannot be spoken or diffused without a speaker. They are all simultaneous and yet distinct, individually incomplete and yet each containing the fullness of God.

If you think you’re still with me, here’s an excerpt from “The Journey of the Mind to God” in which he contemplates the mystery of the Trinity, the conundrums of the relationship:

You wonder how communicability can be found together with self-containment, consubstantiality with plurality, alikeness with distinct personality, coequality with sequence, coeternity with begetting, mutual indwelling with emission… For in Christ there is personal union together with trinity of substance and duality of nature; there is full accord coexisting with plurality of wills, joint predication of God and man with plurality of properties, joint adoration with plurality of rank, joint exaltation with plurality of eminence, and joint dominion with plurality of powers. (Chapter 6)

This presents itself with a very interesting question: if Jesus is “begotten” of the Father, the Word spoken of the first, uncreated, unmoved, always existing speaker, when did this happen (keep in mind that the Church believes Jesus to be coeternal with the Father)? The only possible answer to this question is that it has always been happening. The very nature of the first person of the Trinity is to create, to beget from itself; for this to be true, the first person must have always been begetting the second person, forever being disseminated in the third person. There can never be a moment in which God the Father is not creating through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, past, present, or future.

The key to this whole discussion is that Bonaventure believes God’s very nature to be creative and diffusive Love. Pure, perfect love cannot help but to beget of itself something to be loved, and can only be perfected if it has someone to share it with. To say that God is love is not just some hallmark catchphrase but a highly Trinitarian theology: God is by God’s very nature self-contained overflowing love (sit with that one for a little while).

Thus, Creation is but an outpouring of that very nature, a model for the Trinity itself. Isaiah provides the perfect image of this Franciscan understanding:

Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it. (55:10-11)

The Creation of the world was an act of God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, and outpouring of God’s very nature to create, diffuse, and return. Self-contained overflowing love. As created being ourselves, we are taking part in this outpouring of God, this emanation of Love; we ourselves are an outpouring of this Love that must return to God one day.

If you made it this far, I thank and commend you, and hope that it may be inspiration for your own prayer as it has been for mine. I do not suggest quoting anything I have said as it is a humble friar’s first encounter with Bonaventure and no doubt lacks precision in language.

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3 Comments on “A Retreat With Saint Bonaventure

  1. So enjoy your blog, and admire and love your heart for God. Resonate with your search for a habit of gladness 🙂 Really relate to the enduring, profound, social need for the charism of St Francis and Clare to be visible in the world. I live in Australia (after growing up in Nova Scotia, Canada), and because Australia was founded during the Enlightenment, she is more secular in design and culture even than North America. Here I see the near complete absence of God in culture and life, where in the academe, work, and commerce words like ‘blessing’ are unwelcome because they suggest a religious/Christian message. All my life I lived with the sadness of the closing of nearly all religious communities in the rural areas of the world where I have lived. You give me hope, and let us pray together dear brother, that we of the X-Gen and beyond will pick up the pieces left by Vatican II reforms and will manifest in society new forms of spiritual passion and render the secular world sacred once again. Only the youth and people of today can accomplish this amazing, wonderful, powerful calling of God. God and the people need you to wear your habit. This is your sign and symbol of his saving work. Cut in the form of the Cross of Jesus Christ. A living, transcultural, profoundly western Christian, ancient sign of God’s in-breaking love and manifest beauty. Bless you dear brother.

  2. Dear Brother, in deep humility allow me to offer an insight, “…one is the speaker, one is the word being spoken, and one is the diffusion of that speech,” is indeed a worthy experience on your part. Notice I shed the tiny lamp of prayer on your *experience*, and note with a certain glee that this happened in a Franciscan hermitage 🙂 My insight comes from an experience from many years ago… 1989 in fact, during an overnight vigil in the Tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem, made possible by Fr Peter Vasko OFM, of the Commissariat of the Holy Land Franciscans. Note that I was a young man then, prior to the final year of my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, where I focused much of my independent courses on Franciscan spirituality, much like you are doing now. Also, imagine, I was a young man, a boy, from rural Nova Scotia, Canada. I had rarely traveled (although I did go on a month long Franciscan Study Pilgrimage, with Fr Murray Bodo and others, in 1987). When the officials closed the massive doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the afternoon, I was locked inside all night until someone opened the fortress doors in the morning. What an experience… Very daunting… Yet totally incredible, gifted, and full of the grace of the Holy Spirit. To be in that place once during my lifetime. Wow.

    While like any young man, I explored the different locations within that mega-structure, which as you know, include the place of Mount Calvary, and caves where pilgrims and saints have come to pray in (hermitical) solitude since the very first generation within the family of Mary of Nazareth and all Jesus disciples, my main focus was being drawn to kneel in the Tomb of Jesus most of the night. My heart felt his simple devotion: Who could possibly ever wish, or dream, of spending only one night in the Tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ? Who would not wish to kneel there on the cold, foreboding stone, in silent (hermitical) prayer and communion with the Risen Jesus, praying for the world, consecrating the world to his Sacred Heart – that one and only Heart who carried the capacity to endure every energy of sin and suffering, of loneliness and sorrow, of grief and loss, and of every absence of God the Father of Love and Kindness… Jesus who died, and spent three days, 72 hours, in the absolute darkness of despair and the vacuum of nothingness where spirits fall and become trapped by their mistakes and false hopes and loss of awareness of God’s love.

    Well, God gave me about 12 hours that night. A gift from the Friars of the Holy Land, who had to get special dispensation from the guardians of the site, who included the Eastern, Russian, and other Orthodox rites.

    There was only one request on my heart. When I knelt in prayer, with my simple wooded Franciscan Crown rosary dangling in my trembling hands, my prayer to God the Father was this: Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and with our Mother’s blessing and protection, please give me one tiny and simple experience and knowing about what does the resurrection mean. This mystery has always eluded me. Yet in my prayer this seems to be the most important, most powerful, and most significant event in all of time and eternity, in all space and in all temporal reality, the single most transforming event – yet we people know nothing about what this means, what it means to feel in our bodies the resurrection of Jesus. We are blind. I am blind. Help me, Father, to see…

    Then the rest of the night was like a desert for me. Oh my, it was so lonely. I was terrified by my fears that raged in my heart like massive climbing weeds, and crashing waves like the ones that pulled children out to sea and drowned them – something every Nova Scotian child is very well aware of and that happens from time to time when you get too close to the power of mother ocean. It seemed like the shadows of the Holy site taunted me. It felt like my mouth would fall off my face, it was so dry. This was beyond my feeble upbringing as a child of the baby boomers, lulled by the generous providence of my father and mother’s hard work to pull us from poverty and make our family part of the middle class.

    It was late in the morning, likely close to third watch. I don’t know what time, as I did not keep a time piece with me, I had imagined it might distract me too much. The night had become quiet. My heart had faced whatever demons were to be faced that night. And my knees were so sore from kneeling on the cold stone, I could no longer feel them under me. It felt like my body was suspended in time and place. I just waited. There was no book to read. No fire to tend. No gadget to press with a finger (there wasn’t many of them back in the 80s! lol). There was not even my rosary – I had gently placed it aside. My hands were empty. My eyes filled with tears waiting to fall. But it seemed like they would never fall, like the darkness would just go on forever.

    It was then, in a sudden flash of light, unexpected. Caught me off guard. My silent mind recoiled as if I was slapped in the face. My head flew back and my back hit the inner wall of the Tomb. Thrown off my knees, I lay there, trying to get my bearings. The moment happened all in one instant. Suddenly I felt an energy moving through me while I saw time pass before me like a huge wave, a grand illusion, and yet so terribly sacred and loved, so tender was that feeling it broke apart my life and, I am sure, over the years since, has gently and firmly changed me.

    From the beginning of time all of history passed in front of me. It felt like I was witnessing something amazing, and yet was a small, a tiny part of all of time, as if time was part of the fabric of my spirit. But that idea, while it came later, could not contain the humbling blow that only God the Father’s love sees such a vision and knows such a relationship of enduring love with every moment and every place from the beginning of the cosmos to the end of time.

    In the same one flash, my life then passed before me. I saw the days when my parents were praying for a son, they had waited for five long years after my last sister had been born. As if from another place, I saw the moment of my conception. Then my mother giving birth. Then my life speeding before my eyes. Then beyond the moment when I was in the Tomb, to all the future and all life ahead, clear as day, to the day of judgement. My head was so overwhelmed. My heart was so in shock, perhaps it had stopped between beats, or faced so fast I was no longer aware of having a body. Only later did I realise that my eyes were streaming tears, my mouth gaped open, body limp like a rag doll.

    Then a silence. Like the expanse of space. A void so vast, that all the cosmos was but a speck of dust in the Father’s mighty hand.

    It came to me then, only after the experience. So very simple.

    Jesus resurrection was indeed a sacrificial moment in the temporal and place-based order of nature. I was kneeling in the very spot where God the Father had reached into the darkness, and raised Jesus from the dead. In that moment, the Father’s love through Jesus rising like the morning sun, cast a wave of energy and power, love and redemption, embrace and renewal, truth and justice, in a fullness of mercy, in forgiveness and kindness beyond measure, across every tiny moment from beyond the day of creation until beyond when eternity is forever.

    During this Holy Week, I remember in humility that vision that changed me. It so disturbed me that I rarely if ever spoke about it. No one knew all these years the nature of that night. But the simplicity of it goes back to your words. If we really consider the nature of the resurrection of Jesus we will suddenly realise that without that moment of Jesus embodiment, of his passion, death and rising from the dead, we would not have the Father’s saving grace made manifest across all time and place. Nature would still be yearning. The nation of Israel would still be hungry for the saviour to wake them from their sleep. We would not be Christians at all without the resurrection. The Holy Eucharist would not be the Body and Blood of Jesus manifest across all time and every place, around the whole world, because that pascal mystery relies completely on the one moment when the Father’s love touched the Sacred Heart of Jesus with life giving energy so that His Heart Would Never Thirst Again. We often think as Catholics that the Eucharistic Miracle began during the Last Supper. Surely this is true! Surely in fullness! Yes, indeed profoundly true. Yet with humility and grace, we can also see in the fulness of God’s love, how the Eucharistic Feast became activated only in that very moment when Jesus body came to life once again, when death had been no more, when death itself was vanquished. In that moment the power and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic Feast was made possible – hence we see an appreciation and a meaning as to why Jesus later appeared in flesh, to his disciples, during the breaking of the bread, along the roadside when they least expected him to supper with them.

    Your insight is very astute. “…one is the speaker, one is the word being spoken, and one is the diffusion of that speech…” If not for that which came last, the former could never be. Everything in salvation history relies on the resurrection. Within what comes last is the fullness of all time. This is why no other prophet or teacher can claim to be the Son of God. This is why relativism and materialism as philosophies in the west are so very wrong and dangerous to faith. In the objective truth our Roman Catholic Church proposes, Jesus is the only sure path.

    Let us pray. In the silence of our hermitage, dear Lord, Most High, Saviour of the world, Giver of light and freedom, Maker of night and of daybreak, we carry the hermitage of our hearts to Your Sacred Heart. Break into our lives. Pour out your grace and mercy on your children, especially those in most need of your mercy. During Holy Week 2014, we consecrate the secular world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We consecrate our daily world to the Eucharistic Feast of the Resurrection. Lord Most High, grant that the habit of Lady Poverty will once again be seen and felt, in all holiness and in every service to the poor and the forgotten in society, especially in rural places where no consecrated religious souls remain to uplift your people. Pour forth the power of your victory, now and forever. Amen

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