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.