St. Bonaventure Explains How Poor Little Nobodies Can Become Great Saints in Heaven

Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Bonaventure's Body Lying in State,” 1629
Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Bonaventure's Body Lying in State,” 1629 (photo: Public Domain)

This past September, some of the seminarians had the opportunity to spend time in Assisi. At the risk of sounding like a blasphemer, Franciscan spirituality, at least as I understand it, has never particularly appealed to me. The Franciscan about whom I speak is St. Bonaventure, and the opening line of the 8th chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, verse one: 

Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.
If anyone supposes he knows something,
he does not yet know as he ought to know.
But if one loves God, one is known by him.

I ask for a moment you to think about St. Bonaventure — a young man from Bagnoregio here in Italy sent at a young age to the University of Paris, where he falls under the influence of his favorite professor there, the Franciscan Alexander of Hales. So impressed is he by this man, not only due to his intellect, but more so by his commitment to holiness, that young Giovanni joins this radical mendicant life and becomes Brother Bonaventure. 

Bonaventure enters into religious life at a time where there is great division — at his University of Paris between diocesan and religious priests, and even within his own order, between those friars who wanted to follow their founder, Francis, and live exactly as he did and those members who wished to bring that gift of Francis’ charism into other apostolates, including that of the intellectual life.

Bonaventure, as you might know, becomes the seventh Minister General of his order and is actively involved in theological study, writings, and in Church administration. A contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure becomes a learned and major factor in the scholasticism of his day. He is sought after for theological advice by popes and prelates, becoming a major player in Church councils, eventually becoming a cardinal himself.

Yet, because of his study and his promotion of the study of theology in his order, some of his confreres stated: “Paris, Paris, why do you destroy the Order of Saint Francis?” This pains Bonaventure beyond belief and he goes to Mount LaVerna to pray and to be in solitude, to somehow find a way to be a man of knowledge and a man of St. Francis, a man of humility. It is there that he writes his work, The Journey into the Mind of God. This is kind of like his version of Aquinas’ “all is straw” moment. Bonaventure comes down that mountain a changed man.

Before he died, one of his friars approached him and asked if only the learned could become saints. Bonaventure said, “If God gives one only the grace of love, that is enough.”

The other friar pressed on: “So a dunce can love God as much as a doctor?” to which Bonaventure declared, “A poor little old woman can love God even more than a doctor of theology.” This delighted the other friar who screamed: “Poor little old woman! Plain and ignorant as you are, love the Lord God and you can become greater than even Brother Bonaventure.”

Priests and future priests are called to be professionals, to be trained as theologians, even if we will never formally teach, because by our ordination, we are tied to the munus docendi, the teaching office, of our bishops. But, even with all our studies, we all must come to the conclusion that ultimately, as Aquinas tells us, “All is straw.” Humility before the Gracious Mystery in all aspects of our lives is the only way to approach our Christian life, especially for priests and seminarians. Our task is to move from knowledge to wisdom and that can only be done with, through, and in Christ Jesus. Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.

This article originally appeared March 26, 2021, at the Register