St. Bonaventure is Exalted for Humility, Holiness and Brilliance

“Just as the waters crowd into the valleys, so the graces of the Holy Spirit fill the humble.”

Claude François (Frère Luc), “Saint Bonaventure,” c. 1655
Claude François (Frère Luc), “Saint Bonaventure,” c. 1655 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Bonaventure reached heights of spiritual, intellectual and ecclesial achievement as one of the greatest saints of the Middle Ages, but he always remained firmly grounded in humility.

St. Bonaventure was likely born in 1217 in Cività di Bagnoregio, north of Rome. He was named Giovanni after his father and it’s unclear how he came to be known as Bonaventure, which means ‘good fortune.’

As a small child, St. Bonaventure was cured of a serious illness through the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi, which possibly influenced his decision to become a Franciscan.

While studying in Paris, St. Bonaventure met another humble religious destined for greatness: St. Thomas Aquinas. Over the course of seven years the two scholars formed a deep friendship.

“For a parallel friendship one must go back to the days of David,” wrote Dominican Father Placid Conway, in Saint Thomas Aquinas of the Order of Preachers (1225-1274): A Biographical Study of the Angelic Doctor. “And it came to pass…the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 19:1)

One day St. Thomas and a companion found St. Bonaventure in his cell writing the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Rather than interrupting his work, St. Thomas said of his Franciscan friend, “Let us leave a saint to write about a saint.”

It is believed that Sts. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas received doctorates on the same day.

Like St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure became one of the greatest thinkers of his time, writing many important philosophical and theological works.

He is known as the Seraphic Doctor because of his deep and ardent love for God. His motto was: “I do not wish to know Thee, except to love Thee,” and “I shall study Thee solely to love Thee!”

Bonaventure also served during challenging times as minister general of his order, the Friars Minor (Franciscans). He also assisted with a papal election and helped prepare for an ecumenical council, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

In 1265 he was nominated to be archbishop of York but firmly declined the honor.

About eight years later, another pope, Gregory X, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and St. Bonaventure was created cardinal-bishop of Albano, Italy. According to tradition, St. Bonaventure was washing dishes outside a convent near Florence when papal envoys arrived with his cardinal’s hat. He asked them to hang the hat on a nearby tree until he finished the dishes.

St. Bonaventure also taught others the humility he practiced personally. In his “Holiness of Life,” a work written for Poor Clare nuns, he describes the virtues that make for religious perfection.

Humility is the foundation of all virtue, just as pride is the beginning of all sin, he wrote. “Without [humility] not only is there no virtue, but that which might have been virtue is vitiated and turns to pride.”

St. Bonaventure advised that those seeking to become perfectly humble need to:

  • Attribute all their good works to God and not themselves;
  • Remember Christ’s humility which left most people during his time unable to form a correct judgment of him or believe he was God; and finally
  • Know themselves well. “Consider then whence you come,” St. Bonaventure wrote, “and take it to heart that you are the slime of the earth. You have wallowed in sin and are an exile from the happy kingdom of Heaven. Thoughts such as these will quell the spirit of pride and drive it away somewhat.”

Unlike pride, humility softens God’s anger and prepares us for his grace, the saint wrote. Patience tests and perfects humility.

The Seraphic Doctor died in 1274, possibly the victim of poisoning. St. Bonaventure’s own humility provides an example of the relationship he wrote about between that virtue and grace:

“Just as the waters crowd into the valleys, so the graces of the Holy Spirit fill the humble. And to continue the comparison, just as the greater the incline the quicker the water flows, so the more the heart bends under humility, the nearer we are to God.”

This article originally appeared July 15, 2019, at the Register.