St. Bonaventure and Creation Fr. Seán McDonagh,SSC (March 19th 2008)

St. Bonaventure, who was born in Bagnorea in Tuscany in 1221, gave theological underpinning to St. Francis’s teaching on creation.  At the age of 22 he entered the Franciscans.  Immediately after taking his vows he was sent to the University of Paris, the most prestigeous university in Medieval Europe. There he studied under Alexander of Hales, who was also a Franciscan.  This is an indication of the distance that the Franciscans had come in a single generation that, from beginning as a small group of  wandering  preachers,  they were now serious scholars at the University of Paris.  While at Paris Bonaventure became frieds with St. Thomas Aquinas and also enjoyed the friendship of the King, St. Louis.

At the age of thirty-five, he was chosen as General of the Franciscan Order.   Because of his learning and diplomacy he restored calm to the order which had been disturbed by internal dissensions. The starting point for Bonaventure’s theology, including his theology of creation, is the love which marks the life of the Trinity.  According to Bonaventure, creation shares in a real, but limited way, in the mystery of the generation of the Word from the Father.  He uses the Latin word, emanatio, or emanation to capture the notion of creation being born from the womb of the Triune God of love.

For many authors, classical and modern, creation is often seen merely as the stage on which human history unfolds; in, and of itself, it is not important. It only achieves any significance because it is the backdrop for individual or collective human action. Bonaventure does not share this myopic view. Creation spills forth from the divine community of love and, therefore, has its own inherent value.  All of creation, from the sea, to the rocks, the trees, the animals and birds are related to the Trinity.  Since creation manifests the glory of God, it follows that creation can lead people to know God and praise His wonderful gift.  In other words creation has a sacramental role, as everything in the universe is a sign of God’s presence.

Bonaventure uses the analogy of a stained glass window to illustrate the ability of each creature to teach us something special about God. On the outside, the light is perceived as having the same colour, but once it hits the variously coloured panes in the window, the light is refracted into different hues and colours.  In the same way, every species and creature gives us a unique understanding of the Divine reality.  Bonaventure tells us that this is the way Francis saw the world. He saw every creature in the world as a mirror of God’s presence, and, if approached correctly, a step leading to God. In his life of St. Francis, Bonaventure wrote;  in beautiful things he saw Beauty itself and through his vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace him who is utterly desirable. Bonaventure is adamant that for both Francis and himself, the world is beautiful and a sacrament of God, precisely because God became human in the person of Jesus.  In other words, the Incarnation is central to the Franciscan understanding of everything, including the cosmos.  Francis was not a nature-mystic who happened also to be a Christian. It is, precisely, because of Francis’s love for Jesus in his humanity that humans and every other creature takes on such positive meaning.  Every creature spoke to Francis of the love of God which found its ultimate expression in the face of Christ. According to Bonaventure, creation became a ladder to ascend so that he could embrace “him who is utterly desirable.”

Focusing on the wider creation does not mean that Bonaventure dos not see a special role for humans.  The Franciscan theologian Sister Ilia Delio writes that” a world that manifested the glory of God but did not include some creature able to perceive and revel in that glory would make little sense. … But, indeed, this is not the case. Rather, God freely creates a glorious universe and calls forth with the universe, humans persons who are endowed with the freedom to participate in this divine artistic splendour.” But this cries out for a moral response.  Humans are called to be bringers of peace and reconciliation to all creation, in imitation of what Jesus himself did for all.  They are called to love God, each other and all creation.  This means that we avoid exploiting or disfiguring creation.

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