Saint Bonaventure and Finding Joy in Relationship With God

How can our relationship with God bring joy? St Bonaventure, a 13th-century Franciscan, believed that it was important that we use our emotions to have an intense relationship with God, which would, in turn, deepen our joy.

The following blog is an extract from Living Fruitfully: Joy by Mgr Paul Grogan.

A great mystic of the Middle Ages was the renowned Franciscan theologian St Bonaventure (1221-1274). Like St Bernard a century before, St Bonaventure stressed the importance of the emotions in our search for God. He became master of the Franciscan school at Paris, was elected minister general of his order and then a cardinal. He played a key role in the 1274 Council of Lyons which sought to reunite the Churches of the East and the West. His theology was shot through with spiritual teaching. He famously described the “three ways” followed by those who seek God, ending with the third way: union with God, which leads to the “sweetness of love”. He was declared a Doctor of the Church. The following address to a “devout soul” is a good example of his approach:

Thus do thou distinguish the steps that lead to the way of union:
Let vigilance make thee attentive,
for the Bridegroom passeth swiftly;
let confidence make thee strong,
for he cometh without fail;
let desire enkindle thee,
for he is sweet;
let fervour raise thee up,
for he is sublime;
let delight in him give thee repose,
for he is beautiful;
let joy inebriate thee,
for he is the fullness of love;
let attachment unite thee to him,
for his love is full of power.
And mayest thou ever, O devout soul,
say to the Lord with all thy heart:
I seek thee,
I hope for thee,
I desire thee,
I raise myself up toward thee,
I lay hold on thee,
I exult in thee,
At last I cleave to thee.

St Bonaventure impresses upon us the need to be “attentive” to Jesus’s presence, by implication like the sensible virgins as they awaited the return of the bridegroom in Jesus’s parable (Mt 25:1-13). Intimacy with Jesus involves waiting in keen anticipation for his Second Coming. We can be “confident” in our relationship with Jesus because we know that he will not let us down. Through our intimacy with him we will experience the “fullness of love”.

To convey what this is like, St Bonaventure uses the image of marriage. The soul is seen as feminine and Jesus as the Bridegroom. We “get drunk on joy”. Here we think of Jesus’s revelation of his power at the wedding feast of Cana. He changed vast quantities of water into wine. At that moment he was looking forward to the Eucharist, the banquet of God’s love. He was also looking forward to the Marriage Feast in heaven when the divine Bridegroom will consummate his love with his Bride, the Church. This passage shows us how intense our love of Jesus can be. And it indicates that the more intense our love for him, the more exquisite will be our joy in “cleaving” to him.

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This blog is an extract from Living Fruitfully: Joy

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