Way Back to God

With the recent release of the paperback edition of Way Back to God by Douglas Dales, we thought we’d share with you a little of what its all about. Douglas Dales has published many books titles with us about St Bonaventure, and this latest volume does not disappoint. Way Back to God is a comprehensive conspectus and study of how Bonaventure taught Christian theology and applied it to spiritual life. Here is a taster from the introduction.

From ‘Introduction’, Way Back to God (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co Ltd, 2019), pp. 1-3. Paperback edition now available.

St Bonaventure was born around the year 1217 in Bagnoregio, which is near Orvieto in Italy. He was educated at the University of Paris, where he also taught alongside his friend, St Thomas Aquinas, for some years until 1257 when he was made Minister General of the Franciscans. This engaged him in a relentless labour of teaching and preaching, travelling on foot across the length and breadth of Europe to supervise the growing Franciscan movement. His commitment to this vocation prevented him from accepting the post of Archbishop of York in 1265, but in 1273 he was commanded by Pope Gregory X to become a cardinal and bishop. Bonaventure joined the pope at the second Council of Lyons, where he died on 15th July 1274.

As the leader of the Franciscans during a difficult period in their history, Bonaventure was regarded by many as virtually the second founder of the movement. Certainly all that he taught and wrote was intended to put the memory and legacy of Francis of Assisi on a firm biblical and doctrinal footing. Bonaventure was also concerned to raise the standards of learning and preaching among the Franciscans, in order to advance the mission of the gospel and also to protect the growing movement from criticism. He brought all his expertise and experience as an academic teacher of theology in Paris to bear upon the formation and nurture of those now in his pastoral care.

Bonaventure was unusual in that his mind was both sharply analytical and eloquently poetic in its expression. He also had a formidable memory, especially of Scripture, and there is nothing that he teaches that is not rooted in the Bible. He distilled the wisdom of many who had gone before him, both his immediate mentors in Paris, and the great teachers of the Western Church, beginning with Augustine, whose theology was the paramount influence on Bonaventure’s own. Many rich strands of teaching flow like tributaries into Bonaventure’s thought, notably that of Gregory the Great, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Victorine theologians; also the writings of Dionysius, recently translated afresh into Latin, which exercised a distinctive influence on how Bonaventure structured his thought. To some extent, therefore, he was conveying the wealth of this spiritual tradition to his Franciscan hearers; but at the same time he was transposing and transforming it, as the detailed references in the Latin edition of his writings, and also in the new English translations, make clear. Bonaventure was in every way a brilliant communicator and this is most evident in the many sermons that he composed and circulated as models for use in Franciscan preaching and ministry, and also in his masterly and extensive Commentary on St Luke’s Gospel.

Bonaventure is the most consistently Christ-centred of theologians, and the spiritual goal of Christian theology is never out of his sight. He did not regard the study of theology as an end in itself, let alone a simply academic exercise; nor did he consider it on a par with philosophy. He believed instead what Irenaeus had actually declared many centuries before him: that ‘the vision of God is the life of man, and the glory of God is the living man.’ Christian theology is concerned with the redemption and transformation of human nature by the Spirit of Christ, who became man so that human beings might become divine in him. Bonaventure is rightly regarded as a supreme mystical theologian, in the sense that he believed and taught that experience of the transforming love of Christ is at the heart of all Christian thought and prayer. This love constrains a person, as it did in the case of Francis, to the point of their participating spiritually in the redeeming suffering of the crucified Christ. Then the glory of God descends to transfigure a person, deifying him or her, and revealing that the soul is indeed made in the image and likeness of God and has a profound affinity with Him. Bonaventure believed strongly that human beings are called to become by grace partakers of the divine nature in union with Christ.

Bonaventure took to heart and taught assiduously that, in the words of Augustine at the beginning of his Confessions, ‘God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are empty and restless until they find their rest in Him.’ The loving call of Christ is to enable a willing return to God and this is the meaning of Christian life, thought and prayer; for Bonaventure, love always transcended learning. It is the work of reason to come to understand Christ, who is the truth, by faith as well as by thought, and so to come to perceive more deeply what is revealed by divine revelation in the Bible and mediated through the sacraments of the Church. Bonaventure had a very positive expectation of what could be accomplished by the Holy Spirit in human nature. He himself embodied the truth that he taught, being very well loved as an outstanding Christian in his own lifetime and thereafter….

Paperback version now available

See also from Douglas Dales:

Divine Remaking St. Bonaventure the Gospel of Luke, an introduction to the thought and writings of the Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure, through his insightful commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke.

“This crucial personal testimony to Francis, who died in 1226 when Bonaventure was still a child, underpinned his vocation and labours as a Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer. In due time it would lead him to accept in 1257 the leadership of the entire Franciscan movement. In his shorter liturgical Life of St Francis, the Legenda Minor, Bonaventure declared that it was his mother’s prayer and vow that led to the miracle of his healing.4 He died on 15 July 1274, while attending as a cardinal the second Council of Lyons.”

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