Bonaventure’s Master Class on Prayer

Bonaventure’s Master Class on Prayer

Anthony M. Carrozzo, OFM


During the recent season of Advent, I decided that I would read St. Bonaventure’s Advent sermons to see what insight I would gain from his preaching but as I read I discovered that Bonaventure was using the season of Advent to give his Franciscan students at the University of Paris a crash course not essentially on Advent but on prayer though it becomes obvious they are connected. As I read I felt that Bonaventure was leading these students and now me away from a self-centered understanding of prayer to a God-centered understanding.

I was haunted during these readings by another book that I had read years ago, the slim but insightful work entitled Prayer by Hans von Balthasar. In this work he coined the phrase God Language, a language we must learn to overcome our self-centered prayer that bombards God with our needs, fears and concerns to a prayer of waiting for God to speak to us. Like learning any language, it is not an easy language to learn. We need patience and practice along with grace to make this change, but it is necessary.

Through a grace -filled prayer life. Francis learned God language so that when he went to pray at San Damiano with a listening heart, he simply said a short prayer while waiting for Christ to speak. And speak He did, reorienting Francis’s whole life. Francis had a listening heart from the beginning. He never asked anything of God for himself or his followers. He was solely concerned with waiting for the Lord to respond. He never asked for a return of his eyesights. Rather he asked that he might see the Lord with greater clarity. He did not ask for healing of his many maladies. Only that theses sufferings would be united to the sufferings of Christ. He did not even ask for the weaknesses of his brothers be strengthened. Only that He would lead the brothers “to begin again.” All he desired was for Jesus to come again. 

This became even more evident when his brothers expressed concern over Francis’s first expression of how the friars were to live. He responded "No one showed me what to do but the Most High Himself." Later when he withdrew from the brothers to write the Rule, he made it clear that no one told him what to do but the Lord Himself. Francis was not speaking human language rather he had mastered God language by responding to God’s initiative.

Bonaventure was well aware of this as he preached to his students. After all, he wrote the Life of St. Francis after consultation with the brothers. He learned from them and passed on that knowledge. He also retired to La Verna after being appointed Minister General and listened very carefully to the Lord as is obvious from his reflections in the Itinerarium.  

Illia Delio would agree for she says that our prayer must be “God-centered” which demands that there is “an awakening to the fact that I am held in being by God who is the source of my life.”

Bonaventure uses these Advent sermons to teach his students how to pray from a God perspective rather than from a self-centered one. It was for his students and now for us a Master Class on Franciscan prayer. Let’s listen in to discover the gems he provides.

He begins his reflections with a line from Haggai: "the one desired by all the nations will come." One should not miss connecting these words to these opening lines of The Soul’s Journey into God which posits that one cannot begin this journey without being a person of desires. Far from squelching desire, Bonaventure implores us to begin by seeking desire not from the perspective of self concern but preparing to use God language. Where is God leading us? 

Bonaventure responds by telling us how the Incarnation came about. He writes "the principal reason and cause for God coming in the flesh, the best reason is the most excellent liberality of God. …this proceeds from liberality, offers liberality and leads to liberality." The Seraphic Doctor cannot say it enough: God wants to give freely of Himself to all of creation. He shares Himself with all that He has created. This is the foundation of the Incarnation for Bonaventure.

Such a perspective cuts through all of our theologizing about the Incarnation. It seems so simple yet so profound that God wants to share His life with us. We discover that sharing through our life of prayer.

It follows then that liberality fosters petition. Bonaventure offers a precaution: "by asking for the Son of God and not for more gold and other temporal goods." This is not human language. It is God language. In human language we lust for gold and wealth. In God language we desire far more: we desire to become poor in order to engage with the Son of God. Poverty is not our aim. It is a means to free us. Too many of us are poor yet imprisoned by desiring the wrong things.

If we are learning God language, we, along with the students of long ago, realize that Jesus comes again and again.

In our prayer life Bonaventure leads us to the world around us to discover that Matter is the Lord within creation: seek "the signs that will be in the sun, the moon, the stars and throughout the cosmos." My thoughts return to Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim on Tinker Island, a book which invites us to discover the mysteries of the world around us which should be dear to our Franciscan hearts. Recall her childhood experiment of dropping pennies along the road with a sign “treasure ahead” because pennies add up and are more than we anticipate. The world of nature is more than we anticipate if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

Annie Dillard is a naturalist, Bonaventure a Christian so he leads us to signs of Christ coming among us. We need to look around to see His imprints. Bonaventure points to the Shepherds who were often watching the stars in the sky. One night, that special night, they noticed a brighter star than usual as did the Magi in a far distant city. They followed that star and discovered the Christ child.

For the most part, due to our busy lives, we do not see the world around us. Illia Delio cautions us not to make that mistake pointing out in her recent book The Not Yet God: Matter is God bearing and Matter matters to God. Further in her essay on prayer she explains that "every single element of the world begins to radiate divine love shining through the everyday stuff of the world." She goes so far as to encourage us to spend time looking at a leaf, using it as an entrance into God’s creation. Franciscans do not close our eyes to pray. We open them wide. The Franciscan basis for such praying is Francis himself who composed The Canticle of Creation which should be our prayer that awakens us to all that is around us, all God’s creation, that we are called not only to see but also to care for.

We are not far from matter: "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return." We are not disembodied souls even after death. Bonaventure insists that we will not be totally happy in heaven until our bodies are reunited with our souls because our whole selves have participated in redemption. Heaven may already be populated with glorified bodies. After all, there is no time in eternity. I wonder what these glorified bodies see and hear? Only angels chanting?

It strikes me as very odd that when we think of hell, we have a very vivid and colorful image of it. The fire is burning red flames rising up, smoke surrounds screaming embodied souls. When we imagine heaven, it is just bland. White angels are floating around the white clouds where disembodied souls gaze up at the Trinity, praising God. Our presence is the praise that the Trinity desires just as parents desire visits from their children here on earth. We have arrived home to be with the Trinity forever in a reality where the greens are greener than any green we have ever seen on trees and plants, the blues are bluer than any skies we have ever strained our necks to see. The whites are many shades to match our human shades and the blacks and browns echo the words of Song of Songs a hundredfold: I am black and beautiful (1:5). And the singing would be joyful and engaging all our renewed senses and traditions.

Illia Delio observes God contemplates us. He longs for us as well. He contemplates us being with Him in a lively heaven.            

Bonaventure now leads us to "lift up our minds to the kindness of the Holy Spirit." Of course, we could not even begin to pray without the grace of the Holy Spirit, but Bonaventure adds a twist, namely, we discover the kindness of the Holy spirit. We lift up our minds, the Spirit descends upon us. We must not miss the movement: we lift up, He comes down to us. Not a necessary act but an act of kindness.

Bonaventure like Francis has learned God language. He desires to pass it on to us, always aware that God is present and ready to have a conversation. We need only listen. As von Balthasar observes "This looking for God is contemplation. It is looking inward into the depth of the soul, and hence beyond the soul toward God. The more contemplation finds God the more it forgets itself and yet discovers itself in Him."

In every phase of developing his life of prayer Bonaventure is looking for God in his desires, his view of the world around him, and now in this process of lifting up so that the Lord can descend upon him. None of this is passive waiting, it is engaging the Lord by using His language not our own. Von Balthasar makes the point that "God is never something finished., to be surveyed like a particular landscape, but it is something new like water from a spring or rays of light." As Illia Delio puts it He is The Not Yet God.

We are not left without a model to engage us in this process. Mary, our mother, is our model. Bonaventure seems almost obsessed to make clear to us that Mary is our model of contemplation in action in her Annunciation and Visitation. In his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke as well as in a number of his other writings he makes clear that Mary has not only mastered the God language in her waiting for the Lord to speak but she is also ready to enter into a conversation which leads her to immediately travel through dangerous territories to greet and care for her pregnant cousin Elizabeth.

She does the same for us by helping us not only to master the God language but also to care for us who are pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. I need only to recall that other wonderful Advent work by St. Bonaventure Five Feasts of the Child Jesus as he views our development from conceiving the Lord to giving birth to Him within us.

Following Bonaventure at prayer we have discovered that we have yet to master God Language but we are well on our way to learning to wait patiently for the Lord to begin our conversations realizing that He speaks to us through our desires, our encounters with the world, both natural and human, and to delight in being lifted up so He can descend upon us, entering more deeply into us and sending us off on mission with Mary as our model. Bonaventure has taught us a Master Class to improve our Franciscan lives of prayer. It is well worth listening to him.



The Sermons of St. Bonaventure, translated by Timothy Johnson is available though Franciscan Institute Publications.

The Souls Journey into God along with The Life of St. Francis are readily available in Bonaventure, trans by Ewert Cousins and published by Paulist Press is readily available in print or ebook through Amazon

The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus translated by Andre Cirino with the title Bringing Forth Christ is available through the publisher Tau or more readily through Amazon.

Hans von Balthasar’s Prayer, published by Ignatius Press and Illia Delio’s The Not Yet God published by Orbis Press are also readily available in print or ebook from Amazon.

Illia Delio”s Praying in Teilhard” Universe is available on line from the Center for Christogenesis.

If you would like an introduction to the spiritual world of Teilhard, a fine book is Catholic Christianity in Evolution by Alan Sage, published bySussex Academic Press and available through Amazon.


Fr. Anthony Carozzo, O.F.M. is former minister provincial of the Holy Name Province in New York.