Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis

Born in a small town in central Italy, Saint Bonaventure entered the Franciscan Order in 1243 C.E. at twenty-six years of age while studying at the University of Paris.[1] Fourteen years later he was elected as the Minister General of the Order, a position he would retain until his death on July 15, 1274 C.E.[2] Throughout his career, Bonaventure was a prolific writer whose writings covered multiple genres including sermons, administrative writings, scholastic treatises, spiritual works, and lecture series.[3] The volume currently under review contains three of Bonaventure’s spiritual writings (The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis), which, when taken together, “offer a comprehensive picture of Bonaventure’s Franciscan spirituality.”[4]

            Bonaventure’s mystical masterpiece The Soul’s Journey Into God is the first work offered in the volume. Drawing off St. Francis’ vision of a winged Seraph, Bonaventure develops six stages of illumination (one stage per wing of the Seraph) through which “the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevation of Christian wisdom.”[5] Written in seven chapters, the work serves a summa of mystical theology in that it brings together all the “major strands of Christian spirituality”[6] during the Middle Ages.

            The second work included in this volume is The Tree of Life, which is a “meditation on the life of Christ, based on the Gospel accounts of his birth, public ministry, passion, death, resurrection and glorification.”[7] The work is split into three parts focused on the mystery of Jesus’ origin, his passion, and his glorification. Within each of these parts, Bonaventure uses the image of a tree bearing twelve fruits (four fruits per part) that provide the reader with a view of the “varied states, excellence, powers, and works”[8] of Christ’s love. Taken together, these fruits will nourish the soul of the one who “meditates on them and diligently considers each one.”[9]

            The last work of Bonaventure included in this volume is his biography of St. Francis entitled The Life of St. Francis. This work was written at the “unanimous urging of the General Chapter”[10] of the Franciscan Order at their meeting in Narbonne in 1260 C.E.[11] A few years after it was completed, the General Chapter of Paris in 1266 C.E. declared it the official biography of St. Francis, cementing its position within the Order and expanding its readership.[12]  The work itself was written along a “thematic order”[13] with events placed within fifteen chapters that loosely follows Francis’ life. Within the thematic order of the book, one can detect a broad selection of nine chapters in the middle that follows the three stages of the spiritual life: purgation, illumination, and perfection.[14] While this order may conflict with the modern view of a biography, it fits within the norms of the Bonaventure day.

            Though each of the three works in this volume were interesting in their own way, I must admit that it was Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life that warmed my soul the most. I loved Bonaventure’s simple yet powerful way of waking the reader through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As I read through the meditations, I found myself being drawn afresh into the story of Jesus. Of all the writings within this book, it is this work that I see myself coming back to time and time again. It really is a “bundle of myrrh,”[15] as Bonaventure called it, that I can hold close to my heart.


[1] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York City: Paulist Press, 1978), 5.

[2] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 7-8.

[3] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 9.

[4] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, xx.

[5] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 54.

[6] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 20.

[7] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, xix.

[8] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 121.

[9] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 122.

[10] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 182.

[11] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 37.

[12] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 40.

[13] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 183.

[14] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 43-44.

[15] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 119.

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