Today is the Feast of St. Bonaventure the great Franciscan saint, theologian and provincial minister of the Order in the mid-13th century. There are a special set of feast day readings for the Saint. I was particularly taken by the feast day’s first reading that describes a deep abiding intercessory prayer by St. Paul for the community of Ephesus:
I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesian 3:14-19)
It is a prayer that knowledge may be granted to the readers—not the kind of knowledge prized in worldly concerns, but knowledge that finds its consummation in knowing the love of Christ. To know the love of Christ involves the personal knowledge of Christ himself, that personal knowledge whose attainment was Paul’s own high ambition (Phil. 3:8, 10). Paul prays that his readers may be endowed with all the resources of spiritual strength necessary to attain this knowledge, and he addresses his prayer to the Father. The people of Christ, he has said already, have access through him “in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18); and Paul avails himself of this access to make intercession for his friends.
When I read that I was reminded of St. Bonaventure’s work, The Tree of Life. The Tree of Life features a description of the Tree of Life in the earthly paradise of Eden (Genesis 2:9-10) and in St. John’s apocalyptic vision of heavenly paradise (Revelation 22:1-2), all growing from the crucified Christ. The image is famously captured by artists including Taddeo Gaddi whose work can be found in the Cathedral of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy – a panel in a larger fresco in the church refectory.
The bottom four branches describe the Savior’s origin and life, the middle four branches his passion, and the top four branches his glorification. Bonaventure writes:
Picture in your mind a tree whose roots are watered by an ever-flowing foundation that becomes a great and living river with four channels to water the garden of the entire Church. From the trunk of this tree, imagine that there are growing twelve branches that are adorned with leaves, flowers and fruit. Imagine that the leaves are a most effective medicine to prevent and cure every kind of sickness, because the word of the cross is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). Let the flowers be beautiful with the radiance of every color and perfumed with the sweetness of every fragrance, awakening and attracting the anxious hearts of men of desire. Imagine that there are twelve fruits, having every delight and the sweetness of every taste (Wisdom 16:20). This fruit is offered to God’s servants to be tasted so that when they eat, they may always be satisfied, yet never grow weary of its taste. This is the fruit that took its origin from the Virgin’s womb and reached its savory maturity on the tree of the cross under the midday heat of the Eternal Sun, that is, the love of Christ. In the garden of the heavenly paradise – God’s table – the fruit is served to those who desire it.
“Although this fruit is one and undivided,” according to Bonaventure, “it nourishes devout souls with varied consolations in view of its varied states, excellence, powers and works.” He beautifully arranges the twelve fruit on twelve branches:
- On the first branch the soul devoted to Christ perceives the flavor of sweetness by recalling the distinguished origin and sweet birth of her Savior;
- on the second branch, the humble mode of life which he condescended to adopt;
- on the third, the loftiness of his perfect power;
- on the fourth, the plenitude of his most abundant piety;
- on the fifth, the confidence which he had in the trial of his passion;
- on the sixth, the patience which he exhibited in bearing great insults and injuries;
- on the seventh, the constancy which he maintained in the torture and suffering of his rough and bitter cross;
- on the eighth, the victory which he achieved in the conflict and passage of death;
- on the ninth, the novelty of his resurrection embellished with remarkable gifts;
- on the tenth, the sublimity of his ascension, pouring forth spiritual charisms;
- on the eleventh, the equity of the future judgment;
- on the twelfth, the eternity of the divine kingdom.
The Tree of Life, represented a new vibrant way of writing about the life of Christ and stressing its imitation. The poetical and lyrical style of the work became a template for spreading Franciscan devotional practices throughout Europe. When the Franciscan, John of Montecorvino, was made the first Bishop of Beijing in 1292, the “cross” of the cathedral (really just a small church) was a painting of the “Tree of Life,” such was the impact of the imagery.
Like St. Paul prayer in Ephesians, St. Bonaventure’s writing is an extended lesson and prayer for the Franciscan brothers to attain a close personal relation with Jesus and then to imitate the life into the world.