Christian TraditionsMetaphysicsMindfulnessPhilosophyPrayerRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

Bonaventure on Prayer

Bonaventure’s entire theological project is deeply prayerful, and many of his most famous works are bookended by prayer. This is nowhere more evident than the Itinerarium, which begins by advising souls seeking peace to cry out in prayer, and ends with David’s words from Psalm 73—invoking mystical “passing over” into Christ through death. To read Bonaventure rightly is to stand in humility before God, the immeasurable Creator Whom no one can see and still live. Yet prayer allows beings created from nothing to approach the Father, in and through the Body of Christ.

Today I’ll be discussing how this holds true in the Breviloquium, Bonaventure’s academic manual of theology written for preachers. I’ll also add some reflections on his Sentences commentary to further frame a few abstract philosophical distinctions. The primary topic I’d like to deal with is how prayer relates to the order of the universe. Specifically, what can be said about prayer in terms of cause, effect, and influence?

I’m going to proceed in three parts. First, I’ll talk about the natural world, and ask whether all created things participate in their own form of prayer. Second, I’ll parse some of Bonaventure’s ideas on natural causality. Why is he so specific about the impact of certain physical processes, such as celestial motion, on our lives, but not as specific about the potential earthly impact of prayer? Finally, I’ll examine the place of prayer in a strictly theological mode, discussing its effectiveness as a suffrage of the Church—with profound “cause and effect” consequences in the spiritual realm.

Prayer and the Natural World

We can first define prayer as a communication with God, which both affirms and enables a being’s connection to God. Turning to God in prayer is most properly predicated of rational souls. Humans and angels are capable of blessedness because they are free from necessity, and can voluntarily merit the prize of everlasting happiness (Brev. 2.9.2; 5.10.2). By contrast, everything below humans and angels in the hierarchy of being is not rational, and therefore cannot exercise free will. So we can rule out the idea that animals, plants, and rocks pray as we do.

Nevertheless, it is still worth asking how such beings are connected to God, and whether that connection involves a kind of communication particularly suited to their status. During his triumphal entry, Jesus himself noted that even the stones would cry out if the people kept silent (Lk 19:40). Was his statement mere hyperbole, or does it hint at something deeper? Material things were made by God and for God. As a plant naturally turns toward the sun, seeking life and nourishment, so the entire order of nature possesses measure, number, and weight (or “ordinance toward its final cause”) (Brev. 2.1.4).

In Romans 8, Paul claims that creation itself “will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Yet for now, it groans in labor pains to be “set free from its bondage to decay.” Could this groaning be a form of prayer? The Holy Spirit can intercede for us “with sighs too deep for words” when “we don’t know how to pray.” Might the Spirit also intercede through or for material elements, uniting them as well to God?[1] I believe the answer to this question is yes, but only in circumstances that include human agency. Let’s consider two examples: Pentecost and the sacrifice of the Mass.

In Acts chapter one, the Apostles are described as “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14). They are filled with the Holy Spirit, and fire comes to rest upon each of them. The elemental properties of fire are significant here. For Bonaventure, fire is the material agent that will initiate and complete God’s final judgment (Brev. 7.4.6). Just as elemental fire will raise up all physical things to God in the final conflagration, so the Spirit-filled fire resting upon the Apostles will enable them to raise up humanity and unite all nations into one Body.[2]

Similarly, the Eucharist can only be received properly within the context of prayer, and through the fiery devotion of love (see Brev. 6.9.6). The material elements are then recognized, with the eyes of faith, to be “the entire Christ” (totus Christus). As Bonaventure puts it: “This sacrament contains Christ’s true body and immaculate flesh in such a way that it penetrates our very being, unites us to one another, and transforms us into him. It does so by virtue of that burning love through which Christ gave himself to us” (Brev. 6.9.3). As at Pentecost, the Eucharist reveals a deep connection between human beings and the material order. And in both cases, fire plays a role that is perhaps more than symbolic. Yet for the full elevation of material things to occur, humans must exercise their rational agency. Specifically, the Apostles and priests pray.

Prayer and Natural Causality

In Book 2 of the Breviloquium, Bonaventure claims that, “through the soul … every nature may be led back, as if in an intelligible circle, to its beginning, in which it is perfected and beatified.” (Brev. 2.4.3) He next proceeds to describe, at great length, the influence of heavenly bodies upon earthly ones. He claims that “every physical activity of lower beings receives its law, origin, and energy from the celestial nature.” (Brev. 2.5.7) While this idea may sound superstitious to modern readers, hylomorphism dictates that the generation and corruption of perishable earthly bodies is linked to the influence of imperishable heavenly bodies. This was thought to explain human personalities and dispositions—in a manner much akin to modern genetics.[3]

Turning to the Sentences Commentary, Bonaventure affirms that celestial bodies surpass all other bodies in nobility and power. Because of their high place in the order of the universe [ordo universitatis], the stars exert profound influence on the four elements.[4] The stars also influence human bodies through this elementary activity, and indirectly through local motion—all as divine wisdom has disposed.[5] Bonaventure then asks whether this is sufficient to explain world events and human actions.[6] He concludes in the negative, but also notes:

If one says that human behaviors vary according to the arrangement of the stars, then one can speak the truth, because this is not repugnant to reason or faith. The arrangement of a body varies greatly according to the affections and behaviors of the soul. Likewise, the soul imitates the many complexities of the body; whether choleric or irascible [etc.] … But such dispositions are not necessary, because the soul is master of its body—especially when aided by grace.[7]

Here, Bonaventure is simply admitting that human experience is embedded within a complex network of internal and external causes; there can be no easy accounting for the origin of any single action, no idealist or physicalist reduction of any behavior or choice to a single source.[8] But Bonaventure will not allow this reality to undermine virtue. He speaks univocally against necessary causality, whether it is deduced from the influence of planets, the powers of angelic substances, or mistaken views of God’s foreknowledge and providence. Advancing the thesis that one person’s prayer necessarily effects another’s behavior, or events in the physical world, then, would shift focus away from human responsibility and embodied human experience—obscuring the natural light of creation’s order.

Returning to the Breviloquium, where Bonaventure treats divine foreknowledge only in brief,[9] we find a lengthy reflection on prayer as he finishes his discussion of grace and moves to treat the Sacraments. Prayer comes into focus here as the precondition for maintaining virtuous habits in order to receive spiritual gifts. Commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, Bonaventure notes that we pray to be “delivered from evil” by “begging pardon of our sins, asking victory over our temptations, and seeking deliverance from oppression.” (Brev. In this way, prayer assuages past guilt, overcomes present strife, and liberates from future punishment.

There is no simple answer as to how this all happens—each soul undertakes her own journey, according to a variety of circumstances known in full only to God. This is why Bonaventure concludes his teaching on grace not with the specifics of how prayers are effective, but by framing prayer itself within a broader narrative—the recapitulation of salvation history in each individual soul: “Holy Scripture proposes for our consideration a sevenfold series of sevens: the capital sins, the sacraments, the virtues, the gifts, the beatitudes, the petitions, and the endowments of glory … Thus, praising the name of the Lord and praying to him seven times a day (Ps 119:164) … we may attain the sevenfold crown.”

Prayer and the Church

Souls are aided in this journey by the Church. And this brings us to the third and final section: If prayer’s relationship to physical causes and worldly events remains somewhat ambiguous or unspecified, what can be said with certainty about the spiritual realm?

Bonaventure dedicates an entire section of Breviloquium 7 to the suffrages of the Church. He focuses primarily on how the prayers of the living benefit the dead. As we saw above, fire is the natural element that God endowed, at Pentecost and elsewhere, with the ability to convoke supernatural change—and prayer is often the fuel that ignites this change. As such, the prayers of the Church affect those in purgatory through a grace that inheres in their souls as fire. The aid obtained is greater or lesser depending on the merit of the dead (meritorum in mortuis) and the charity of the living (caritate vivorum).[10] This economic interplay between members of Christ’s Body is intended to keep our eyes turned toward the afterlife—to remind us that the primary purpose of prayer is to purify the mirror of the soul, and that prayer’s power is eminently spiritual. Prayer is thus framed as an exercise in desiring—not primarily our own earthly benefit, or the coincidence of certain earthly events, but the penultimate progress of our brothers and sisters as they advance toward God’s presence. Prayer for souls in purgation is the human activity wherein prayer’s supernatural causality is most properly on display.[11]

Nevertheless, God also wills that the prayers of saints in heaven be sought after by the Church on earth, so that “humility is preserved in those who pray, dignity manifested in the saints who intercede, and love and unity displayed in all members of Christ, by which the lower have faithful recourse to the higher, while the higher generously condescend to the lower.” (Brev. 5.10.3) Likewise, God heeds only petitions that are “directed to his own honor and our salvation, namely, those having reference to the reward of our heavenly homeland, or the help we need along the way.” (Brev. 5.10.4) When we pray for our daily bread, we must always consider both soul and body.[12]

All of this happens according to the generous providence and provident generosity of the Holy Spirit, who, “when he descended at Pentecost, poured out the fulness of gifts in order to bring the mystical body of Christ to perfection.” (Brev. 4.10.8)

I hope this paper has shed some light on the kind of influence the prayers of the faithful have upon the order of the universe, and thereby properly placed prayer on the spectrum of nature and grace. Rather than draw a neat line between God and creation, Bonaventure affirms that natural things invite humans to communicate with God.[13] Prayer must draw the order of nature up into itself. This was certainly the understanding of Francis, whose “Canticle of Creatures” has that exact effect. By finding God through the activity of our creaturely brothers and sisters, we elevate them. This is why Bonaventure says: “All things will be made new, and, in a certain sense, rewarded in the renovation and glorification of humanity” (Brev. 7.4.7). Perhaps this is how the merit that inheres in bodies the moment a soul is joined to them (Brev. 7.5.3) is distributed across the entire created order. When we lose ourselves in prayer, love, and service, we are given a taste of the affective union with God that transcends all things. Such wisdom is offered freely to the humble and the “poor in spirit.” Gifts return to the Giver—the one who deemed it fitting that humans and angels imitate his love by raising up all that is below.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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