Beyond Idolatry: Learning to Love with St. Bonaventure and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

The great theologian St. Bonaventure understood, as Mother Seton did, that Christian faith is grounded in absolute trust in God’s love for us. And that it is the miraculous abundance of this assurance that spills over into our love of others.

Every single human being wants to be seen and known and loved just as he or she has been created. This is what God wants for you and me, the very God who became man and died for us as if each one of us were the only one. When we come face to face with this truth, it might seem like a fairy tale. But it is true, and it is of the essence of our faith.

Here is another truth: Just as God has loved us, so we are to love. We are called to see others as unique, precious, and beloved. It is a tall order, one that is sometimes very difficult—for me, at least.

The truth is, I often go through my day dividing human beings into two camps: the ones I want to be around and the ones I don’t. There are some I want to be close to, to ingratiate myself with, and others I want to avoid. Some I idolize, others I instrumentalize.

It so often becomes all about what I want for me. But what I want most deeply is to learn to love others as God loves them. And here it helps me to turn to the saints.

Saint Bonaventure, whose feast is July 15, was a bishop and doctor of the Church, a scholar who is best known for his theology, especially his classic The Mind’s Road to God. But Bonaventure has another claim to fame: he was the “second founder” of the Franciscan order. This order, with its worldwide presence and undeniable impact, takes its charism from its founder, Saint Francis of Assisi. But it also owes much to the scholar Bonaventure.

Bonaventure was, we might say, destined for this task. Born in 1221 near Orvieto, Italy, he was stricken at a young age with a serious illness. His father, a doctor, thought he was going to die, and so his mother got on her knees and prayed to Saint Francis of Assisi, who had only just been canonized. Miraculously, Bonaventure survived. Some years later, he heard the call to join the very order that Francis had founded. He was sent to study theology at the University of Paris. In 1257, only fourteen years after he had entered the order, Bonaventure was made the Franciscans’ worldwide leader, the minister general.

At this time, the order was in great dis-order. It had grown to 30,000 men, and the swelling numbers represented great challenges, including consistency in recruitment, coherence in educational formation, and adherence to the mission.

With regard to faithfulness to the mission, a large faction had emerged from within the Franciscan order that insisted that they alone represented the authentic primitive rule of Saint Francis. They became known as the “Spirituals,” and, to Bonaventure’s way of seeing things, they gave undue emphasis to one aspect of the rule—poverty. During his time as minister general, Bonaventure had to step in to moderate their practices.

What was wrong with the Spirituals? One way to look at it is that they wanted to make Saint Francis an argument for their own way of life, only loving him insofar as he represented what they thought best.

Now, if there were a person who might have had a right to actually idolize Francis, it was Bonaventure. Bonaventure loved Francis; he owed his life to Francis. But what Bonaventure wanted was not his own will or even Francis’ will. He wanted God’s will—which is another way of saying that he wanted not the Francis he wanted, but rather Francis as God made him to be. In his later years Bonaventure wrote movingly of what drew him to the holy founder:

“I confess before God that the reason which made me love the life of blessed Francis most is that it resembled the birth and early development of the Church. The Church began with simple fishermen and was subsequently enriched by very distinguished and wise teachers; the religion of Blessed Francis was not established by the prudence of men but by Christ.”

In other words, for Bonaventure, Francis was neither a guru nor an ideal. In Francis, Bonaventure saw the initiative and continuing action of Christ. In Francis, Bonaventure encountered Christ.

In time, Bonaventure wrote what became the definitive biography of Francis—one of the many ways he made Francis’ mission apparent to all the brethren. And this is one of the reasons Bonaventure is regarded as the Franciscans’ “second founder”: he re-oriented the Franciscans back to God.

In this way, Bonaventure teaches us what it is to truly love another person, how to love our friends and neighbors and children and parents. We need to love others as God has made them, to let them be signs of Him. Not only is this the way that we are meant to love others, this is the only way to do it. After all, think of the sadness Francis suffered—even in heaven—when he saw the division among his brothers. Think of Francis’ sorrow when he, who only ever wanted to point everyone toward God, became an idol to his own followers—a kind of cult of personality. Idolizing anyone is never good—for us or for them. In fact, when we “love” someone because they reinforce our ideas or satisfy our own needs, we are not really loving them at all; we are loving ourselves.

Let’s think about this another way. This time, rather than consider a man and his hero, let’s look at a marriage. Should we idolize our spouse, put them on a pedestal, make them the center of the universe? Our saintly witness here is Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Elizabeth loved her husband as much as ever a woman loved a man. From the earliest days of her marriage and all the way to the end, she never tired of doting on her “dear William.” She relished their time together and cherished the family they were building.

But she did not idolize William.

Perhaps this is most evident in those awful days when Elizabeth was caring for her husband in the miserable conditions of the Lazaretto, the quarantine enforced on them upon their arrival in Italy. Anyone who reads her words from this time cannot but be shocked at the apparent contradictions. William is getting sicker and sicker, moving toward death. Elizabeth is aware of this and deeply grieved, pained at his pain. Yet, rather than sinking into despair, rather than collapsing in grief, Elizabeth’s soul is soaring.

How was this happening? Why didn’t Elizabeth rage at God or fall into despair? The simple reason is that for Elizabeth, William’s life belonged to God and not herself. She could not help but see him against the horizon of eternity, as ultimately destined for his Maker.

Elizabeth loved her husband with a great passion, but she loved even more passionately the person God had made William to be. Elizabeth knew that any person’s fullness is really and finally realized only in God—and precisely for this reason, she could look forward, past William’s death, to their future re-union in heaven. Thus, her grief, while absolutely real, was continuously transformed and given new expression as prayer.

What is the difference between a proper love of the other and turning the other into an idol? How can we distinguish between the two? The answer is: only by love’s fruits.

Loving another person in God leads to a greater love. For Elizabeth, true love for her husband promised a deeper and truer faith, a lasting peace. For Bonaventure, only a true love for Francis could lead to the reinvigoration of the order.

And so we come to a third truth, incredible but undeniable: authentic love brings forth more love. It is fertile, self-propagating. True love grounds us in faith, that is to say, an absolute trust in God’s love for us. And it is this assurance of love that roots our hearts in undeniable peace and, of its miraculous abundance, spills over into the love of others.

LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.

Image: Public Domain

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