Legend has it that when Saint Bonaventure received the news that he had been elected a cardinal, he was washing dishes in the monastery kitchen. Never very impressed with the prestige of this world, he requested that the cardinal’s hat (a symbol of honor and authority) be hung on a tree in the garden while he finished washing the dishes.
When I discovered Bonaventure’s writings, I felt I had discovered a friend and spiritual companion. I was surprised at how deeply the words of this humble 13th century monk spoke directly to my heart. Bonaventure thoroughly reinvigorated my love of Scripture through his imaginative devotional readings. By exploring his book, The Tree of Life, I hope modern readers might discover a new joy and depth in their reading of Scripture, as well.
For Bonaventure, Scripture was not just a list of rules or a catalogue of ideas about God, but the living story of God’s action in history. Bonaventure saw the Bible as God’s revelation of himself in the person of Jesus—and as an invitation to us to participate in that ongoing story. We are invited to enter into that story, to claim it as our own, to navigate our own ambiguous times in light of it, and to look forward to its glorious happy ending in God's redemption of all things. Our challenge as readers, then, is to immerse ourselves in this story. We need to get inside the Bible’s story and to let it get inside us.
For this to take place, however, Bonaventure thought we needed to become skilled imaginers.
As a wise and gentle spiritual director, Bonaventure observed that sometimes we find this difficult. We can get stuck in a kind of pious, imaginative paralysis, unable to see the beauty in the stories of Scripture or to understand what significance they might have for our lives. And so, to help Christians overcome this impediment, Bonaventure wrote imaginative guides for reading Scripture. By exploring the most famous of these meditations, The Tree of Life, we can discover new tools to help us engage with Scripture more imaginatively, in the hopes of making the story of Scripture our own.
Three steps for making Scripture your own
In the opening to the Tree of Life, Bonaventure writes that he wished to “Enkindle ... this affection, shape this understanding, and imprint this memory [of Jesus's life] on the souls of his readers. Bonaventure’s hope was that the story of Scripture—specifically the story of Jesus — would become as familiar to his readers as their own stories. But what does this method of reading look like in practice? Bonaventure's approach could be narrowed down to three rules: imagine yourself as a character in the story, fill in the gaps with vivid details, and, finally, ask what does this mean for my life?
1. Get inside the story
The first step is to imagine yourself as a character in the passage you are reading. For Bonaventure, Scripture is not just the story of Jesus, it is our own story. That’s why he speaks about these stories in terms of memory (“imprint this memory"): he wants the Gospels to become so intimately familiar that they feel like one's own memories. To do this, he encourages the readers to see themselves as characters in the stories of the Gospels—curious onlookers straining over the heads of the crowd to see the miracle worker, disciples covered in dust from a long day's walk, wondering how Jesus will feed all these people, a paralyzed man to whom Jesus says, “Get up and walk.” This subtle shift in perspective helps move us from an attitude of observer to participant. It helps us get inside the story.
2. Let the story come alive
The second step is to imagine the stories as vividly as you can. To help his readers engage and remember the stories of Scripture, Bonaventure imagines each event of Jesus's life as fruit on a tree, “beautiful with the radiance of every color and perfumed with the sweetness of every fragrance, awakening and attracting the anxious heart of men of desire.” He describes them this way because he wants to remind us that the life of Jesus was not a merely intellectual or spiritual affair, but one that was rich in sensation, color, food, and emotion— just as each of our own lives is. Bonaventure wants to make the story of Jesus come to life in full color for his readers, so he works his way through each event, filling in the imaginative gaps. There is no gap too small! The taste of the fishes and loaves, the smell of the perfume spilled on Jesus's feet, the sky on the day of Jesus's crucifixion—all of these details place the story into the vivid, striking light of reality.
3. Look for God’s love in the story
Finally, Bonaventure invites the reader to reflect on what this story reveals about God's love for them. And, in light of that love, how does the story challenge them to live? Though he was a skilled and insightful theologian, Bonaventure’s goal here is not to help us grasp intellectual truths about God, but to help us see how God's action in the world applies directly to our lives—our hopes, sorrows, and longings.
How it works
The culmination of these three rules is on beautiful display in Bonaventure's description of the crucifixion. Take your time as you read it. Imagine the picture Bonaventure is creating.
He was stripped of his garments so that he seemed to be a leper from the bruises and cuts in his flesh that were visible over his head and sides from the blows of the courses. And then transfixed with nails, he appeared to you as your beloved cut through with wound upon wound in order to heal you.
First, Bonaventure imagines himself as a witness to the crucifixion, standing at the foot of the cross. Then, he fills in the gaps, imagining what Jesus’s wounds might have looked like. This renders the scene more vivid and personal, which then enables him to step back and consider what this means for his own life. Bonaventure realizes that the wounds he has gazed upon in his imagination are the wounds that will prove to be the balm for his soul.
Reading with Bonaventure today
In the opening of his book, The Soul’s Journey Into God, Bonaventure warns his readers not to believe that "reading is sufficient without unction, speculation without devotion, investigation without wonder, observation without joy, work without piety, knowledge without love, understanding without humility.” Bonaventure's work was marked by this organic movement between profound theological insights and a deep personal devotion to Jesus. He trusted that by meditating on the Gospels, a deep knowledge and a rich love might grow out of the fertile ground of imagination. This is what Bonaventure attempts to teach us in his reading of Scripture: to imagine in order that we may know, and to know in order that we may love.
For me, discovering the writings of Saint Bonaventure felt like being introduced to a spiritual mentor and friend who traveled across the centuries to give me one, simple gift: a renewed joy in reading my Bible. I hope I have passed a small portion of that gift on to you.
 Bonaventure, “The Tree of Life,” 119-120.
 Ibid, 120.
 Ibid, 149.
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