Comparing Bonaventure and Bernardino Ochino


By Patrick Colbourne O.F.M. Cap.

Table of Contents

In considering St Bonventure and Bernardino Ochino we encounter two individuals who are struggling with essential aspects of the composition of the Church that we could call the “spiritual” and the “canonical”. All members of the Church are called upon to spread the spirituality of the Gospel by setting an example to one another and praying for one another and praying with one another. Certain members of the Church, who are part of the clerical state, have the responsibility of providing the official teaching of the Church and the public liturgy, including the Sacraments, for the members of the faithful. When a group of men gathered around St Francis, they set an example of how to live the life of Christ in simplicity and prayer. By the time that St Bonaventure became Minister General the environment of the Church was changing in that both the Franciscans and the Dominicans were not only preaching but were taking on clerical functions as well as teaching in the University of Paris which had been the prerogative of clerics.[1] Tensions arouse not only between the clerics and the religious Orders, but within members of the religious Orders. St Bonaventure accepted and promoted what was laid down by the Church.

Similar tensions arose within the Capuchins when Bernardino Ochino took on office. The early friars lived in hermitages. However, when the lifestyle of the friars received Papal approval regulations came into force, some of which pertained to the style and times for reciting the Office. It is interesting to see Paulus a Foligno (ca 1560-1638) says that Ochino “became so engrossed in these activities (preaching and counselling) that he no longer attended choir or was seen at prayer.”[2] Paulus a Foligno also reports a conversation between Bernardino d’Asti and Bernerdino Ochino in which Bernardino d’Asti said: “Father, you are entrapped in this situation because of secular business and studies. We never see you at prayer any more. Watch what you are doing! Persevere in humility. Take care of your own soul too. Otherwise, God will confound you and you will end up with your hands full of flies, and a soldier of God without weapons.” To which Ochino replied: “Non cessat orare, qui non cessat bene facere. (He, who does good, does not stop praying.)[3]

Both St Bonaventure (1217-1274) and Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564) wrote documents concerning the way to experience union with God. St Bonaventure composed The Soul’s Journey into God (Itinerarium mentis in Deum) following a visit to La Verna in 1259 and Bernardino Tommassini (1487-1564), who became known as Ochino, produced the Seven Dialogues between 1536 and 1542 while he was a Capuchin friar. The present study is an attempt to compare and contrast these documents.[4] Although separated by more than more than two centuries, both authors played a significant part in the establishment of their respective religious Orders, the Friars Minor and the Capuchins, as these groups developed from being a spontaneous gathering of like-minded individuals into a structured Religious Order within the Catholic Church. In his Testament St Francis admitted that as the fraternity grew it attracted a variety of men who were different from him. He said: “I firmly wish that all my brothers give themselves to honest work,” but added immediately, “Let those who do not know how (to work) learn”. (Testament 20-21). Both St Bonaventure and Ochino experienced the tension between two groups of friars that historians have called “the Spirituals” and “the Community.”[5] As their fraternities grew, St Bonaventure became known as the “second founder” of the Friars Minor and Ochino was one of the architects of the Capuchin Constitutions at S. Eufemia in 1536.[6]

With respect to these two documents Cesare Vasoli[7] said that in spite of all the subsequent various opinions among friars no one ever lost sight of the mysticism contained in the Itinerarium, and Costanzo Cargnoni said that the Seven Dialogues contain some of the most characteristic turns of phrase that the early Capuchins used to convey their method of devotion.

St Bonaventure

While St Bonaventure is advocating a spirituality that is based on love and union with God, he is also convinced that this can be achieved in union with the Church of Rome which is the Spouse of Christ. Giovanni Miccoli maintained that there were three very important issues that St Bonaventure faced during the first nine years that he was Minister General: he dispersed the group of friars that were associated with the scandal of Introductorius in evangelium aeternum (Introduction to the Eternal Gospel); composed the Vita sancti Francisci; and destroyed all the previous legends that dealt with St Francis, following the Chapter in Paris in 1266. It is not surprising that some friars would think that the early lifestyle of the first Companions and their adherence to the Gospel would mean that this was how the Church had to be reformed. Joachim of Fiore had proposed a third period in the development of the reform of the Church when people would live in perfect conformity to the Gospel and some friars claimed that the early friars were that group. John of Parma was one of the most famous of the friars who followed this opinion to the extreme and St Bonaventure took action against him especially when the very existence of the Order had been threatened during the Pontificate of Innocent IV.

When Dominicans and Franciscans began to teach at the University of Paris tension arouse between them and the secular Masters. Tension increased when a Franciscan, John of Parma, showed sympathies with the opinions of Gerard of Borgo San Donnino, who was condemned at Anagni in 1254 by Pope Alexander IV who was worried about the diffusion of Joachimite theories among the Friars Minor. The title of Gerard’s book was based on a passage in the Apocalypse: “And I saw another angel flying through the midst of heaven, having the eternal gospel. To preach unto them that sit upon the earth and over every nation and tribe and tongue and people.” (Song. 14: 6). John of Parma and others had added to what Joachim had said about how the pattern of history bears the imprint of the Trinity in having three stages each associated with one of the Persons of the Trinity. Joachim does not say that the authority of the Old and the New Testaments are abrogated in the third stage but rather that the third stage brings on “a spiritual understanding” that follows on from the Old and the New Testament.[8] Gerard proposed that with the third stage the Old and the New Testaments were abrogated and all authority passed on to the Third Testament, the Eternal Gospel.[9] To hold such an opinion would justify moving outside the institutional Church and St Bonaventure wanted to strongly oppose the friars being judged as doing that. In fact, the Capuchin chroniclers while appreciating his sanctity criticised the severity with which he treated John of Parma.

When writing his Vita sancti Francisci St Bonaventure says that he obtained information from the early friars since he had not known St Francis personally, and that, during the Chapter in Paris in 1266, he had been told to write a new life to combat some of the tension that arose from quoting the earlier biographies. Giovanni Miccoli says that this biography was an historical record and not just a spiritual reflection on the life of St Francis. While maintaining fidelity to the spirit of St Francis, St Bonaventure maintained that there were changes in the structure of society and the Church to which the Order should adapt. In the Prologue St Bonaventure sets out quite clearly what he is doing. Quoting St Paul, he says that anyone who is a genuine worshiper of God is nailed to the cross with Christ, (Gal. 2:19) and that this can only be accomplished by someone who contemplates the labour, suffering and love of Jesus and can truly say like the bride: a bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, he will linger between my breasts. (Song 1:12). St Bonaventure is not saying that there are no spiritual lessons in what St Francis did and said, but he is saying that some of the early biographies are the personal reminiscences of friars and should not be taken as the official opinion of the Order without further clarification.

Bernardino Ochino

Bernardino Tommassini, who became known as Ochino, was born in Siena in 1487. He entered the Capuchins about 1503 becoming Provincial in 1534 and 1538. The Dialogi sette, which we are considering here was first published in Venice in 1532 about ten years prior to his apostacy which took place near the end of 1542.[10] He lived his whole life surrounded by tension and spent the last part of his life at odds with established Protestant theologians, becoming one of most unpredictable of the Protestant refugees, until in the end, he died an outcast of mainstream Protestantism as well as Catholicism. He left the Friars Minor to join the Capuchins. Within the Capuchins he was part of the tension that existed between those who were moving away from the hermit cell and freedom of spirit to become more engaged in the apostolic life of the Church, a division that became evident at the Chapter in 1536. When he was summoned by the Inquisition to come to Rome in 1542, he fled over the Alps to a community of Calvinists. He married in Augsburg but later fled to England and in 1553 became a pastor to Italian refugees in Zurich where he was subsequently banished and died alone in Poland in 1564.

Ochino was already past fifty years of age when he began to lose faith in the Roman Church. During the transition he was influenced by his personal relationship with Jean de Valses and Peter Martyr Valdes, a Spanish nobleman who lived in Rome and Naples. During the Lenten season of 1542 he preached his last course of sermons in Venice and fled when reported for some heretical expressions. According to Boverius, who deplored his apostacy as a calamity for the Capuchin Order, he was accompanied by three lay brothers from Florence and went to live in Geneva for three years. He then moved to Strasburg where he married. When the Emperor Charles V conquered Augsburg he demanded the surrender of the apostate Capuchin and Ochino fled to Zurich where he met Calvin. He then moved to Basel. He received a call to England from Archbishop Cramner where he moved with his family. While there he wrote a Dialogue on the unjust, usurped primacy of the Bishop of Rome whom he nominated as the predicted Antichrist. In his seventy-seventh year he returned to Geneva as a widower with his four children. He accepted a call to Zurich as chaplain to an Italian community but was eventually obliged to leave. He went to Nurnberg but was asked to leave. He then went to Cracow in Poland where the Apostolic Nuncio had him expelled. He fell ill in Pinczow, recovered, but fell ill again and died at the end of December 1564. Ochino’s apostacy raised questions concerning whether the Capuchins were loyal subjects of the Catholic Church. Capuchin historians lamented this situation. Some recent English research has reacted to this with Arthur saying it amounts to calumny.[11]

The Itinerarium mentis in Deum

In the Prologue to The Soul’s Journey into God St Bonaventure outlines both what motivated him to compose that work and the sequence in which he will develop the topic. He says that he is looking for enlightenment and guidance in order travel along the way of the kind of peace that surpasses all understanding. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, had prophesised about his son that he would “give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide their feet into the way of peace”. (Lk 1:79). When writing to the Ephesians St Paul prayed that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, “may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that you may know the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints”. (Eph 1:18). When he wrote to the Philippians St Paul prayed that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts, and minds through Jesus Christ.” (Phil 4:7).

St Bonaventure is offering the same prayer and he points out that St Francis ended every conversation with the same petition concerning peace on his lips, because he was a citizen of the real Jerusalem, the city of peace where Solomon had his throne. (Ps 75: 3). St Bonaventure says that St Francis found this peace on La Verna and that it filled him so deeply that it showed forth in the stigmata because he had contemplated so profoundly the Crucified who was the ultimate expression of God’s love. St Francis could say like St Paul “it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.” Gal 2:20).

St Bonaventure then moves on to speak about how this comes about in stages, that he calls “phases of mystical illumination”, (Itinerarium Prologue 3) and that are symbolised in the six wings of the Seraph. While he says that they are “steps that lead to the enjoyment of peace”, they are something more for they transform us like a garment is transformed when it is washed and we are “those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.” (Itinerarium Prologue 3; cf. Song. 22: 14). Christ is the door to this city, but only those who have a strong desire, as did Daniel (Dan. 9:23), will enter. We must not only know but become enflamed if we are to experience rapture. He then proposes that “those who have been prepared by divine grace, who are humble and pious, contrite and devout, anointed “with the oil of gladness”, (Ps 44:8), and who love divine wisdom and are enflamed with desire. should surrender their wills to God who is to be praised, admired and savoured and realise that the mirror of the world is of little consequence unless the mirror of the soul has been purified.” (Itineraium Prologue 4).

Having said this, he divides the tract into seven chapters and begs the reader to attend to the meaning of the words rather that the style in which they are written, to dwell on them rather than pass on rapidly and to respond emotionally rather than intellectually. (Itinerarium Prologue 5).

Having established the objective to be reached, St Bonaventure then traces the phases of scrutiny that a person goes through in order to achieve not only knowledge but union with God. The journey begins with contemplating the observable evidence God left in the things that he created. He compares this stage to the time that the People of God spent in the desert searching for the promised land. He then says that these signs are not just footsteps that God has left behind, but that God lives in these things. “We are not only able to contemplate God by means of what our senses can perceive as if they were touched by his shadow, but we are able to see in them something more profound as we discover his essence, presence and power.” (Itinerarium Ch 2: 1). Going beyond the physical aspects of an object the mind can abstract a non-material image of the object and analyse its composition, appreciate its beauty and enjoy its fruits. Such processes involve the intellect making judgements and the will being moved to desire. Such activity gives us some insight to the invisible activity of God. (Itinerarium Ch 2: 12). St Bonaventure quotes what St Paul said in his letter to the Romans (Rom 1:20) about knowledge of God. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” St Bonaventure says that this is how God brought us out of darkness into light, (Itinerarium Ch 2: 13) quoting St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:57): “But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In chapter three St Bonaventure goes on to speak about the function of the image whereby in contrast to looking at things outside ourselves we are looking at interior processes. As exterior perception is brought about by means of the exterior senses, this process is achieved by the use of the three interior senses: memory which holds the object up for consideration, intellect which analyses it and the will which moves us into action. St Bonaventure sees these faculties as being represented by the three parts of the Temple: the mercy seat, where the ark of the Testament was placed, the sanctuary and the outer court (cf. Ex 26:34ff). He adds that the image of the Trinity shines like the lampstand producing the light of truth. Memory retains things that go beyond mere individual cases, such as universal principles like “the whole is greater that its parts”, events in the past, present and future and assesses what is immutable. (Itinerarium Ch 3: 2). Thus, we are able to know what is beyond the material if we are not impeded by concupiscence or fantasy. (Itinerarium Ch 3: 3). He concludes that because we are able to appreciate the functions of our three inner senses: memory, intellect and will, we can contemplate the Trinity. St Bonaventure points out that when the soul considers God as One and Three, using its three inner faculties, it is assisted by how science has three parts. Philosophy is divided into: natural, intellectual and moral. The first studies creation and can be associated with the Father, the second studies the order of things and can be associated with the wisdom of the Son and the last considers the laws governing life and can be associated with the Holy Spirit. (Ch 3: 6). Studying these things should lead us to the contemplation of eternal light. The result of such study will console those who are wise and confound those who are foolish. (Itinerarium Ch 3: 6).

In chapter four St Bonaventure explains the image of God that has been created by the human faculties is refined, strengthened and made clearer by the gift of grace. When we are considering natural things, we need someone to help us not to be distracted by what they have to offer, and Christ is the one who helps us. He said: “I am the door. If anyone comes to Me he will be saved, and he will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). We are like someone who has fallen over a cliff and needs help to climb to safety. “For, nobody, no matter how enlightened he may be by using human gifts or by acquiring human knowledge, can enter into himself to relish God except through the mediation of Christ”. (Itinerarium Ch 4: 2). It is only by placing our faith, hope and love in Christ that we become branches of the tree of life that grows in Paradise, part of the Church militant, and daughter of the heavenly Jerusalem. Christ renews our capacity to perceive spiritual realities since he is the way, the truth and the life. He increases our capacity to love the Spouse mentioned in the Canticle of Canticles and “he who has an ear to hear let him hear what the Spouse says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat.” (Song. 2:17). St Bonaventure goes on to say that this applies to an experience of love more than to rational speculation and that it describes this phase of the journey to know God. (Itinerarium ch 4: 3). This state of rapture is brought about by three things. The first is an abundance of devotion which fills the soul with sweetness so that it becomes “like a column of smoke from aromatic spices of myrrh and fragrance” (Cant. 3:6). Then it is wrapped in admiration becoming “like the dawn, the moon and the sun” (Cant. 6:10). It is finally overcome with adulation and “overcome with delight, it leans upon her beloved” (Cant. 8:3). St Bonaventure then adopts the terminology of the Pseudo-Dionysius by describing these three stages as forming a hierarchy similar to the Holy Trinity, and compares the three stages to the three choirs of Angels and the three ranks in the Church which is composed of priests, monks and the faithful. (Itinerarium ch 4: 4). He goes on to say that what he has said about the earlier stages was based on human philosophy whereas this stage is based on Scripture where St Paul says “love is the fulfilment of the law”: (Rom 13:10) and St Matthew says that Christ said that “on these two commandments hung all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40). “These two kinds of love were united in Jesus Christ, the Spouse of the Church, who was, at the same time, our neighbour and God, brother and Lord, friend and king, the uncreated Word and the one who is incarnate, our Creator and Redeemer, the Apha and Omega (Song 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), the supreme Hierarch who purifies, enlightens and perfects His bride, that is the Church, as well as all souls.” (Itinerarium 4: 5). The Holy Spirit enlightens us with divine wisdom so that we experience the love experienced by a spouse. Christ’s love is infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. (cf. Rom 5:5). If we did not possess this love, we would not be able to penetrate the secrets of God, “for what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of a man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 2:11).

We can contemplate God by considering things that he has made and which are around us, by examining the workings of our inner faculties in which his image has been implanted and by speculating about his invisible qualities that are above us. In chapter five St Bonaventure deals with the last of these ways of coming to know God. He maintains that the fundamental invisible quality that pertains to God was revealed to Moses to whom God identified himself as “I am who am.” (Ex 3:14). Later, in the New Testament, Christ revealed that God was good and reached out in interpersonal love when, in Matthew’s Gospel, he told his disciples to baptise “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Mt 28:19) and, according to St Luke, he added, when he was speaking to the rich young Ruler: “No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Lk 18:19). To back this up St Bonaventure indicates that St John Damascene (De fide orthodoxa.,I, c. 9 – PG, 94, 835-8) said “he who is” is God’s primary name, whereas Dionysius (De divinis nominibus, c. 3, §1: c,4, § 1 (PG 3, 679) said that “the Good” is God’s primary name. (Itinerarium, 5: 3). “Thus, whoever wants to know the invisible attributes of God’s existence has to consider the notion of “being”. Then he will see immediately that his “existence” is so sure that you could not even think that he did not exist.’ (Itinerarium, 5: 4). Nothing can be lacking from his being. The blindness of our intellect is amazing if it stops at the first thing it seeks without going deeper. This is like when the eye sees the colour of something without being able to see the light that enables it to see colour. (Itinerarium 5: 4). Our mind sees that a particular object exists without grasping the overall existence that made this possible. The mind has become used to darkness and to the images created in our senses without seeing the shining radiance of the Supreme Being. Here we note the influence of Dionysius and other Eastern mystics. God is pure being and if anything exists God must exist and he must be first, eternal and utterly unchangeable. (Itinerarium, 5: 6). If we consider the attributes of pure being we feel greater admiration and amazement. As we come to realise that all things “exist through him and for him to whom be glory forever,” (Rom 11:36), and that seeing him is the peak of beatitude. (Itinerarium, 5: 7).

Up to this point St Bonaventure has spoken about contemplating God as he is in himself, as the supreme being. He now moves on to speaking about contemplating God as God moves outside himself into relationships, communication and sharing. This will enable us to appreciate his goodness, which together with his “being” is the other basic quality that defines who God is. St Bonaventure does this in chapter six because he says according to the timeline that Scripture uses to tell how God created the world, man was created on the sixth day. However, man is only human and as such would not be an equal partner with God in a relationship. Therefore, St Bonaventure preposes contemplating the Trinity in which all the persons are divine and their interaction shows us God’s infinite goodness. “If you contemplate the supreme Good, which is the pure act of a principle that loves in a way that is both free and obligatory, which is shared both because of its nature as well as free choice, (in the Word as thought), as a free gift (in the Holy Spirit), you will undoubtedly see that the highest sharing of good exists in the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. By definition the supreme Good must have supreme interaction which springs from being supremely consubstantial when one interacts with the other, all being co-equal and co-eternal.” (Itinerarium, 6: 2). When we contemplated the six attributes of God we were lost in wonder, but contemplating the unity and sharing that is involved in the Three Persons leads us into greater wonder. Together with being individuals they share mutual intimacy. There are three Persons in one God. St Bonaventure goes back to using the mystical significance of the Cherubim that were placed on each side of the Mercy Seat in the temple. If you take the part of one Cherub you can contemplate the power of the One God. If you take the part of the other Cherub, you can contemplate how the Father sent the Son and both sent the Holy Spirit. (Itinererium 6: 5, 6). When we see the unity of the Persons and contemplate how they moved to act outside themselves, we have come to the sixth phase in spiritual enlightenment. We have arrived at the sixth day in the story of creation and all that remains “is to desire the day of rest, when we shall be at peace in the happy ecstasy of the time when all work had been done.” (Itinerarium 6: 7).

In chapter seven St Bonaventure speaks about how the journey ends in peaceful union with God. “Once the mind, as far as its limited capability permits, has contemplated God outside itself by means of the footprints and symbols he has left in the world; by means of the images God has planted with the soul and by means of the divine light beyond itself with which God had enlightened it.” (Itinerarium 7: 1). In the sixth stage of the journey the soul admires God as the supreme Being, and Jesus Christ as the Mediator between God and the human race, (1 Tim 2:5) a fact that not only exceeds our capacity of thought but which cannot be grasped by simply contemplating creatures. Now, in the seventh stage, it reaches out beyond created things and beyond itself. “In this process of ascension Christ is the way and the door (Jn 14:6; 10:7), the ladder, the Mercy Seat placed on God’s altar, and the mystery which has been hidden in God since the beginning of the ages.” (Eph 3:9). (Itinerarium 7: 2). When the soul gazes on the Mercy Seat, which is Christ on the cross, with a genuine spirit of faith, hope and charity, with devout admiration, joyful veneration, giving praise and singing hymns it will enter the Pasch, that is retrace the journey, with Christ. (Pasch means the journey during which God struck the Egyptians (Cf. Ex 12: 11-14). The cross will become the wand that enabled the crossing of the Red Sea and entry into the desert where the “hidden manna” became food (Ex 16: 9-36; Num 11: 8). The soul will find rest with Christ in the tomb (cf. Rom 6:4) and experience, as far as possible for a human being, what Christ promised the repentant thief: today you will be with me in paradise. (Itinerarium 7: 2).

St Bonaventure then goes on to say that this is what one of the companions of St Francis said happened to the Saint when, while wrapped in contemplation, he had a vision of a crucified Seraphim on La Verna. According to St Bonaventure this made St Francis a second Jacob. Just as Jacob had two names (Gen 35:10), St Francis became a model of both the active and the contemplative life. (Itinerarium 7: 3). To achieve this, he had to leave aside all intellectual activity and turn to God in love becoming caught up in mystical ecstasy which is a gift from God that no one can understand unless he receives it. (Song. 2:17). In fact, St Paul said that this kind of mysticism needs to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 2:10). “Since human nature and activity can contribute little in this regard, not much importance should be given to inquiring, but much to the anointing of the Spirit, little to what is said on the tongue and much to inner rejoicing, little to what is in books and much to the Gift of God which is the Holy Spirit, little to creatures and much to the Creator, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Itinerarium 7: 5). St Bonaventure then quotes the Pseudo Dionysius who said that the best source of Christian wisdom is the Holy Trinity. (De mystica theol. C. 1 § 1 (PG 3, 998s). Finally, St Bonaventure gives the following advice to the friend to whom he is writing: “leave behind your senses and intellectual activities, thoughts concerning what is visible or invisible, considerations concerning being or non-being, and, as far as you can, confidently abandon yourself and unite yourself to the One who is above all that exists and all that can be known. Then, when you have left everything behind and loosened all bonds, reaching beyond yourself and everything, make a sublime effort in your mind to ascend to the superessential ray of the divine darkness.” (Itinerarium 7: 5). St Bonaventure then ends his work with six quotes from Scripture (Itinerarium 7: 6) and a quotation from Richard of St Victor, the Scottish philosopher and theologian who became prior of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris where he died in 1173. “My flesh and my heart have become faint, O God of my heart, my portion and my God forever. Blessed be the Lord forever! All people will say: Let it be so. (Richard of St Victor, Benjamin Major, IV, c. 12, V, c. 15 (PL 196, 149, 187).[12]

The Seven Dialogues

Bernardino Ochino was one of the most influential architects of the Capuchin Constitutions in Rome at S. Eufemia in 1536. However, the writings that he produced before his dramatic flight to Geneva are still of great importance in defining the very lively influence of evangelical spirituality amongst the early Capuchins. Between 1536 and 1542 Ochino produced booklets of Dialogues and Sermons. Even if the greater part of modern historical research tends to see in his writings many doctrinal ambiguities that anticipate the heterodox choices that Ochino made, they still remain substantially within the ambit of Catholic teaching and document many of the religious and spiritual characteristics of the early followers of the Capuchin Reform.

As the title implies the document contains seven conversations on the following topics: 1) How to love God, 2) The way to become happy, 3) The way a person should conduct himself, 4) The thief on the cross, 5) Timely conversion, 6) The journey to Paradise, 7) The formular of profession pronounced by the one at prayer.

The first dialogue probably echoes conversations between Ochino and Caterina Cibo that took place in April of 1538 and it is typical of what was being discussed among the aristocracy at the time. The Duchess asks what she would have to do to love God. Ochino replies that when it comes to loving creatures, love comes to us instinctively and we do not need to be taught how to love, and yet we find it hard to love God. The Duchess replies that creatures are at our service and we love them because of what they do for us (Dialogue 4016), and if we consider that all that is good comes from God it is hard to see why some people find it impossible to love God. Ochino replies that God could have done nothing more for us than he has done. The Duchess sees his point and quotes St Paul who asked “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:35). She goes on to say that perhaps we have too much self-love. She observes that an eagle can fly as high as it likes but cannot go beyond the power of its wings. Ochino takes the point and says that God is not the object of our natural senses and to love God we need to make a deliberate choice to be lifted above our natural powers. (Dialogue 4016). He asks the question: “Who is there who is well cleansed of sensuality and natural inclinations that cannot overcome himself for the love of God and give up material things, children, delights, honours, friends and status and even his very own life, his existence and all that he has or would have, if not in deed at least in intent?” (Dialogue 4016). The Duchess then says that “A soul that stands alone and lives for love is a font of energy that rises towards her Creator being stripped of every other love.” (Dialogue 4021).

Ochino asks the Duchess to continue speaking and she says that love grows out of knowledge, for we cannot love what we do not know. Knowledge and love play different parts in the journey towards union with God and she refers to the symbols of Cherubim, as depicting knowledge and Serafim, depicting love. They are the celestial hierarchy described by the Pseudo-Dionysius, (cf. Complete Works, 99 ff.) which we have already met with when dealing with St Bonaventure’s work. Because as St Paul says God lives in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16.) we need more enlightenment and should study Sacred Scripture and the life of Jesus. (Dialogue 4024). We should think about how the nature of God is shared among the Persons of the Trinity considering it with the devotion of a simple old lady. Ochino explains that this can be done by considering the objects of creation as mirrors that reflect the divine goodness and after we have been struck by this go on to consider the beauty of God himself. Think of the beauty of flowers, gaze at the beauty of the stars, cast a glance on the Mother of God and then speak to the divinity of Christ. (Dialogue 4028). She asks if there is any more perfect way and Ochino replies that she should read devout books and look at the example of the Saints, a suggestion that found its way into the Capuchin Constitutions at Albacina. (Alb. n. 67, Const. 1536, nn. 4, 122, 135 etc.). The Duchess adds that she thinks that contemplating the life of Jesus is the best way of sending him all our love. Ochino says that if we think that he united himself to us for thirty-three years we will be enlightened by God and come to love him. (Dialogue 4030). Then the Duchess says that believing in the love of God will bring us into union with him. “We should be like a baby who is drinking milk from his mother and who is embracing and hugging her and is all taken up with the taste of the milk. He is not concerned whether it is white or black, if it is hot or cold, all his attention is on the taste. Our soul should forget itself and be absorbed in God and forget what does not pertain to the love of God.” (Dialogue 4033). God is disproportionate to the mind and we cannot understand him perfectly but we can taste the sweetness of his love. By the input of the Cherub, we ascend to the Seraph who prepares us for the coming of the Holy Spirit when love takes over from knowledge. (Dialogue 4034). The Duchess says that it is particularly helpful to think about the sufferings of Christ. “He could have healed and redeemed the human race without suffering. However, to demonstrate his great love, which he could achieve more clearly by suffering, he wanted to die so that because of his death we would be obliged to love him”. (Dialogue 4037).

It involves much more than academic speculation. It means falling in love and coming to happy and peaceful sharing. After the Duchess asks Ochino to teach her how to love God, he tells her that if we do not need lessons on how to love creatures who are not perfect why should be taught how to love God who is all perfect. (4014). She agrees that “there is nothing that we are more capable of doing than loving.’ (4015). Ochino goes on to say that he is referring to something more than natural love. The sin of our first parents has plunged us into ignorance and we need God’s help to overcome this. (4018). If we look at Christ on the cross, we will experience something more than knowledge. Knowledge precedes love for it is impossible to love something of which we have no knowledge. But we can go further.

To make his point Ochino speaks about the functions of the Cherubim and Seraphim. Pseudo-Dionysius had described how the Cherubim contemplate God whereas the Seraphim adore him. (cf. Dionysius the Areopagite. Complete Works, 99ff). (4023). “Therefore, whoever ascends towards God must first of all reach the state of the Cherubim and after that of the Seraphim, having been enlightened with knowledge of God first we then can move on to loving him.” (4023). Ochino then points out that Christ showed us the Father, that the Holy Spirit enables us to love him.

With all its shortcomings creation remains a staircase to God because it reflects the attributes of God. “Your Ladyship ought to visit the beauty of creatures, not stopping with this, but being aroused and lifted up by this to the beauty of what is divine, thinking that all the beauty of creation is nothing when compared with the beauty of God.” (4027).

One of the main things that helps us to do this is spiritual reading, because it contains personal experiences and sets examples. (4029). After all, Christ used human examples when he taught.

The best model of all is Christ if you think about him in the way that a spouse thinks about the beloved. “If, like a real spouse, the soul longs for Christ and gazes into his eyes and experiences a little of his love and what he has suffered for her, when she sees his burning tears, the warm heart-felt sighs that are coming from his breast, the loving blood and his great thirst for her salvation, it will be impossible for her not to love him.” (4031). When thinking about Jesus we should not be distracted by too much speculation. “We should be like a baby who is drinking milk from his mother and is embracing and hugging her and is all taken up with the taste of the milk. He is not concerned whether it is white or black, if it is hot or cold, all his attention is on the taste. Our soul should forget itself, be absorbed in God and forget what does not pertain to the love of God.” (4133). (Cf Cap Constitutions 1536, 123 and 125.). Then Ochino goes on to quote the Psalmist who said “Taste and see.” (Ps 34: 9)

Ochino stresses the primacy of love over knowledge. We do not have to know in order to love, but to love in order to know. Indeed, a soul who is searching for knowledge of God without desiring to love him is not a spouse but a prostitute. (4036). The beauty of things can deceive us. We should think about the beauty of God. “It is here alone that the love of God rests at peace and at the very happy haven of our longing: true rest from out labours, healing for our miseries and is a very effective remedy for all that is evil.” (4037).

In the second Dialogue Ochino continues to discuss how to become happy. Here the Duchess is looking for peace and quite and she is told that this cannot happen definitively in this life and her teacher reviews the concrete circumstances of her life in Camerino exercising the art of spiritual direction in a very practical way. The emphasis is on a personal way of acting in the spiritual life.

In the third Dialogue he suggests how a person should conduct himself appropriately. Here again the emphasis is on personal discipline with many of the suggestions being the same as what is laid down in the Capuchin Constitutions of 1536.

In the fourth Dialogue he shows how God responds to a repentant sinner by explaining what happened to the thief on the cross. This dialogue outlines a method of contemplating the crucifixion by dwelling on one scene in detail. God will respond to anyone who asks humbly and honestly because they have had a change of heart. This had come about in the thief because when the thief had looked on Christ’s face “the good thief saw that he suffered very greatly without complaining. Indeed, his face was so happy that he appeared to be enjoying shedding blood. He saw the hot tears falling to the ground. He heard his words. He contemplated his actions and divine gestures, his admirable patience, his great charity, his extended perseverance, and other virtues.” (Dialogue 4067). Once more this is spiritual counselling. It is based on contemplating Christ Crucified in a way that is typical of the Capuchin preaching of the day.

The fifth dialogue portrays Christ urging the soul to start doing penance soon before it is too late. Christ says that when a boat it sinking it means everyone has to look after himself. “Save yourself first. If you are in a dangerous situation and go about attending to the salvation of your friends it will result in death for yourself and for your friends.” (Dialogue 4079)

In the sixth Dialogue he returns to the topic of making progress in the spiritual life by creating a conversation between the Guardian Angel and the Pilgrim Soul. The Jews ate the Paschal meal dressed for a journey, with a stick in their hand to help them along the way and eating food that could be had on a journey. The journey is a flight from slavery. The earth is not our homeland and we need a guide, the Guardian Angel, to help us on the road to Paradise. “In so far as Christ was human, he was partly a pilgrim and partly not. Thus, in so far as he was one of us and a pilgrim on the way to the homeland, he won merit, not for himself, but for us.” (Dialogue 4082).

The Pilgrim tells the Angel of all the difficulties associated with the journey such as giving up possessions, losing friends and even relations. The Angel replies by referring to chapter five in Matthew’s Gospel. “Even though your sister is the apple of your eye, pluck it out of your head, take it out of your heart and turn to God.” (Dialogue 86). Ochino is usually very practical in the points that he makes without losing sight of the ideal. To the question of how does a person walk such a difficult path the Angel replies: “By means of love! The more you love God, the more you move.” (Dialogue 4087).

Now the Soul has come to realise that his homeland is not in this world and yet he is distracted by the love of things and by what is going on around him and is finding it hard to detach himself. In the end he asks the Angel to help him. “Now that I have come to recognise that this life is an exile, and that paradise is my homeland. I do not want to waste any more time but rather to go to paradise, and I want you, my Angel, to accompany me. Away with the world, I go to paradise! I go there and leave you behind with all your wealth, with all your cares, with all your shame and poverty. I leave all my friends, my worldly relatives and beg all of you not to be offended by what I am doing and forgive me if I have offended you or my Lord.” (Dialogue 4095).

The way is now clear for the person to set down a detailed proposal of what he will do. Ochino sets out this “divine profession” in a conversation between a man and a woman. The seventh dialogue contains a statement of what the person desires to do for the honour and glory of God in order to achieve his salvation and supreme happiness. (Dialogue 4096). The text has an interesting history and it is the first of Ochino’s printed writings that can be accurately dated with one edition appearing as early as 1540, a date that precedes the General Chapter at S. Eufemia where the early Capuchin Constitutions were confirmed in September 1536. Subsequent editions also vary the order of the dialogues.

The seventh Dialogue is a long formula of profession as if one were taking vows. However, once more the objective is a quest for happiness and peace that casts aside anything that would halt progress. The purest kind of love is not one that is motivated by feat of punishment, but one that is based on recognising the beauty of the beloved. “Since all of these punishments put together would not atone for my sins, I desire to be self-annihilated and transformed into Christ and desire to suffer all that he suffered for thirty-three years. Since even this would not suffice, I place everything in the merciful arms of the Crucified, and hope, through him alone to obtain forgiveness of my sins.” (Dialogue 4108).

The woman is to profess her faith in the Trinity and the workings of the Three Persons (Dialogue 4100), so that this will reassure her that she is capable of real love even though she has done nothing yet. (Dialogue 4101). If anything goes wrong, she will not despair of forgiveness, but will hide in Christ’s side forever. (Dialogue 4102). She wishes to be self-annihilated and completely transformed into God so as to love God in a divine way. (Dialogue 4104). She should never think about creatures except to give God glory for them. (Dialogue 4105). She will tell God the she is sorry for her sins and accept any punishment the he sends and avoid the occasions of sins. (Dialogue 4108). Finally, she is to profess the evangelical counsels and by casting aside the world she chooses God to be her only Father, his Son as her Redeemer and the Holy Spirit as her spouse to whom she will give all her dowry. (Dialogue 4110).


Both authors say that they are looking for spiritual peace of mind as St Francis did when he went to La Verna. Both want those whom they are addressing to find their way to this type of contentment and happiness. However, there are at least two great points of contrast in the documents: one is the method that they use to treat their subject and the other is the means that they recommend for achieving their objective. St Bonaventure presents a comprehensive theology of the process of prayer that leads to loving union with God. Ochino is offering spiritual counsel to someone who is experiencing difficulties with prayer. St Bonaventure adopts the form of a lecture and Ochino the form of a conversation.

St Bonaventure is doing the same thing that St Paul did for the message of the Gospel. He is taking Franciscan spirituality into a very different social environment that was nothing like the circumstances of the small group that founded it. In his development he uses terms taken from the analysis of human behaviour taken from Greek philosophers and Fathers of the Church. He presumes some knowledge of the Old Testament making use of the structure of the temple to represent stages of the journey. He takes up the symbolism of the cherub to represent knowledge and the seraph to represent the will and emotions. He sees the person as being part of a community which both instructs the individual and supports him in maintaining and developing belief so as to produce action.

Ochino, on the other hand, shows an individual how to use his personal behaviour to facilitate prayer. In the Dialogue He makes no mention either of the Church, the Sacraments or the community as providing assistance. The only external help that Ochino mentions is that provided by the Guardian Angel mentioned in the sixth Dialogue. If we look at this against the background of some of Ochino’s sermons it may help us understand his frustration and inner confusion with the boundaries imposed by following community restrictions. In a sermon preached in Vinegia on Monday in Holy Week 1539[13] when Ochino asserts the authority of conscience and personal inspiration taking precedence over external conformity, in opposition to the tenets of the Calvinists he exhorts people to go to Confession to receive absolution. Then on Holy Thursday[14] he encourages the faithful to receive Christ in the Eucharist to gain an intimate experience of the mysteries of Christ’s life.

Of the two authors one saw union with the Church, which is the Spouse of Christ, as leading to the desire to go beyond human activities to achieve peaceful union with God, while the other saw union with the Church and conformity as obstructing personal progression towards peaceful union with God.

We can gain some idea of how St Francis felt when he was on La Verna by looking at his writings that have come down to us from that time. He wrote to St Anthony telling him that he was pleased that he was teaching theology as long as “you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion.” He gave Bother Leo a parchment on which he wrote the Praises of God and the Blessing. He wrote the Canticle of the Creatures in three stages: the first praising God the Creator; the second asking the friars to intervene in the quarrel between the civil and religious authorities; the third welcoming Sister Death. He wrote a Canticle of Exhortation to The Ladies of San Damiano. He also wrote a Letter to the Entire Order giving the friars to celebrate Masses in churches and oratories. He wrote a short letter to Brother Leo which Brother Leo kept in his pocket. He wrote the Testament which gave a summary of his final instructions and wishes. These documents give us the personal aspirations of St Francis on his journey to union with God.

  1. Raoul Manselli, Clericalizzazione dei Minori e San Bonaventure in San Bonaventura Francescano, Convegni del centro di studi sulla spiritualità medievale, XIV, 14-17 ottobre 1973, Todi presso l’Accademia Turertina 1974, pp. 183-208
  2. Paulus a Foligno, Origo et progressus, 264. He was asked to write a chronicle in 1615 and with the help of a group of friars he worked on it until 1627 when the Minister general, Giovanni Maria da Noto, told him to stop. He kept the manuscripts which were not published but which have been preserved for us today in Edizione: Paulus a Foligno, Origo et progressus Ordinis fratrum minorum capuccinorum edidit Melchior a Pobladura (MHOC VII), Romae 1955.
  3. Ibid. 264.
  4. The texts used for these documents are taken from: S. Bonaventura, Itinerario della mente in Dio, Testo latino con versione ed introd. di G. Melani, Seconda edizione. Verna, 1961, and “Dialogi sette” di Bernardino Ochino da Siena, Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. in I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp. 445-530.
  5. Edith Pastor, Gli Spirituali di fronte a san Bonaventura, in S. Bonaventura Francescano, Convegni del Centro di Studi sulla Spirualità Medievale, XIV Todi 1974, pp. 161-179.
  6. Giovanni Micoli, Bonaventura e Francesco, Gli Spirituali di fronte a san Bonaventura, in S. Bonaventura Francescano, Convegni del Centro di Studi sulla Spirualità Medievale, XIV Todi 1974, p. 49.
  7. Cesare Vascoli, S. Bonaventura Filosofo Francescano, Convegni del Centro di Studi sulla Spiritualità Medievale, XIV Todi, 1974, p. 45.
  8. Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A study in Joachimism, University of Notre Dame Pres, Notre Dame, London 1993, Chapter VI, The Scandal of the Eternal Evangel, pp 59-70. Marjorie Reeves, and Warwick Gould, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of The Eternal Evangel in the Nineteenth Century, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987.
  9. Cf H. Denifle, Das Evangelium aeternum und die Commission zu Anagni’, Archiv fṻr Literatur und Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters, 1 (1885), pp. 49-142.
  10. Recent publications in English: Rita Belladonna, “Seven Dialogues”, 1 April 1988, Centre for Renaissance & Reformation Studies, University of Toronto, Translation Series 3 (book Review), M. A. Overell, Bernardino Ochino’s Books and English Religious Opinion, Studies in Church History, Volume 38: The Church and the Book, Cambridge University Press 2016.
  11. Recent publications in English: Rita Belladonna, Seven Dialogues, 1 April 1988, Centre for Renaissance & Reformation Studies. M. A. Overell, Bernardino Ochino’s Books and English Religious Opinion, Studies in Church History, Volume 38: The Church and the Book, Cambridge University Press 2016.
  12. A detailed summary of the Itinerarium is provided in English by Gregory La Nave, Through Holiness to Wisdom: The Nature of Theology according to St Bonaventure, Bibliotheca Seraphico-Capuccina, 76, Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, Roma 2005, pp. 71-122.
  13. I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze del primo secolo, (FCC), Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp. 2231-2241. See English translation on capdox.
  14. Ibid pp. 2241-2255. See English translation on capdox.