St Bonaventure (c.1217-1274)

Light of truth

“The Mind’s Road to God”

Franciscan theologian and “Doctor seraphicus” Bonaventure was an Italian by birth (Giovanni di Fidanza) and studied in the Faculty of Arts in the University of Paris. Probably in 1243 he entered the Franciscan Order and then studied theology and began teaching until 1257, when he was elected Minister General of his order and in this capacity he took a prominent part in settling the internal dissensions by which the order was then rent on account of the interpretation of poverty in the order. He first codified its statutes, the so-called “Constitutions of Narbonne” in 1260 and his “Life of St Francis” was approved by the order in 1263 as the official biography of their founder in 1266 and a general chapter at Paris decreed the destruction of all other “legends” of the saint. He was named a bishop and later cardinal and took part in the second Council of Lyons in 1274 but died while it was still sitting. As a spiritual writer he had a great and lasting influence, emphasizing the mystical experience than the path of reason as advanced by the Scholastics. All human wisdom was folly when compared with mystical illumination which God sheds on the faithful Christian and this essentially mystical theory of knowledge is set forth in his famous work Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Mind’s Road to God), written in 1259.

In the prologue to the book Bonaventure tells of ascending Mount Alverna, thirty-three years after the death of Saint Francis and shortly after having become Minster General of the Franciscans to meditate and seek spiritual peace in the very place where Saint Francis had experienced the miraculous vision of the crucified Seraph. While in this place Bonaventure had the same vision and his honorific designation as the “Seraphic Doctor” comes from this.

The basic image of Bonaventure’s spiritual allegory is that of a six winged angel, seen as bearing three pairs of wings, each pair symbolizing one of the three major phases in the ascent to God. The first pair involves reflection on the sensible, corporeal world; the second pair consists in the contemplation of the mind’s own powers and the third is contemplation of God’s essence. The ascent to God then calls for seeing God through and in the body, then through and in the mind, and finally through and in the features of pure being. Bonaventure accordingly divides his treatise into seven chapters, the first six having to do with the six stages of illumination, and the seventh with the mystical experience of the union with God. Bonaventure is clear that this requires divine help. None can be blessed, he writes, “unless he ascend above himself, not by the ascent of his body but by that of the heart” and then he adds, but “we cannot be raised above ourselves except by a higher power raising us up.” Prayer thus is vitally important. Bonaventure writes that divine help comes to those who seek it by means of prayer “from their hearts humbly and devoutly.” The world is a ladder for ascending to God because just as a work of art reveals much about the artist, so the world bears traces of God’s hand. “We ought to proceed through the traces which are corporeal and temporal and outside us; and this is to be led into the way of God.” Then he explains in the various chapters how the soul by the use of its powers can begin the ascent to God by reflecting on the traces of God to be found in the created, corporeal things outside us. The goal of all our efforts is the final stage of repose and illumination which is made possible by Christ. “In this passage Christ is the way and the door, Christ is the stairway and the vehicle.” It is a stage in which all intellectual operations cease and the “whole height of our affection should be transferred and transformed into God.” This ultimate stage of spiritual experience is mystical and the most secret. “If you should ask how these things come about, question grace, not instruction; desire, not intellect; the cry of prayer, not pursuit of study; not pursuit of study; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the wholly flaming fire which will bear you aloft to God with fullest unction and burning affection.”

Isaac Padinjarekuttu
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)

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