Sts. Francis and Bonaventure
Wednesday, July 1, 2009


St. Bonaventure

Bonaventure (Giovanni di Fidanza, 1221 or 1217 to July 15, 1274) wrote numerous books on philosophy and theology. The three which are collected in the present volume (over on the right) are The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis. His life is contemporaneous with that of St. Thomas Aquinas, and while Aquinas died on the way to the Council of Lyon, Bonaventure died after attending four sessions. (For a larger version of the picture above see here.)

I intend to do the first two works in the volume. Since I conceive of my primary audience for the religious and spiritual portions of this blog as being primarily the Carmelites in my former and current communities, I don’t know if I’m going to do the Life as well. That depends on how much time I have to devote to my secular reading.

There are several movies about St. Francis, and at least one novel. The novel is by Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek, The Greek Passion (filmed as He Who Must Die, with Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri, directed by Dassin), and The Last Temptation of Christ. I read St. Francis, and I think The Last Temptation of Christ, in a single day some 30 or 40 years ago. My recollection is that it’s a very dangerous thing to read that much Kazantzakis in a single sitting, because you get an impulse to go out and change the world. Fortunately that impulse will pass quickly. While some people may not care for The Last Temptation because of the controversy surrounding the movie, Saint Francis, if memory serves, is not so heterodox as to give anyone pause.

Bonaventure divides the first book, The Journey, into seven chapters, so, as usual, I’m going to give chapter (I,II, and so on), and paragraph numbers. Some of the text is printed in sense lines (center justified format). Rather than attempting to duplicate this format I’m going to present most of the quoted material in standard format.

The Journey begins with Bonaventure describing an incident in which he considers the miracle of St. Francis when he received the stigmata. He had a “vision of a winged Seraph in the form of the Crucified” (Prologue, 2). This leads to a consideration of the six wings of the Seraph which “symbolize the six levels of illumination by which, as if by steps, or stages, the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevations of Christian wisdom” Prologue, 3). THe six wings of the seraph are supposed to represent the steps to illumination. As such they start from creatures, and lead to God.

Bonaventure begins by defining happiness as “nothing other than the enjoyment of the highest good” (I, 1). This derives from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which we discussed earlier. This idea of happiness is not to be confused with pleasure. We saw in Camelot, that Arthur came to the same conclusion as Aristotle. When discussing the Founders, we have to hold in mind that when they said, or Jefferson said, “the pursuit of happiness,” that they had in mind that ethical tradition that begins with Aristotle and that realizes happiness is dependent upon virtue. A non-theistic philosopher, such as Ayn Rand, finds happiness in man’s pursuit of his own goals and destiny. Most people, however, equate happiness with possessions, good health, etc. Bonaventure, however, as a good student of Aristotle, locates happiness firmly in God.

This first chapter is “On the stages of the ascent into God and on contemplating His through His vestiges in the universe.” Bonaventure finds that “The Creator’s supreme power, wisdom and benevolence shine forth in created things,as the bodily senses convey this to the interior senses in three ways.” The senses assist the intellect “when it investigates rationally, believes faithfully, or contemplates intellectually” (I, 10). In this contemplation “we consider things in themselves and see in them weight, number, and measure…. Thus we see in them mode, species and order as well as substance, power, and operation. From these, as from a vestige, we can rise to knowledge of the immense power, wisdom, and goodness of the Creator” (I, 11).

So here we have the idea that the study of nature can be a road to knowledge of God. It should be noted that Bonaventure does not conceive of this as an ultimate path. This is a beginning step. I don’t recall which document it is, but I believe that one of the documents of Vatican II, and I think the new Catechism both affirm that God can be known through nature. This rests on the presupposition that one is attuned to such arguments. It is quite possible to be out of touch with such arguments, or to be emotionally predisposed so that the contemplation of nature does nothing for one.

I think there is also a possible link to what some call creation spirituality. Back in the early ‘80s I was going to spirituality classes offered by a nun. These were held in the basement of St. Dominic’s in DC. The nun was very much au courant with the creation spirituality of Matthew Fox, and of bizarre things like clown ministries. I found the idea of creation spirituality repellent, my own convictions being somewhat along Miltonic lines, when man fell, nature fell and was deformed.

This is not to slam what Bonaventure says here. It needs to be said that the contemplation of nature can be a first step to the contemplation of God, but it cannot be the whole journey, and that creation spirituality, and the natural theology project of someone like Paley, with whom this can also be linked, are not the whole story. They are not sufficient to take someone the whole way along the journey to God.

Some people have been known to say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” I would hazard the observation that what they mean is that they have entered upon the first stage of the journey, but they have no particular faith. Having no particular faith, their journey is doomed. Thomas Merton somewhere makes the observation that Aldous Huxley was interested in mysticism, but that because he never fully committed to anything, he never got anywhere.

The second chapter is devoted to contemplating God in the vestiges He leaves on the senses.

In II, 3 he uses the idea that man is the microcosm that reflects the macrocosm, the greater universe. Since that idea should be familiar to anyone who retains memory of the Renaissance portion of the average college lit course, we’ll let that one pass by.

In II, 8 he argues that a species, and he does not mean species in the Linnean sense of Homo Sapiens, or Olea europaea, but in the philosophic, Aristotelian sense, that has qualities such as beauty, wholesomeness, etc., reflects those qualities from the first Species. This gets those qualities from “the generating Source.” This ultimately leads us to God.

In II, 12 Bonaventure asserts that “The creatures of the sense world signify the invisible attributes of God.”

Chapters I and II together make up the purgative way, in which we cleanse ourselves, and see God through nature, and through sense. Chapter III describes the entrance into the illuminative way in which we contemplate God through His image stamped upon our natural powers. Bonaventure describes this as “reentering into ourselves, that is into our mind where the divine image shines forth” (III, 1).

Bonaventure asserts everyone who is capable of true reasoning is enlightened by the divine Truth. “The light of everyone who reasons truly is enkindled by that Truth which he also strives to reach. From this it is obvious that our intellect is joined to Eternal Truth itself since it can grasp no truth with certitude if it is not taught by this Truth” (III, 3). The first sentence of this quote, which is a paraphrase of Augustine (De vera religione, XXXIX, 72 according to the footnote), sounds like an anticipation of the position taken by George Fox and the Society of Friends (Quakers), a few hundred years later.

Bonaventure relates the power of choice, or will, to “deliberation, judgment and desire.” We deliberate when we choose what is better, but the better exists only in relation to the best. So you cannot know which is better, unless you know what is best. So you cannot know if someone resembles Tom unless you know Tom or have some acquaintance with Tom. Knowing Dick and Harry is not sufficient to know Tom. Bonaventure finds that the notion of the highest good is imprinted in all who deliberate. (III, 4)

The soul, which is divided into intellect, memory, and will, as it “considers itself, it rises through itself as through a mirror to behold the blessed Trinity of the Father, the Word and Love…” (III, 5).

The fourth chapter deals with “Contemplating God in His image reformed by the gifts of grace.” Bonaventure declares that “Since we can contemplate the First Principle not only by passing through ourselves but also in ourselves, and since the latter contemplation is superior to the former, this mode of consideration occupies the fourth stage of contemplation” (IV, 1).

Bonaventure describes the soul as being purified, illumined, and perfected by the three theological virtues. These are the three classical stages of the spiritual life. When the soul believes in Christ, it “recovers its spiritual hearing and sight.” Hope brings recovery of spiritual smell, and charity recovery of taste and touch. When it has done all of this the soul “can sing like the bride of the Canticle of Canticles” which he links to the fourth stage. (IV, 3)

When this is achieved our spirit become hierarchical. This refers to the ways of purgation, illumination, and perfection, and derives in large part from Pseudo-Dionysius. The three-fold way is linked to Torah, which purifies, the prophets, which illumine, and the gospels, which perfect.

The fifth chapter is on contemplating God through His name as being. In this method we contemplate God as He who is. The sixth chapter will look on God as the Good. At this point we are passing from the cataphatic, positive theology into the realm of Pseudo-Dionysius, the apothatic, and negative theology. Thomas Merton, in Mystics and Zen Masters, when writing about the English mystics, such as Richard Rolle, remarks that although Rolle seems purely cataphatic, he does lead into the apophatic, dark contemplation. The movement from light to dark in stages five and six is paralleled in the concentration upon the Old Testament in stage five, and the New Testament in stage six.

Primary Being “is first, eternal and utterly simple, there is in it no potency [potentiality] mixed with its actuality; therefore it is most actual. Also, since it is first, eternal, utterly simple and most actual, it is most perfect” (V, 6) This leads to the notion of superabundance, and this leads to the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4.

Chapter six treats of the contemplation of the Trinity under its name of Good. “See, then, and observe that the highest good is without qualification that than which no greater can be thought. And it is such that it cannot rightly be thought not to be, since to be is in all ways better than not to be; it is such that it cannot rightly be thought of unless it be thought of as three and one” (VI, 2).

The hallmark of negative theology as it developed in the Middle Ages, and I’m relying on my memory of Copleston’s volume on Medieval philosophy, is that God has qualities, but in such a way that His wisdom is not simply wisdom, but superwisdom. We’ve seen this in the notion of superabundance in chapter V. That idea is present here: “For we should wonder not only at the essential and personal properties of God in themselves but also in comparison with the superwonderful union of God and man in the unity of the Person of Christ” (VI, 4).

Chapter VII is “On spiritual and mystical ecstasy in which rest is given to our intellect when through ecstasy our affection passes over entirely into God.” This is the ultimate point of the journey. Bonaventure says that the mind passes over both the sense world and itself. “In this passing over, Christ is the way and the door; Christ is the ladder and the vehicle, like the Mercy Seat placed above the ark of God, and the mystery hidden from eternity” (VII, 1).

In passing over to God, “if it is to be perfect, all intellectual activities must be left behind and the height of our affection must be totally transferred and transformed into God” (VII, 4). I think, and I welcome correction on this point, that what he means is that at this point discursive meditation ceases. Obviously intellectual activity, such as philosophy and writing does not cease, otherwise we would not have this book. Bonaventure confirms this a bit later in the same paragraph when he says that it is mystical and secret, “which no one knows except him who receives it, no one receives except him who desires it, and no one desires except him who is inflamed in his very marrow by the fire of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent into the world.” This wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit. At this point Bonaventure would appear to be speaking of infused contemplation, something that is not the result of our actions. I’m not sure but John of the Cross would probably class this as a passive night of the spirit.

Bonaventure concludes by citing Pseudo-Dionysius:

“But to the friend to whom these words were written, let us say with Dionysius: ‘But you, my friend, concerning mystical visions, with your journey more firmly determined, leave behind your senses and intellectual activities, sensible and invisible things, all nonbeing and being; and in this state of unknowing be restored, insofar as is possible, to unity with him who is above ali essence and knowledge. For transcending yourself and all things, by the immeasurable and absolute ecstasy of a pure mind, leaving behind all things and freed from all things, you will ascend to the superessential ray of the divine darkness.’ (VII, 5)

In paragraph 6 we get a conclusion that has the feeling of a hymn as well as something that sounds almost like John of the Cross:

But if you wish to know how these things come about, ask grace not instruction, desire not understanding, the groaning of prayer not diligent reading, the Spouse not the teacher, God not man, darkness not clarity, not light but the fire that totally inflames and carries us into God by ecstatic unctions and burning affections. This fire is God, and his furnace is in Jerusalem; and Christ enkindles it in the heat of his burning passion, which only he truly perceives who says: My soul chooses hanging and my bones death. Whoever loves this death can see God because it is true beyond doubt that man will not see me and live. Let us, then, die and enter into the darkness; let us impose silence upon our cares, our desires and our imaginings. With Christ crucified let us pass out of this world to the Father so that when the Father is shown to us, we may say with Philip: It is enough for us. Let us hear with Paul: My grace is suffìcien t for you. Let us rejoice with David saying: My flesh and my heart have grown faint; You are the God of my heart, and the God that is my portionf orever. Blessed be the Lord forever and ali the people wi11 say: Let it be; let it be. Amen.

The Tree of Life This is an extended meditation on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Bonaventure considers Christ under three mysteries: His Origin, His Passion, and His Glorification. Each of these mysteries has four fruits, such as His Distinguished Origin, and each of these has leaves (I think, Bonaventure doesn’t seem to specify what the further breakdown is). The leaves are short meditations, about a page in length, such as Jesus Begotten of God, Jesus Prefigured, Jesus Sent from Heaven, and Jesus Born of Mary.

Bonaventure is supposed to have done a sketch of the tree, but apparently it’s been lost. A version of the tree can be found here, and a translation can be found here. Two papers about the diagram can be found here. I don’t want to quote too much from The Tree, because there is so much material that is worth quoting that I would be essentially reproducing the book. A copy of the TOC of The Life can be found here.

Bonaventure’s meditations resemble the Ignatian Exercises that will be developed in the 16th century. They are imaginative, and direct. While Bonaventure does not go into a lot of detail about the composition of place, something that C. S. Lewis thought he would get too wrapped up in, it is evident that he envisions a scene in which he is witness to scenes from the life of Christ. The author of the introduction mentions that it is possible to develop a spiritual sentimentality. That is possible, but I wonder if it isn’t also possible that someone with a strongly visual imagination, might take his imaginings for visions, or even for reality. George Bernard Shaw, in his preface to St. Joan, advanced the theory that Joan was what he termed, “a Galtonic visualizer” That may or may not have been the case, some people do see imaginative things, visualize people in a novel, or see things “in their minds eyes.” People such as Anne Catherine Emmerich or Maria de Agreda may have recorded imaginative meditations that were perceived in highly visual form. (Note: I’m not passing judgment on this matter. I’m simply speculating. I’ve not read anything by either nun.)

Having said all of that, as long as one does not fall into the trap of sentimentality, and remains focused on the hard reality of Christ and the Cross, I think the book is valuable, and can serve as a good source book for meditation

An additional note is in order here. There are a couple of place where the medieval anti-Semitism that is present in Chaucer, and which may survive in Shakespeare and Cervantes is present. The translation notes that the Vatican II documents on relations with non-Christians does not condone this. If you are using The Tree of Life as a source for meditation, do your best to disregard these statements. Fortunately, they are not the predominant thing in the book.

The Life of St. Francis (Legenda Major) Bonaventure wrote two lives of St. Francis, the Legenda Major and the Legenda Minor. The longer one, Legenda Major became the official biography of Francis for the Franciscan order.

Bonaventure mentions in the Prologue that he was cured of a serious illness by Francis.

Every garden that doesn’t have a statue of Buddha, or the Virgin Mary, has a statue of St. Francis. He’s gotten the reputation of being somewhat twee. Everyone focuses on his love of nature, his preaching to the birds, and the Christmas creche. Earlier generations regarded him as a bit of a fool, or an eccentric. Nietzsche, if I recall correctly, thought he was epileptic. Both views are, I think, wrong. Bonaventure records (V, 4) an incident in which Francis heard a voice telling him that God would punish those who kill themselves through asceticism. He then suffered a temptation of the flesh. Francis stripped naked, and then lashed himself with the cord of his habit, and reproached his body, “Brother Ass” for its weakness.

Thomas Merton referred to the austerities, and harsh treatment of the body as “spiritual athleticism.” While we now think nothing of going to the gym and doing a few miles on the treadmill, or pumping tons of iron, we don’t fast, unless we’re anorexic; we don’t pray, except during final exams; and we pump iron, not rosary beads. The kind of athleticism that Francis exhibited is now passe

Francis received the stigmata. I’m not altogether sure that I’m reading this correctly, but Bonaventure seems to indicate that Francis received not just the wounds, but also the nails in the hands and wrists as well. Francis exhibits the same attitude towards such manifestations that St. John of the Cross exhibits in the Ascent/Dark Night.

Francis received the stigmata two years before his death. Bonaventure describes the vision that accompanied the stigmata, and then comments, “Eventually he understood be a revelation from the Lord that divine providence had shown him this vision so that as Christ’s lover, he might learn in advance that he was to be totally transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by the martyrdom of his flesh, but by the fire of his love consuming his soul” (XIII, 3).

God and Love are frequently used to connote marshmallow gooeyness. The love that is “as strong as death,” or that descends into Hades to free a lost loved one, or that moves the sun and the other stars is not a marshmallow gooey emotion. St. John of the Cross did not write The Living Marshmallow Sundae of Love. He wrote The Living Flame of Love, precisely because of the transformative power of love. The cosmic marshmallow is essentially a descendant of eighteenth century sentimentality which wallows in emotion without taking effective action. Neither Francis, Bonaventure, or John will have any of that.

“When a servant of God receives a divine visitation in prayer, he should say: ‘Lord, you have sent this consolation from heaven to me an unworthy sinner and I entrust it to your keeping because I feel that I am a robber of your treasure.’ When he returns from his prayer, should show himself as a poor man and a sinner, as if he had obtained no new grace” (X, 4).

A little later in the same chapter Bonaventure describes the first Christmas creche. The incident occurred three years before Francis died, and rather than just doing it on his own, he asked permission from the Pope to do this commemoration.

Next up is either a book by Edith Stein, one by Merton, or maybe a book about the Talmud.