The Soul’s Journey Into God is the “summa of medieval Christian spirituality,” according to Bonaventure scholar Ewert Cousins. “He received his inspiration for the treatise while meditating on Francis’s vision of the six-winged Seraph on Mount La Verna in Tuscany at the very site where Francis had the vision and received the stigmata some thirty-five years before.” Cousins writes: “The Soul’s Journey Into God expresses the Franciscan awareness of the presence of God in creation: the physical universe and the soul are seen as mirrors reflecting God and as rungs in a ladder leading to God. . . . There is a natural link between the Franciscan attitude toward material creation, as sacramentally manifesting God, and the Franciscan devotion to the incarnation as the fullness of this manifestation.”
I did not grow up in an ecclesial tradition that taught this sacramental theology. As an Anglican, I am trying to learn more about how “contemplation of the material world as a vestige of the Trinity” can lead me “back to the power, wisdom, and goodness of the divinity and ultimately self-diffusing fecundity of the Father, Son, and Spirit,” as Cousins puts it. Contrary to the religious pluralism that prevails today, which posits that there are many roads to the divine, Bonaventure prescribes the exclusive doorway of the Crucified in his prologue to The Soul’s Journey Into God:
There is no other path but through the burning love of the Crucified, a love which so transformed Paul into Christ when he was carried up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2) that he could say: With Christ I am nailed to the cross. I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20). This love also so absorbed the soul of Francis that his spirit shone through his flesh when for two years before his death he carried in his body the sacred stigmata of the passion. The six wings of the Seraph, therefore, symbolize the six steps of illumination that begin from creatures and lead up to God, whom no one rightly enters except through the Crucified. For he who enters not through the door, but climbs up another way is a thief and a robber. But if anyone enter through this door, he will go in and out and will find pastures (John 10:1, 9). Therefore John says in the Apocalypse: Blessed are they who wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb that they may have a right to the tree of life and may enter the city through the gates (Apoc. 22:14). It is as if John were saying that no one can enter the heavenly Jerusalem by contemplation unless he enter through the blood of the Lamb as through a door.
In the first chapter of the treatise, Bonaventure answers the question that every man asks himself, “How shall I be happy?”
Since happiness is nothing other than the enjoyment of the highest good and since the highest good is above, no one can be made happy unless he rise above himself, not by an ascent of the body, but of the heart. But we cannot rise above ourselves unless a higher power lift us up. No matter how much our interior progress is ordered, nothing will come of it unless accompanied by divine aid. Divine aid is available to those who seek it from their hearts, humbly and devoutly; and this means to sigh for it in this valley of tears, through fervent prayer. Prayer, then, is the mother and source of the ascent.
Why does Bonaventure discern six stages of the soul’s ascent to the highest good?
Just as God completed the whole world in six days and rested on the seventh, so the smaller world of man is led in a most orderly fashion by six successive stages of illumination to the quiet of contemplation. This is symbolized by the following: Six steps led up to the throne of Solomon (3 Kings 10:19); the Seraphim which Isaiah saw had six wings (Isa. 6:2); after six days the Lord called Moses from the midst of the cloud (Exod. 24:16); and after six days, as is said in Matthew, Christ led his disciples up a mountain and was transfigured before them (Matt. 17:1-2).
Just as there are six stages in the ascent into God, there are six stages in the powers of the soul, through which we ascend from the lowest to the highest, from the exterior to the interior, from the temporal to the eternal. These are the senses, imagination, reason, understanding, intelligence, and the summit of the mind or the spark of conscience. We have these stages implanted in us by nature, deformed by sin and reformed by grace. They must be cleansed by justice, exercised by knowledge and perfected by wisdom.
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, contemplated the highest good with ease, but their fall into sin has made such contemplation a struggle for their progeny. What was once intuited as first nature is now learned as second nature.
In the initial state of creation, man was made fit for the quiet of contemplation, and therefore God placed him in a paradise of delights (Gen. 2:15). But turning from the true light to changeable good, man was bent over by his own fault, and the entire human race by original sin, which infected human nature in two ways: the mind with ignorance and the flesh with concupiscence. As a result, man, blinded and bent over, sits in darkness and does not see the light of heaven unless grace with justice come to his aid against concupiscence and unless knowledge with wisdom come to his aid against ignorance. All this is done through Jesus Christ, whom God made for us wisdom, justice, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).
Grace is essential in the soul’s ascent to the highest good:
Whoever wishes to ascend to God must first avoid sin, which deforms our nature, then exercise his natural powers mentioned above: by praying, to receive restoring grace; by a good life, to receive purifying justice; by meditating, to receive illuminating knowledge; and by contemplating, to receive perfecting wisdom. Just as no one comes to wisdom except through grace, justice and knowledge, so no one comes to contemplation except by penetrating meditation, a holy life and devout prayer. Since grace is the foundation of the rectitude of the will and of the penetrating light of reason, we must first pray, then live holy lives and thirdly concentrate our attention upon the reflections of truth. By concentrating there, we must ascend step by step until we reach the height of the mountain where the God of gods is seen in Sion (Ps. 83:8).
Cousins writes: “Seen with the eye of contemplation, creatures are vestiges, that is, the very footprints of God; they are roads leading to God, ladders on which we can climb to God; they are signs divinely given so that we can see God – shadows, echoes, pictures, statues, representations of God; creation is a book in which we can read God, a mirror in which the divine light shines in various colors.” In view of this sacramental theology, Bonaventure closes his meditation on the material world with this moving rhetorical passage:
Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf; whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; whoever does not discover the First Principle from such clear signs is a fool. Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God lest the world rise against you.
While all this talk of spiritual ascent may sound abstract, the practice of contemplating the divine presence in material creation is really practical. For help, I turn to some resolutions by Clyde Kilby, a C. S. Lewis scholar, who wrote a memorable document called “A Means to Mental Health.” These resolutions correspond well with Bonaventure’s spirituality:
At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.
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I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what C.S. Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.
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I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”