Six stages of the soul’s illumination


Giotto, “St. Francis’s Vision of a Seraph”

I have finished reading Bonaventure’s summa of medieval Christian spirituality, The Soul’s Journey Into God. While contemplating Francis of Assisi’s vision of a winged Seraph in the form of the Crucified, Bonaventure discerned “the six wings of the Seraph can rightly be taken to 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. There is no other path but through the burning love of the Crucified.” Here is a summary of those stages:

  • Stage 1: Contemplate God through his vestiges in the universe.
  • Stage 2: Contemplate God through his image stamped upon our natural powers (memory, intelligence, desire).
  • Stage 3: Contemplate God in his image reformed by the gifts of grace (faith, hope, love).
  • Stage 4: Contemplate the divine unity through its primary name which is being.
  • Stage 5: Contemplate the most blessed Trinity in its name which is good.
  • Stage 6: The soul finds rest through spiritual and mystical ecstasy.

I am fond of how Bonaventure describes the perfection of the soul’s illumination:

In this consideration is
the perfection of the mind’s illumination
when, as if on the sixth day of creation,
it sees man made to the image of God.
For if an image is an expressed likeness,
when our mind contemplates
in Christ the Son of God,
who is the image of the invisible God by nature,
our humanity
so wonderfully exalted, so ineffably united,
when at the same time it sees united
the first and the last,
the highest and the lowest,
the circumference and the center,
the Alpha and the Omega,
the caused and the creature,
that is,
the book written within and without,*
it now reaches something perfect.
It reaches the perfection of its illuminations
on the sixth stage,
as if with God on the sixth day of creation;
nor does anything more remain
except the day of rest on which
through mystical ecstasy
the mind’s discernment comes to rest
from all the work which it has done.**

* Ezek. 2:9
** Gen. 2:2


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