Today marks the feast day of St. Bonaventure, the seraphic doctor. Unlike Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure represents the synthesis of medieval Augustinian mysticism. For this reason, he can be particularly challenging to interpret. Reading him is worth the labor. In Bonaventure one glimpses the Franciscan vision placed within a broader, cosmic frame that extracts all of the nectar from Francis’ florilegia.
To enter Bonaventure’s world is to embark on a journey through the vast symbolic field of the books of creation and scripture. Grace grows first into the habits of the virtues, then branches out into the seven gifts of the Spirit (Is. 11.1), buds through the appropriation of the beatitudes, and comes to full flowering in the fruit of the Spirit and the spiritual senses this fruit begets. What Bonaventure aims to describe in symbolic mode is the various ways by which grace enters the soul. There is no single bestowal of grace, but a constant coursing and flowing that slowly penetrates and transforms every part of human existence. This is why the sacraments cannot be divorced from sacramentals or from the sacramental nature of creation. It is a vast whole through which the illuminating rays of light flow.
For Bonaventure, the fruits of the spirit represent the abundance of spiritual delights that flow into the soul. As the soul becomes inebriated in God’s garden of delights, the senses begin to sharpen and creation comes into focus. Through this organic unfolding, God beautifies the soul so that the soul in holiness can begin to perceive the interconnections between God, creation, the church, and scripture. To understand God’s two great books of creation and scripture involves a continuous movement back and forth between nature and grace, literal understanding and spiritual understanding, scientia and sapientia, all as a living member of the larger body of Christ.
One can see how this works in Bonaventure’s analysis of scripture. The interpreter of scripture first seeks the literal meaning of the text. To stop at this point would be a mistake. There is a broader narrative world within which the full meaning of scripture takes root for “the whole of Scripture is like a single zither, and the lesser string does not produce harmony by itself, but only in combination with others.” The literal meaning of a single passage expands in light of its inter-textual relationship to the rest of scripture, a relationship that is not reducible to a single point of connection. Instead, the passage stands as a point in a web of relations that forms the narrative whole and is itself connected to a larger world of meaning.
One unlocks the full meaning of any passage by entering into that broader web of relations, which becomes possible as the grace of the Spirit conforms the individual to the Son who stands at the head of his body. Thus the literal meaning of a passage has within it spiritual meanings insofar as it forms a single point in a larger web.
The same holds true of scientific knowledge of the world. To stop with scientific knowledge as though it told the entire story of the universe is tantamount to claiming that the literal interpretation of scripture communicates its full range of meaning. The spiritual meaning of the universe is akin to the scientific meaning in relationship to a child’s understanding. The child examines the night sky and sees the immensity of its expanse in wonder and awe. The scientist gazes upon the same sky at a deeper level of understanding with the same experience of wonder and awe. Such levels of meaning unlock the secrets of the universe but only travel so far. For Bonaventure, the full meaning of the universe unfolds as part of a grander narrative that the believer encounters by assimilation into this narrative. This is the movement from literal to spiritual interpretation facilitated by holiness.
How does this movement from scientia to sapientia come about? Bonaventure’s answer is “desire, not intellect; the groaning of prayer, not studious reading.” Such claims seem strange until one remembers that wonder, awe, and delight inflame desire that propels the soul in its flight. Moreover, Bonaventure would argue that the moment of creative insight, when knowledge is birthed in the soul, cannot be reduced to the flight of the mind alone.
When the vision that gives birth to a song, a painting, a scientific theorem, or a work of literature crystalizes before the mind in awe and wonder and delight, as though one beholds afresh the world, there is a sense in which the person recognizes that what just occurred is itself a gift, a gift of God. It is and it is not a product of the mind; it flows from the fields of memory and yet takes shape by the swift movement of a divine hand. And so, on this feast day of St. Bonaventure, let us press on toward the mark that we might ascend higher and deeper by clothing ourselves with the six wings of the seraphim only to rest, finally and fully in that perfect freedom of triune movement. This is the sepulchre of Christ. This is what it means to be crucified and die that we might live.
Photo credit: Kevin Hughes