"Since happiness is nothing else than the enjoyment of the Supreme Good, and the Supreme Good is above us, no one can enjoy happiness unless he rise above himself, not, indeed, by a bodily ascent, but by an ascent of the heart. But we cannot rise above ourselves unless a superior power raise us." Some sentences later, Saint Bonaventure gives us one of the keys "Prayer...is the mother and origin of every upward striving of the soul."
Quoted from the translation into the English language by Fr. Philotheus Boehner, OFM. It is not the most recent translation but one similar to the time in 1997 when I took a short course on "The Journey of the Mind to God," given for Franciscan novices by the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, in Oldenburg, Indiana. A weekend course on Saint Bonaventure, and perhaps especially this particular work, is hardly enough to scratch the surface. To truly understand the spiritual and theological scope of this work would take at least a semester or more. So just to let you know I'm not an expert on Saint Bonaventure but I've read and studied several of his works. Friary libraries are great - they generally have the series of Bonaventure's works published by St. Anthony's Guild of Paterson, New Jersey - but these seem to be totally out of print and especially not available to people in small towns because there are no Catholic libraries about.
Let's continue. On any work by Saint Bonaventure one needs to realize that he uses much symbolism and metaphorical language. He states that our mind has three principle ways of perceiving. This is a philosophical statement which one could compare to "Let it be, He made it, and it was made." "It reflects the threefold substance in Christ, who is our ladder" (as in ascent) "His corporeal substance, His spiritual substance, and His divine substance."
Bonaventure discusses six steps in the ascent to God. The whole world was created in six days, on the seventh day, God rested. The Seraphim that Isaiah saw had six wings, and there were several other examples of six days given. "Correspondingly,...there are six graduated powers of the soul." These six powers are "the senses, the imagination, reason, understanding, intelligence, and the summit of the mind or spark of synderesis" (A term coined by St. Jerome, referring to the very apex of the mind).
A given in all of this "He, therefore, who wishes to ascend to God must first avoid sin, which deforms nature. He must bring the natural powers of the soul under the influence of grace, which reforms them, and this he does through prayer; he must submit them to the purifying influence of justice, and this, in daily acts; he must subject them to the influence of enlightening knowledge, and this in meditation; and finally, he must hand them over to the influence of the perfecting power of wisdom, and this in contemplation."
All this takes a lot of holy living. We're not likely to get there overnight. The basic ingredient in this formula to Heaven is prayer and avoiding sin, any sin, at all costs. It can be done and it has been done as the lives of hundreds of venerables, blesseds and saints will teach us. And it can be done as members of the laity. I have no doubts at all, and I can name a number of people who are well on their way to giving their all to Jesus Christ.
Bonaventure continues: "He who contemplates considers the actual existence of things; he who believes, the habitual course of things; he who investigates with his reason, the mighty excellence of things." God is in all vestiges of this world and through understanding of him in these objects we can find Him. He is there in the trees of the field, and they stand in silent adoration. He is present on the path we're walking on, because He is part of His Creation. So also, He is in us, as He created us. These ideas are very present in Bonaventure's writing. Beauty is an equality of proportion and from which we derive pleasure and then use our judgment to discover why we take pleasure. It is judgment that leads to a better way of beholding what is eternal because God is a necessary part in our judgment.
Bonaventure spends much time on our memory, "the memory has to be informed not only from the outside by phantasms but also from above." And he continues: "And thus it is clear from the activities of the memory that the soul itself is an image of God and a similitude so present to itself and having Him so present to it that it actually grasps Him and potentially 'is capable of possessing Him and of becoming a partaker in Him.'"
"Human desire, therefore, seeks whatever it seeks only because of the highest Good, because what it seeks either leads to the highest Good or has some likeness to it. So great is the power of the highest Good that nothing can be loved by a creature except through the desire for that Good, so that he who takes the likeness and the copy for truth errs and goes astray."
Unfortunately, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, people have come to disobey God. Their idea of the highest good is the flesh. My fervent hope is that they will find their way to obey God again and so be able to recognize the greatness of Him who loves them so much.
Bonaventure: "The image of our soul, therefore, must be clothed with the three theological virtues, by which the soul is purified, enlightened, and perfected." Let us strive to be obedient to God in all things, let us shun riches and power, and let us live a chaste life, always living in the image of a loving God.
If we, Secular Franciscans, live by the Rule of Saint Francis, if we do it well, Heaven will begin here on earth as we are gently led by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, closer and closer into the arms of God. Saint Bonaventure in "The Journey of the Mind to God," has given us a way to accomplish this important task.
All quotations taken from:
St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium mentis in Deum. Translated by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., Ph.D., New York,
© The Franciscan Institute, Saint Bonaventure University, 1956.
Secular Franciscan Order
Ordo Franciscanus Sæcularis
Divine Mercy Fraternity
Vero Beach, FL
Officers as of 1/10/2016
Fred Schaeffer, OFS
Helen Caldarone, OFS
Mary "Jean" McGovern, OFS
Jack Reddy, OFS
Donna Haro, OFS
Joanne Giordano, OFS
Fred Schaeffer, OFS