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Why the divine Artist made a world for us: Learning from St. Bonaventure

The greatest Franciscan Doctor of the Church, a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas, has a lot to tell us about our relationship with God.
Tue Jul 14, 2020 - 5:18 am EST
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July 14, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — The feast day of the greatest Franciscan Doctor of the Church, St. Bonaventure, falls either today (as observed in the traditional Roman calendar for over 400 years) or tomorrow (on the modern Roman calendar of 1969). The cardinal bishop actually died on July 16, 1274, but that date was already occupied by the higher-ranking feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Nicknamed “the Seraphic Doctor,” St. Bonaventure is appreciated above all for his mystical writings, such as The Mind’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis. Yet he was also a formidable practitioner of the scholastic method who penned searching treatments of a wide range of topics, including creation, Providence, the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Virgin Mary. These writings deserve to be better known, together with those of his more celebrated confrere and exact contemporary, St. Thomas Aquinas.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Bonaventure’s thought is the attention he pays to the theme of art and the artisan, using these concepts to illustrate truths about God as Creator of the universe. For example, he speaks of three fruits sought by the craftsman of an artwork and says God seeks the same from human souls, which are His handiwork:

Every artificer who fashions a work does so that he may derive praise, benefit, or delight therefrom — a threefold purpose which corresponds to the three formal objects of the appetites, a noble good, a useful good, and an agreeable good. It was for this same threefold reason that God made the soul rational, namely, that of its own accord, it might praise Him, serve Him, find delight in Him, and be at rest; and this takes place through charity. “He that abideth in it, abideth in God and God in him”; in such a way that there is found therein a kind of wondrous union and from that union comes a wondrous delight, for in the Book of Proverbs it is written, “My delights were to be with the children of men.” [1]

Just as the craftsman orders his actions to a noble, useful, and delightful product so that through his works, the artist may be honored and the recipient benefited, so the Almighty has ordered the whole of creation to show forth the supreme nobility of the Creator, the necessity of following Him, and the delight of dwelling in His courts.

The Divine Artist produced all lower creatures for the sake of man, and man for the sake of Himself. The appetites built into our nature are the threads the Maker suspends from heaven in order to lead us and bind us to Himself in friendship. Man’s desire for the noble, the useful, and the agreeable are components of a single abiding desire to rest in beatitude, a threefold path to the attainment of perfection, a threefold reflection of the Creator’s goodness.

St. Bonaventure also emphasizes that God made the soul rational not only that man might return to Him, but also that he might bring with him the whole of the lower creation, which attains its highest end in man’s inner life. The world follows us in our journey; it, too, reaches perfection in and through us when we have used it rightly. Just as sensible objects are exalted through the knower’s spiritual (immaterial) reception of their forms, so the soul of man is exalted through his journeying back to God, in whom alone he can find rest.

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St. Bonaventure teaches that the main purpose of the world is to lead the soul to God:

All creatures, whether they are viewed in terms of their defects or in terms of their perfectibility, in voices most loud and strong, cry out the existence of God whom they need because of their deficiency and from whom they receive their completion. Therefore, in accordance with the greater or lesser degree of fullness which they possess, some cry out the existence of God with a loud voice; others cry out yet louder; while still others make the loudest cry. [2]

By natural reason, we can see that creatures are ordered and dependent on higher causes, but without the illumination of faith, it will be difficult to see the specific likenesses they bear to God. For example, our reflections may lead us to see that the higher powers of the human soul form a triad (memory, will, and intellect) without yielding any indication that they are an image of a triune Deity. “It may be said that knowing the soul is either according to that which it is; and this knowledge is of reason; or else it is according to that of which it is an image, and that knowledge is of faith alone” [3].

If we need faith in order to discern the image of God in the soul — that which is, in a way, closest to us — all the more do we need faith to recognize the purpose of the universe at large. In fact, faith is needed no less urgently for the right use of the Book of Creation than for the right understanding of Holy Scripture.

To the eye unillumined by grace, the world’s beauty will be seen not as a mirror or ladder, but as an end in itself. Perhaps it will be approached as though it were a museum for the collector of curiosities or a public bath for the devotee of pleasure, but it will not be appreciated as an extension of the hand of God inviting man to return to his origin and destiny. “I wish to warn them,” Bonaventure says to his readers, “that the mirror of the external world put before them is of little or no avail unless the mirror of our soul has been cleansed and polished” [4]. Why must we bear this warning in mind?

For as long as our reason is turned towards higher things, it is illuminated, cleansed, and perfected; as long as it gazes upon the eternal laws and the unchangeable character of divine power and equity, it is strengthened and made whole in the good. Yet whenever our reason is turned toward lower things, namely to sensibility and the flesh, it is dragged about and becomes soft. [5]

At the same time, Bonaventure insists that we must never rest content with knowledge: “If you wish to know how these things may come about, ask grace, not learning; desire, not the understanding; the groaning of prayer, not diligence in reading; the Bridegroom, not the teacher” [6]. No reading of the Book of Creation or the Book of Scripture will effect that union of the soul and God that is the crowning completion of man.

One might even say God provides this pair of authoritative Books for the sake of awakening man to an end beyond everything he is capable of seeing or knowing in this life (“eye hath not seen, nor ear heard”) — an end beyond the letter, hidden in the depths of the Spirit. Each of God’s two Books serves a recollective end: it is the Author whom we must recollect, for nothing other than the beatifying vision of God — not the words of His ambassadors or emissaries — will satisfy the human heart. To the holy man, the world in its fiery splendor is but the outskirts of the real world, his heavenly inheritance.

The world is sweet to the taste but bitter to the stomach (cf. Rev 10:8–9), because it is infinitely less than the supreme Good for which man hungers, the sole Good in whom his appetite can rest. Bonaventure implores Christians to imitate the Apostle Paul, who held all things as naught, save Christ crucified; who sought not earthly wisdom, but the folly of the Cross.

Those who heed the warning and strive to purify the mind’s eye will see and be guided by the manifold presence of God in the world and its daily activities, from the constitution of plants and animals to the highest reaches of meditation and discourse to the humblest tasks of homemaking, craft, and labor. St. Bonaventure helps us to see that, even if the natural world is not our final home and we cannot ever be content with it (or with our work upon it), it nonetheless has the capacity to draw the mind to God by its beauty and its limitations, and to serve as a reminder and a foretaste of the blessings God has in store for those who love Him.

NOTES

[1] De reductione artium ad theologiam, §13.

[2] Quæstiones disputatæ de mysterio Trinitatis, qu. 1, art. 1, body.

[3] In I Sent., d. 3, pt. 1, qu. 4.

[4] Itinerarium, Prologue, §4.

[5] In I Sent., d. 24, art. 2, qu. 2, body.

[6] Itinerarium mentis in Deum, cap. vii, §6.


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