This week as we commemorated All Soul’s Day, it reminded me a book entitled a journey of the mind to God by Saint Bonaventure. When I was discerning with Franciscans, I recall reflecting on spirituality of St. Francis and his experience in Mount La Verna in Assisi Italy.
Saint Bonaventure was born in 1221 in Bagnoregio near viterbo, Italy, later join the Franciscan Order about 1240 and after completing his studies in the University of Paris, he taught theology for twelve years, later in 1257 he was elected Minister General of the Order of the Friars Minor at the age of thirty – six years, he remained in the office until 1273, where Pope Gregory made him a Cardinal Bishop of Albano, he participated in the council of Lyon where he was instrumental in bringing about the temporary reunion of the Greek Church in Rome. He died at the age of fifty – three on July 5, 1274, and after three centuries of his death, Saint Bonaventure was canonized on 14th April 1482, he was declared a Doctor of the Church, the bull, “Triumphantis Hierusalem” of Pope Sixtus V, by elevating him to this new dignity, solemnly confirmed his merits as one of the greatest minds of the Christian Middle Ages.
The Profound spirituality of St. Francis and his experience on the hill of La Verna where he received the stigmata is my motivation in reading this spiritual classic book. The journey of the mind to God as Bonaventure himself explain in the six chapters of the Itinerarium, are concern with search of God. As I meditate on St. Francis experience of the world, his human thoughts, the love of the creatures, Action and the inner experience of his Vision of the seraphim in the form of the Crucified Christ through deep prayer and meditation in solitude; am moved to contemplate the richness of God’s glory through this writing of St. Bonaventure. Also, I realize that it is through devotion to prayer that St. Francis journey towards God. Hence, my driving force of this Spiritual classic book is to find myself journeying towards God as Our Seraphic Father Francis did.
From personal experience it shows that our journey to God is more adventurous than we can describe. We can’t say what we live. Too much happens. Words, images and symbols fail to express our experience. When we try to describe God’s love, we fail miserably. That’s why most of us say nothing about love. Spiritual geniuses, like St. Bonaventure his experience with God’s love through following the example of the Most blessed Father Francis, he says I breathlessly sought this peace, I a sinner, who have succeeded to the place of that most father after his death, the seventh Minister General of the brothers, thought in all ways unworthy, it happened that by divine will in the thirty-third year after the death of that blessed man I ascended to Mount La Verna as to a quiet place, with the desire of seeking spiritual peace; and staying there, while I meditated on the ascent of the mind to God, amongst other things there occurred that miracle which happened in the same place to the Blessed Francis himself, the vision namely of the winged seraph in the likeness of the Crucified. While looking upon this vision, I immediately saw that signified the suspension of our Father himself in contemplation and the way by which he came to it.
Bonaventure starts with common experience, and he says that happiness is enjoying the highest good but the highest good is not down here among the creatures. It is above, above means beyond material, upon spiritual being. He says that when we try to ascend spiritually to God we don’t rise very far, so we know that clearly that we cannot rise up above ourselves unless a higher power lifts us up, no matter we plan our spiritual progress, nothing comes of it unless divine assistance intervenes, and the divine assistance is there for those who seek it humbly and devoutly, who sigh for it in this vale of tears by fervent prayer. Prayer, then, is the mother and beginning of the ascent to God. So, let’s pray and say to our God: teach me, O Lord, your way, that I may walk in your truth; direct my heart that it may fear your name. By Praying this way, we receive light to discern the steps of the ascent into God. Some created things are vestiges, other images; some are material, others spiritual; some are temporal, others are everlasting; some are outside us, others within us. In order to contemplate the first principles this is God. Who is most spiritual, eternal, and above us we are invited to pass through His vestiges, which are material, temporal and outside us and this will lead us in path of God. In addition to that we are also invited to enter into our soul, which is God’s image; hence we enter into the path of God, truth of God and knowledge of God.
As I was Reflecting on this threefold we can become ecstatic over this trinity which remind us of the three fold events, Moses leading the Israel into the desert for three days, (Ex 3:18), then threefold daylights: evening, morning, and noon in order of brightness, and three ways that creatures exists: in matter, in human mind, and in God’s mind which Eternal Art, (Gen 1:3), so Christ provides three substantial aids: bodily, spiritual, and divine. Here I can see Bonaventure is showing us our image and likeness to God in three acts: sensation, spiritual and mind. Bonaventure uses all these reflections to ascend into God in order to love Him, with our whole mind, our whole heart and our whole soul. (Mk 12:13)
While reflecting on the possibility of the soul ascending to God, am motivated by this wondrous event that occurred in the hill of La Verna to Blessed Francis, namely the vision of the winged seraphim in the form of a crucifix. And meditating on this immediately I realized that such a vision offered me a contemplative ecstasy of Father Francis himself and the same time the way that led to it the journey of the mind to God. The six wings of the seraphim thus became the symbol of the six stages that lead man progressively to the knowledge of God through observation of the world and of creatures and through the exploration of the soul itself with its faculties, up to satisfying union with the trinity through Christ, in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi, so this vision of the six- winged seraph in the form of Christ crucified symbolizes both St. Francis rapture in prayer andthe six stages of illumination by which the soul was disposed to pass into peace by the ecstatic elevations of Christian wisdom which are the stages towards union with God is are purgation, illumination and union. The way however is only through the most burning love of the crucified, who transformed St. Paul, “caught up into the third heaven” (2Cor 12:2), he said that “with Christ I am nailed to the cross, yet I live, now not I, but Christ lived in me” (Gal 2:19).
In addition to that the six wings of the seraphim symbolize the Bonaventure’s responsibility as the minister General of the Franciscan friars, those who are to be effective leaders of others must be men of virtue. Regarding themselves they must have virtues necessary for a blameless life. Regarding their superior, they must have the virtues that lead them to render humble obedience when obedience is required. Regarding their subjects, they may guide them correctly and bring them to grater perfection. He must teach all virtues because of the office he holds must himself possess all virtues in an eminent degree. As a religious I must be resplendent with six extraordinary virtues just as Isaiah says the seraphim that are pre-eminent in the ranks of the heavenly spirits are adorned with six wings. Perhaps therefore the Lord appeared to Our Father Saint Francis in the likeness, in the glorious vision in which he imprinted the stigmata of his passion, to show that those who are to lead his family effectively must have such spiritual wings. The six wings of the seraphim signify: zeal for justice, loving kindness, patience, exemplary life, prudent discernment and devotion to God. Each religious, too, being a responsible for my spiritual welfare and accountable to God in the last judgment needs these wings for himself. He must have them to soar to the things above so as to be fervent in justice, compassionate to fellow men for God’s sake, patient in trials, edifying others by his good example, circumspect in all things, and above all closely united to God by devout prayer. May God protect us in all things, guide us and lead us to a greater perfection and finally bring us to the soar aloft to heaven. May Jesus Christ grant us this Grace to love him and devout oneself to Him as Our seraph Father Francis.
The Mystical wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit, Christ is both the way and the door, and Christ is the stairway and Vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Art of the covenant and the mystery hidden from the ages. A man should turn his attention to this throne of mercy and should gaze at his Him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a Pasch, that is, a passing over. Through the branches of the cross he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulcher, as is possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung besides Jesus Christ: today you will be with me in paradise; for the Passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he or she surrenders himself or herself to it; nor can he or she long for it unless the Holy spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostles say that this mystical wisdom is reveal by the Holy Spirit. As I reflect on the last words of St. Bonaventure’s ‘Itinerarium,” which respond to the question of how one can reach this mystical communion with God, would make one descend to the depth of the heart: if you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in sight of prayer not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging force that carries the soul of God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardor of his loving passion. Only he understands this who said: my soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God, for it is certainly true that: No Man can look upon me and live. So, lets us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imaginations. “Let us pass over the crucified Christ from the world to the Father,” (Jn 13:1) so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: “it is enough for us.”(Jn 14:8) We may hear with Paul: “my grace is sufficient for you;” (12:9) and we can rejoice with David, saying: my flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and heritage forever. Blessed be the Lord forever and let all people say: Amen.
The journey of the mind to God, Saint Bonaventure completes his travel guide with a hymn of devoted love, where the perfect journey is describes, if our journey is imperfect, our second chance is purgatory, only then can we enter into Heaven (God). Hopefully we will complete our journey here on earth and die as St. Francis of Assisi died. So let us hope and pray to follow Saint Bonaventure’s steps and die in perfect love.