Both the size and the title of Saint Bonaventure’s most famous little work belie its contents. From its diminutive size, one might take it to be a meditation on some single point; from its title, one might easily come to think of it as vague and mystical. Actually the opposite of both of these common impressions is the case. The Journey of the Mind to God belongs in the company of the Summa Theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921) of Saint Thomas Aquinas, although its brevity indicates the quite different temper of its author. Bonaventure, the “Seraphic Doctor,” does not use the elaborate compendium method. Yet in brief compass, he presents a view of nature, humanity, and God no less comprehensive than that contained in a many-volumed work.

As to its “mystical” qualities, this work does reflect classical mysticism but Bonaventure’s presentation of this viewpoint is both detailed and highly technical. To sketch completely the structure that Bonaventure outlines would require a quite detailed study. It is rational in every detail—right up to the point at which reason finds its own end and realizes its own boundaries. Reason will be left behind, and ecstatic vision will become the goal, but this does not transpire until the very peak of possible human understanding has been reached. Only when reason has done its utmost at description and explanation can a way be seen to transcend reason. In this brief...

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Stages of Ascension

Bonaventure describes six stages of ascension to God. Their delineation is purely technical and rational, but Bonaventure, at the same time, considers prayer one means of becoming enlightened about them. To minds so used to splitting spirituality and rationality completely, such duality in Bonaventure’s thought is hard to grasp. To do so, however, is also to come close to understanding the special feature of The Journey of the Mind to God. For all natural objects have a double side: They at once are parts of a structured natural order discoverable by reason and at the same time, when properly viewed, may come to be seen as traces of God. Such divine traces are uncoverable in many places; he begins with those that are corporeal and outside people (as contrasted to those spiritual and interior).

The mind has three principal aspects, one of which is animal or sensual, another of which makes it capable of introspection, and a third in virtue of which it is able to look above itself and to grasp levels of existence higher than its own natural order. Because all natural objects have a divine side, the six stages of the soul’s powers correspond to the six stages of the ascension unto God. To describe the levels of ascent to God is to delineate the soul’s powers; to set forth the soul’s capacities is to outline the levels through which God is to be approached.

Theology itself has three modes: symbolic, literal, and mystical. The symbolic gives proper interpretation to sensible things; the literal corresponds to an intelligible level, and the mystic transcends the level of rationality. All three are properly theology. However, none of these is to be undertaken without preparation because rectitude of the will and the clarity of unimpeded vision are necessary. Then the sensible world may be taken up for consideration, and it will be transformed upon reflection into a veritable Jacob’s ladder, the sense world being as it is so full of the traces of God.

We proceed by transposing natural qualities into a divine setting. Weight, number, and measure provide a basis for grasping the power, wisdom, and immense goodness of the Creator. One inquires after the origin, course, and terminus of the natural order, then a grasp of the various levels of natural organisms can be acquired. From this one moves to consider God as a counterpart of these levels and of this order, as spiritual, incorruptible, and immutable. The natural order is a plenitude, full of every level and variety of kind. Such munificence is a source of natural illumination for the mind in its search for the proper road to God.

God is reflected in his traces in the sensible world and is known not only through but also in them. Bonaventure sees the natural world as being both good and beautiful, so that to an eye sensitive to such structure, God can actually be seen without taking our eyes away from the world of the senses even for a moment. The five senses are like doors. Through apprehending motion, we are led to the cognition of spiritual movers, as a progress from effect to cause.

Our senses lead us to...

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The Goal and Beyond

Having arrived at the end of the sixth step, our mind’s work is done, and it rests. The mind, having traversed the whole of the sensible order, then the intelligible realm, has finally understood itself and disciplined itself to raise itself to consider God. However, the end of this gigantic and rigorous activity is rest. The mind has reached the place at which it has done all it can do; nothing more is within its power and so it must rest. Rationally it has exhausted itself and has reached its limit. Reason, illumination, devotion, and discipline have brought the mind to the pinnacle of its powers and transformed it in the process of the journey, although at the end it sees that the final vision was never far away. At the outset the goal was near but not seen. It was present from the beginning (Being-itself), but our powers were not then sufficient to grasp it directly.

What remains? By looking at sensible things, the mind passed beyond them and then turned to consider itself. Now it passes not only beyond sensible things, by way of a rational dialectic, but beyond even itself. In this final passage, if the rational discipline has been perfected, all intellectual operation should at this point be abandoned. All our affection should be transferred from ourselves to God. The final step is most certainly mystical, but mysticism enters only at this final point and not before. No one can know this final phase who has not experienced it, and even to the mind undergoing the experience, it seems like moving into death and darkness to leave rational structure behind. However, the soul, having set out to find God, is now at the terminus of its itinerary and willingly surrenders what it could not have surrendered before (the guidance of its rational powers) and passes over into what appears to be (as contrasted with structured reason) darkness.

How shall a modern mind appraise such a scheme and its importance to philosophy? The immediate concentration on God, the mixture of philosophy with religious discipline, and the view of all mundane things as immediately reflecting God—all of these are nearly the opposite of the modern approach. In some basic sense, modern philosophers as well as most Protestant theologians are fundamentally rationalists, and to them Bonaventure’s ultimate mysticism seems strange. Consequently, The Journey of the Mind to God has an important function to fulfill as an example of a possible and different approach.

Historically its significance cannot be overestimated. In any form of the religious life, Neoplatonism has always been extremely influential, and Bonaventure represents a philosophical and a theological view that has for centuries been closely associated with devout practice. Since philosophy’s divorce from theology in the modern period,...

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Additional Reading

Bettoni, Efrem. Saint Bonaventure. Translated by Angelus Gambatese. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964. A reliable and accessible introduction to Saint Bonaventure’s life and thought.

Carpenter, David A. Revelation, History, and the Dialogue of Religion: A Study of Bhartari and Bonaventure. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995. Carpenter’s comparative study of the Indian philosopher Bhartari and Bonaventure sheds important light on the relations between diverse religious and philosophical traditions.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy:...

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