(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Giovanni di Fidanza was born in central Italy near Viterbo in 1221. He studied under Alexander of Hales at the University of Paris, where he later became a professor of theology. He entered the Franciscan order in 1242, was made general of the Franciscans in 1257, and became bishop of Albano in 1273. Gregory X made him a cardinal shortly before Bonaventure’s death in 1274. He was canonized by Sixtus IV in 1482 and in the sixteenth century was made a doctor of the Church by Sixtus V. Bonaventure’s other notable works include De reductione artium ad theologiam (before 1274; On the Recution of the Arts to Theology, 1938) and De triplici via (1260; The Enkindling of Love, Also Called the Triple Way, 1956).

In the prologue to The Mind’s Road to God, Saint Bonaventure tells of ascending Mount Alverna thirty-three years after the death of Saint Francis and shortly after having become minister general of the Franciscans to meditate and seek spiritual peace in the very place where Saint Francis had experienced the miraculous vision of the crucified Seraph. While in that place Bonaventure had the same vision, and he reports, “While looking upon this vision, I immediately saw that it signified the suspension of our father himself in contemplation and the way by which he came to it.”

The six wings of the Seraph, he writes, are to be understood as signifying the six stages of spiritual illumination by which the soul ascends to God. The way is only by the blood of the Lamb, Bonaventure adds, for the six stages of illumination begin with God’s creatures and lead up to God only “through the Crucified.” (The recounting of the miraculous vision illuminates Bonaventure’s subtitle, “The Mendicant’s Vision in the Wilderness,” and makes understandable Bonaventure’s honorific designation as “The Seraphic Doctor.”)

The basic image of Bonaventure’s spiritual allegory is that of a six-winged angel, seen as bearing three pairs of wings, each pair symbolizing one of the three major phases in the ascent to God. The first pair of stages involves reflecting on the sensible, corporeal world; the second pair consists in the contemplation of the mind’s own powers; the third is contemplation of God’s essence. The ascent to God, then, calls for seeing God through and in the body, then through and in the mind, and, finally, through and in the features of pure being. Bonaventure accordingly divides his treatise into seven chapters, the first six having to do with the six stages of illumination, and the seventh with the mystical experience of the union with God by which peace comes to the spirit.

Throughout his account of the stages in the ascent to God Bonaventure emphasizes that the securing of beatitude, the “fruition of the highest good,” requires divine help. None can be blessed, the saint writes, “unless he ascend above himself, not by the ascent of his body but by that of his heart,” and then he adds, “But we cannot be raised above ourselves except by a higher power raising us up.”

Prayer is vitally important also, Bonaventure writes. Divine help comes to those who seek it by means of prayer “from their hearts humbly and devoutly.” Just as Bonaventure himself was illuminated about the stages in the ascent to God only after having humbly and devoutly prayed on Mount Alverna, so others can find through prayer the kind of knowledge needed for the ascent.

The world is a ladder for ascending to God because just as a work of art reveals much about the artist, so the world bears traces of God’s hand. Accordingly, Bonaventure advises, “we ought to proceed through the traces which are corporeal and temporal and outside us; and this is to be led into the way of God.” To seek God through recognizing and appreciating the signs of his creative power in the world we sense is the first mode of understanding and ascent.

The second mode of understanding is by taking our own minds as the objects of reflection, for our minds “are the eternal image of God, spiritual and internal.” Having learned the way of God by examining the world, we proceed to awareness of the truth of God through and in our minds.

The third and final mode of ascent is by turning our minds to what is “eternal, most spiritual, and above us,” the First Principle of being, God himself.

Bonaventure summarizes his preliminary account of the three modes of understanding and ascent by calling attention to the three aspects or, one might say, prospects of the mind. In the first mode, the mind refers to body, “whereby it is called animality or sensuality”; the mind then looks into itself, and in that aspect it is spirit; finally, the mind looks above itself, and here it is properly called “mind.” Body, spirit, and mind, then, are aspects of the soul realized in the contemplative ascent to God.

These three modes are twofold, he next comments, “in so far as we happen to see God in one of the aforesaid modes as through a mirror and in a mirror.” Thus, just as God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so the “microcosm,” the soul, “by six successive stages of illumination is led in the most orderly fashion to the repose of contemplation.”

Corresponding to the six stages of...

(The entire section is 2202 words.)