St. Bonaventure (1221-1274): The Journey of the Mind into God. (02/06/2001)

Depending what you read, St. Bonaventure appears perfectly normal, or so bent out of shape by ecstasy (of the religious variety not the pharmaceutical kind), that it is hard to believe he was really human. More like a spawn of angels than of man/woman. Very pious, too. Was for a long time head of the beggar-corpse of Christianity-the mendicant orders-the Friars who traveled about fleecing good people of their hard-earned money. So reviled were the Friars, in fact, that by Chaucer's day (1387) it was fairly common to depict them only in the worst possible light. Chaucer tells an amusing tale, put into the voice of his Summoner, in the Prologue to the story that pilgrim tells the company traveling to Canterbury. The Summoner claims he knows a Friar who fell asleep one day and dreamed he had been carried off to Hell by an angel. After traveling from one end of it to the other, the Friar was amazed to discover that none of his kind were anywhere to be seen in all the territory of Hell. He assumed from that evidence that no Friars had ever been condemned to Hell and said something to that effect to his guide. The angel quickly disabused him of that erroneous assumption by leading him around to the backside of Satan. The angel commanded Satan to raise his tail and:

Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve,

Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve

Twenty thousand freres on a route,

And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute,

And comen agayn as faste as they may gon,

And in his ers they crepen everychon. (III: 1693-1698)

St. Bonaventure worked day and night, so to speak, to reform the abuses of the mendicant orders; but, as Chaucer's commentary suggests or implies, the Saint had little success. Even in his own time, it appears, Bonaventure's attempts at reform were not looked upon with any joy by his contemporaries, since a high probability exists that he was murdered by poison in May, 1274 A. D. by persons unknown to this day. Could be there is a mystery waiting to be written somewhere in that tale: something like The Misadventures of Saint Bonaventure's Final Day.

Be that as it may, one of the works credited to Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind into God, which is best classified as one of his mystical treatises, sets off on its way to God-knows-where, with the following summary, wholly traditional and orthodox, of the history of creation:

"For according to the first institution of nature there was created a man fit [homo habilis] for the quiet of contemplation, and for that reason God placed him in the paradise of delights. But turning himself away from the true Light towards the completely changeable good [commutabile bonum], he was himself stooped down through his own fault, and his whole race by original sin, which infects human nature in a twofold manner, that is the mind by ignorance, the flesh by concupiscence; so that man thoroughly blinded and stooped down sits in the shadows and does not see the light of Heaven unless grace succors him with justice against his concupiscence, and knowledge with wisdom against his ignorance." (Chapter 1: 7)

This is St. Bonaventure's version of the Myth of Eden, wonderfully cut down, as it were, to bare essentials: Man was immortal and lived in paradise. He turned himself away from eternal blessedness and became blind and stupid. God saved him through grace with justice and wisdom. Everyone, becoming suddenly mortal, died.

I have only one problem with this story: it is based on absolutely nothing that even vaguely resembles a fact. Homo habilis, a "fit man," as opposed to Bonaventure's assertion that man was somehow "fit for the quiet of contemplation," is a term used to describe an early version of the human species that appeared in Africa prior to the emergence of Homo sapiens. Of course, for people who prefer to live the fantasy life of religious ideology, the idea that sapiens came after habilis, without benefit of a stopover in the Garden of Eden first, where the obviously mortal habilis became immortal as sapiens, apparently, so that they could fail to live up to the promise of being perfect in God's eyes, is one that fully and absolutely contradicts the evidence of scientific research and basic fundamental common sense. This "problem" of logic is pushed into the background, as it were, by the assertion that knowledge (of religious myth) is the wisdom granted by God's grace to cure ignorance, where the ignorance being cured is the fact, not the myth, that habilis evolved into sapiens without benefit of passage into and then out of Eden so that sapiens could be defined as "thoroughly blinded and stooped down. . .in the shadows." The problem here is that the facts cannot be reconciled with the myth.

Those people who are most caught up in the myth claim that the facts are lies spawned by Satan, like Chaucer's Friars, meant to both exemplify and perpetuate proof that sapiens are by nature, and by God's design, so fallible that, unless they repent of their error and disbelieve the facts, they will lose out on the promise of eternity granted to them by a return to that which has never existed in the first place (Eden). People who make this argument prefer to see sapiens as absolutely debased, vicious, brutal, worthless, savages without hope of redemption unless they believe in the myth that defines them as debased and worthless savages. As logic flows, that seems a bit ring-around-the-rosy to me. Guilt has a way of stooping people down into the shadows of self-doubt and debasement. Once thoroughly convinced, by a Friar perhaps, that they are cruel and vicious savages without hope of redemption, and certainly not before that is accomplished, it then becomes possible to extract (extort) a few pennies or pence from them in exchange for the promise that "God" will forgive them for believing they were condemned to lightless Hell as cruel and vicious savages. If you are a Friar, that is a promise you do not have to keep, which explains precisely why Chaucer put them where he did.

People more benign than pure zealots acknowledge the fact that this story is just a myth, a metaphorical way of understanding the nature of the human experience as it has evolved historically. There is certainly no lack of evidence to support the idea that people are capable of behaving like sin-riddled savages; we see confirmation of that sad fact everyday. But if your most elevated expectation is that everyone around you, even yourself included, cannot act beyond the level of a vicious, brutal, sin-ravaged savage, which is precisely what the Judeo-Christian tradition has preached as the immutable Word of God's absolute truth for five thousand years, without benefit of any contradictory voice except in those instances where the owner of the voice was burned at the stake as a heretic, what precisely is it that you demand of yourself and others that has any chance at all of being realized in a culture that always already defines you from the moment of your birth, and lately even before that, as pre-disposed, if not determined, by "God," to act only and absolutely out of the passion of being a sin-ridden, cruel and vicious savage? Making things even worse is the notion that if you fail to act decently, as expected, the same "God" that condemns you to it will forgive you for it so you never need worry about there being any consequences for your bad behavior. Put differently: "Forgive me Father, for I have sinned"-which is nothing more nor less than the sound of the clean slate, free-ride giving birth to the next vicious and brutal act that only extends human history along the pre-determined course set out for it by the notion that we cannot act otherwise.

St. Bonaventure, having successfully established the ground for his Journey of the Mind into God, claims that his discourse must unfold in six parts, with a seventh for good measure as a conclusion, because of the well-known and indisputable fact that cherubim have six wings. This statement, as it turns out, was my first clue that I was dealing with a mystical tract and not with a reasonable discourse. He gets along eventually to the subject of hierarchy, an inevitable aspect of his beginning, of course, because if you do not first beat human reality down into the depths of its absolute depravity you cannot then lift it up to the heights of it true glory. He says in this context that

"the first things are the lesser, the second ones the middle, the third the best. -- Again it sees, that certain things are only corporal, certain things partly corporal, partly spiritual; from which it adverts, that some are merely spiritual as the better and more worthy of both. Nevertheless it sees, that certain things are mutable and incorruptible, as the celestial things; from which it adverts, that certain things are immutable and incorruptible, as the supercelestial." (Chapter 1: 13)

Something one can take note of here is that he omits mention of the first level when he begins to tell us what kind of things exist in the universe of God's creation; that is, he begins with "celestial" beings, which are defined as "mutable and incorruptible," and ends with "supercelestial" things, which are "immutable and incorruptible." I presume that he left out, for one reason or another, those things in the first and lowest order, terrestrial(?) beings, which, according to his progression, would have to be defined as both "mutable and corruptible." I presume again that such things would include plants, animals, and human beings, among other possibilities I suppose, because I am reasonably certain that people are not generally credited, even by the most ecstatic visionary, with rising to the level of the celestial. Bonaventure gets himself caught up in this logical trap, as it were, of having to exclude the human from this hierarchical structure because he has already defined us as being inherently corruptible, by virtue of original sin, and no one would argue that any person is immutable, since everything about us changes as we go along, but he cannot put us into the first category either because we are not defined as being only corporal in our essential nature. Because we possess a soul, whatever that might be, we must belong to the middle category, of things that are "partly corporal, partly spiritual," but because he characterizes that level of the hierarchy as being limited to "celestial" things, we cannot belong to it either. Hence, one could say that faulty reasoning, if not the complete absence of logic, has rendered us homeless in a sort of hierarchical drift. Maybe we're comets. Just kidding. Even comets have orbits.

I'm not even going to the idea of the "supercelestial" because I cannot even begin to fathom the depths of what that refers to in reality. Cherubim, I avert.

Bonaventure arrives at the conclusion to the first chapter of his Journey, clearing the first step, counting the first wing, as it were, by rehearsing a number of standard, traditional, orthodox concepts, all derived from prior sources in the work of other church Fathers, which is perfectly understandable where your first priority is to prevent even the appearance of mutability in the divinely revealed Word of God, that include, but are not limited to, a short list of hierarchical terms presented as binary opposites, the notion that nature (the "Book of Creatures") points inevitably to the "primacy, sublimity and dignity" of God's absolute power over his creation, that "divine laws, precepts, and judgements" are contained in His "Book of Scripture" and testify to the "immensity of His wisdom," and that the "Body of the Church" holds the "divine Sacraments, benefactions and retributions" necessary to drive the human engine upward from its inherent depravity to the lofty realms of supercelestial glory in the mind, if He can be said to have one, of God. He tells us, as Dionysius the Areopagite did before him, that the very existence of hierarchy, in and of itself, "leads us by hand to the First and Most High, the Most Powerful, the Most Wise and the Best." The whole passage goes like this:

"Moreover their order [lowest, middle, highest] according to the reckoning [rationem] of duration and influence, that is by prior and posterior, superior and inferior, more noble and more ignoble, manifestly intimates in the Book of Creatures the primacy, sublimity and dignity of the First Principle, as much as it regards the infinity of His power; indeed the order of divine laws, precepts, and judgements in the Book of Scripture the immensity of His wisdom; moreover the order of divine Sacraments, benefactions and retributions in the Body of the Church the immensity of His goodness, so that the order itself most evidently leads us by hand [manuducit] to the First and Most High, the Most Powerful, the Most Wise and the Best." (Chapter 1: 14)

From the inside out, of course, this statement implies, or emphasizes, in the mind of its auditor the "benefactions" of the church. On the other hand, from the outside in, so to speak, what sticks in the mind is the fact that the church also has control of the "retributions" that can be visited on the non-believer as evidence of the immensity of God's goodness. Having so far avoided being burned at the stake, I cannot testify personally about how immense God's goodness actually is, given the fact that He has left His divine and immutable laws in the hands of depraved individuals (by virtue of original sin) with the clear and immutable duty to enforce them against whomever they might deem offensive to the status they have achieved during their inevitable rise to the top of the hierarchy God established to differentiate the lowest from the highest. Since the non-believer is always already defined as the lowest of the low, and the one in control of the fire is always already perceived as the highest of the high, avoiding the stake requires that I accept concepts that seem to me ridiculous, or that I lie by saying I believe in things that I certainly do not accept. If I, therefore, as a dedicated non-believer, am to save my life, and what else do I have worth preserving, I am forced to sacrifice my integrity, either by believing in the ridiculous, or by lying when I say that I do.