This past Wednesday (July 15th) the Church celebrated the feast of St. Bonaventure, a 13th-century Franciscan friar, bishop, and Doctor of the Church. Like his Dominican contemporary, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure thinks of human experience as a journey to God, but he has a somewhat different starting point than that of his colleague. While Thomas begins with the world outside of himself as the handiwork of God, Bonaventure starts with the world inside—the workings of the soul—as an analogy of divine life. As he puts it, the human soul, the “image” of the immortal God, must likewise be immortal. It follows that the soul’s desire can only be satisfied by “perfect”—that is, absolute, eternal, complete—happiness: God alone.
Just think of the implications of St. Bonaventure’s thought for the origin, dignity, and the destiny of human beings. We alone, of all creatures, have the capacity to draw into ourselves the immensity of creation and thereby, to a degree, enter the life of God. Bonaventure echoes St. Augustine when he describes the soul’s “affinity” for truth; that is, reality “fits” the mind like a hand and glove. Our very desire for happiness is an inkling of the soul reaching out at every moment, however imperfectly, for God.
St. Bonaventure takes the letter of St. James (1:17) as his inspiration: “Every good gift…is from above…from the God of lights.” He describes the “lights” (or forms of knowledge) that shine on the soul: knowledge of the (useful) arts that make life enjoyable; the knowledge of nature; of philosophical truth; and of revealed (or divine) truth. Each in its own way illuminates our journey to God.
The beautiful aspect of Bonaventure’s approach is that it is not a retreat into a disembodied world; on the contrary, he dives deeply into human experience. Everything, from the painstaking loveliness of a flower garden (thank you, Dee Marvullo) or a toddler blowing bubbles, to the questions of life we ask looking up at the stars, to the ineffable wisdom of Sacred Scripture, brings us closer to heaven with every step.
This summer, let us not pass up the opportunity to bask “in the light of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:5).