Friday, 25 November 2011

The Ascent to God

St Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum or The Soul’s Journey Into God is based around the image of the six-winged Seraph seen by St Francis on the slopes of Mount Alverna; a vision that imprinted on him the living seal of the Stigmata. According to Isaiah, “each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (6:2). This image may be considered a private revelation to Francis by one of the Seraphim, who presents him with an image of the Crucified that is also an intimation of the divinized form of Man, of Francis himself as the saint he will one day become, transformed by God’s grace.

According to Bonaventure’s interpretation, the two lower wings of the figure correspond to the human body, the second pair to the soul, and the third to the spirit. In several prophetic visions of the seraphim, their wings are covered in eyes to signify consciousness. Thus they represent three types of consciousness – as
he puts it, the awareness of things outside us (in the physical world), of things within us (in the psyche), and of things above us (in God). According to Bonaventure’s commentary, we rise from the level of the Body to that of the Soul and then the Spirit not simply by turning our sight in one direction or another, but by the elevation of our will, in the power of the theological virtues.

The first two wings enable us to know the natural world in which our bodies are situated. Bonaventure calls them Sensation and Imagination. Freedom at this first level, the first pair of wings covering the feet, has to do with choice between possibilities in this material world. In order to achieve this, both wings are needed – that is, both Sensation and Imagination – because we can hardly be said to have a real choice if we can only see what exists in front of us, without being able to imagine alternative courses of action. Nevertheless, at this level there is not yet full moral freedom, no fully developed sense of good and evil, because our choices tend to be dominated simply by pleasure and pain.

Vision of Christ/ Love
“Image”                      “Likeness”

5th wing      -    Spirit       -     6th wing
Intelligence or                        Synderesis
Understanding                                 Anamnesis

3rd wing      -    Soul        -     4th wing
Reason                                 Faith
Rationality                            Theological virtues

1st wing       -    Body       -     2nd wing
Sensation                         Imagination

The second two wings, the ones with which we “fly”, are the ones that enable us to advance beyond the world of the senses, firstly by reflecting interiorly on the mind, and then by seeing in our minds the image of God. Bonaventure calls them Reason and Understanding, the latter being illuminated, he says, by the three theological virtues, beginning with Faith. So here we have reached John Paul II’s “Faith and Reason” as the middle pair of three sets of wings. These give us freedom of the second level, which is freedom of movement between earth and heaven – or as John Paul II puts it, freedom to “rise to the contemplation of truth”.

With the help of Reason we can see the invisible patterns within things, and with Faith (our eyes reformed or enlightened by grace) we can grasp the providential pattern or meaning behind them. This is also the level of the virtuous habits that develop in us the divine image. But both wings are necessary because without a supernatural faith in the transcendent source and locus of the Ideas, Reason will quickly close in upon itself, the sacred reality of beauty and divine Wisdom will be denied, and the cosmos will be regarded as a mere piece of machinery to be taken apart and put back together, as has happened in much of modern thought.
And just as, when one has fallen, he must lie where he is unless another is at hand to raise him up, so our soul could not be perfectly lifted up out of these things of sense to see itself and the eternal Truth in itself had not Truth, taking human form in Christ, become a ladder restoring the first ladder that had been broken in Adam.
As for the third and highest pair of wings, Bonaventure calls them Intelligence and Conscience (using the technical term synderesis), meaning the faculties that enable us to contemplate first Being, and then the Good. These two wings covering or touching the face of the figure represent the twofold “contemplation of truth” to which our flight on the wings of Faith and Reason raises us. The freedom of this third level is the power to “be”, with a view to our final end or purpose. If the highest achievement of Reason was to contemplate Beauty in the order and harmony of the cosmos, the achievement of Intelligence, according to Bonaventure, is to contemplate “the divine unity through its primary name which is Being”. (This is the level at which a dialogue with other religions could become truly fruitful.)

But the third level is also where we become able to hear the voice of the transcendent – that which transcends even Being, or (if you prefer) reveals the inner meaning of Being. For Bonaventure says that the sixth wing, “the spark of synderesis”, is the very “summit of the mind” (apex mentis). This is the highest point of the soul, which according to St Jerome, in his commentary on the four-faced cherubim in Ezekiel, is the “spiritual element” in man not extinguished by the Fall. Like an Eagle flying above the Man, the Lion and the Bull, it rises above the rational, the irascible, and the appetitive parts of the soul. It is the “gravity” of the soul towards goodness and away from evil, the deepest mark of the divine image, our point of communication with God. Consequently for Bonaventure it is this wing or faculty that contemplates God not as Being, but as the Good, and not as One but as Three – as Bonaventure puts it, “the most blessed Trinity in its name which is the Good”.

It is in his capacity as the Good, not just as Being, that God reveals himself to be a Trinity of Three Persons – the trinity is the Good “giving itself” perfectly within itself to itself. The human person bears this image of the Trinity as its supreme end or the goal of its existence. As we might say today, the human person is “called to holiness”, or called to self-gift, and in this way will be caught up in the Trinitarian life of God. This is where we derive or intuit the norm of human holiness, and that is why Bonaventure likens the sixth wing to the sixth day of creation, the day on which Man was created. In Christ that human image is seen in its perfection.

So the fifth and sixth wings of the Seraph touch the face of the supreme mystery hidden from all ages. Together, they bring us face to face with the unity of human and divine natures in Christ, the Alpha and Omega, who reveals being as Trinitarian love.

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