A 700 Year Old Friend: The Bond Between the Scholar-Saint and the Champion of Beauty6:00:00 AMHannah Bruckner
I was busy unloading box after box of my belongings into my new apartment when I heard the familiar tone of my phone going off. Annoyed because of the extreme heat of a big move in late August without air conditioning, I rolled my eyes as I picked up my phone (I was not in the mood for talking with anyone). As I read the message, my heavy mood instantly lifted as my eyes widened in pleasant surprise.
Hey --- can you help me with some Bonaventure????
Attached to the text message were the screenshots from the pages of a book my friend was reading: Journey of the Mind Into God by Saint Bonaventure.
Now, anybody who knows me knows that my favorite conversations revolve around the writings of Franciscan Saints and mystics (though, if you asked me why, I couldn’t quite tell you). The flavor of Franciscan spirituality has always captivated me. Growing up, I always found the lives of the Franciscan Saints to be particularly heroic and inspiring. So, jumping at the chance to discuss one of my favorite topics with my friend, I sat down to read the screenshots that she had forwarded to me.
I couldn’t have been more surprised or excited by what I read.
It was an excerpt of profoundly high theology mixed with the voice of a man deeply in love. At first glance, it seems to be the mystical ramblings of a medieval. Amidst his flowery and poetic language, it can be easy to miss two key sentences (of this particular passage) that indicate a robust understanding of the human person and metaphysics. Amidst the ecstatic explanation of “recovering the spiritual senses,” Bonaventure exhorts that “the soul now sees, hears, smells, tastes, and embraces her beloved, and can sing as the bride in the Canticle of Canticles, which was composed for the exercise of contemplation proper to the fourth step” (source). Suddenly, the flow of the mystical poetry (or so it seems!) is broken up by an important philosophical distinction for Bonaventure: “no one reaches [contemplation] except him who receives it, for it consists more in the experience of the affections than in the considerations of the mind” (ibid.).
Here, I had to take a pause to soak in the gravity of that last sentence. In making this distinction between the affective sphere and the intellect, he places a high importance on the realm of affectivity during a time when scholasticism largely neglected the serious study of it.
Sound like someone else I admire?
Dietrich von Hildebrand is credited with “restoring the heart” of the human person (source, 37). I mean, think about how profound that is! During a time in history when the heart was completely annihilated in modern philosophy and regimes, Hildebrand dared to define his terms. People are not robots. We are not machines. We have real fleshy, beating hearts. The heights of spirituality lie in the touch between God and the affective center of the person.
Hildebrand, like Bonaventure, made it his mission to defend the legitimacy of genuine emotions. While modernity tries to label the realm of emotion as being synonymous with “passions”, the scrutiny of serious philosophy restores affectivity to its rightful dignity, and “recognizing the role of the heart in our philosophical conception of the human person becomes apparent when we realize how truly central it is” (ibid). It is within the heart, the affective center of the person, where the true self resides. It is here that the person is most free, and as Bonaventure expresses so beautifully, it is also here that the heights of contemplation touch earth.
While nearly 700 years separated their lifetimes, Bonaventure and Hildebrand’s like-mindedness when it comes to the heart paves the way for a long Christian intellectual tradition that upholds the legitimacy of affectivity. When one takes heed of Bonaventure’s words, one may find that they complement Hildebrand’s Aesthetics very well by emphasizing the importance of the senses in coming into contact with reality and things of value and beauty. When one responds justly to value and lives their life in an ordered way that is docile to recognizing beauty, then “the interior senses have been restored to see what is most beautiful, to hear what is most harmonious, to smell what is most fragrant, to taste what is most sweet, and to embrace what is most delightful” (source). Following suit with Bonaventure and Hildebrand, let us as people learn to embrace the delightful nature of the heart.