The Journey of Soul into God

Review by JongWook Hong, 2008

Bonaventure, The Journey of Soul into God, tr. By Cousins, Mahwah, Paulist Press.

Bonaventure is a 13th century theologian, who was educated and trained in Christian cultural context. He was born in Bagnoregio, a small town in Italy, at the period of the Franciscan Order reaching a peak. Clearly, Bonaventure was influenced by Francis that his book the Journey of Soul into God (JSG) contains the “Franciscan awareness of the presence of God” (13). Bonaventure’s theology stands on the Neo-Platonic tradition, and he placed Christ on the center of his theological system; as the center of God qua Trinity; as the Mediator between God and human being.

In JSG, Bonaventure uses scriptural language and has many citations from the Scripture. It almost seems as though it is the only language for him to speak about God, the world and the relation of God and the world. The word for ‘journey’ in the Latin term is Itinerarium, which means itinerary, journey in general, or pilgrimage to Holy Land (21). What makes interesting is that the word ‘itinerarium’ expresses an action, a plan, or a prayer of our mind searching for God. This is peculiarity of this book because God does not come to us, but we go to God by groping around us. Furthermore, he uses ‘in Deum’ – into God – instead ‘ad Deum’ – in God – that implies movement (21).

JSG consists of six chapters, and each chapter shows how we make the journey. In the prologue, he notes, “the six wings of the Seraph, therefore, symbolize the six steps of illumination that begin from creatures and lead up to God” (55). The six chapters signify steps that we take in order to reach – or meet – God. The journey begins from the world outside us – the sensible world – to the world above us, which can be explained only symbolically (60). However, these six steps can be integrated into big three stages based on the quality of our experience of God.

In the first two chapters, Bonaventure explains how the world can be experienced as the vestiges of God. He uses words like vestiges, likenesses and mirrors. It is our senses to know the presence of God through creation. “The creatures of the sense world signify the invisible attributes of God” (76). In chapter three and four, philosophical examination is performed, that is, “we enter into our very selves” (79). Bonaventure argues that we are the images of God not by our appearance, but by our intellectual ability or reason, and that our intellect has knowledge of Being itself. However, he knows that there is cut off from human beings mind to God or the union with God namely from philosophical stages to theological stages (88). The only way to overcome this chasm is through the light of God. “we cannot rise above ourselves unless a higher power lift us up” (59). This stage is the union with God, the mystical ecstasies namely “the perfection of the mind’s illumination” (108).

In sum, he speaks of three stages of how we contemplate God; “outside us, within us, and above us; through his vestiges, through his images, and through the light” (94). In fact, those three stages – the sensible world, our mind, and the union with God or ecstasies – are also how we have religious experiences, or how we experience the presence of God in a Christian sense. Although he has hierarchical metaphysics, he understands Being itself is the ground, on which human being – and creatures – stand. In this sense, the journey does not begin from outside God. Or there is no “journey” per se since we are on Being itself. It is everyday life for Bonaventure.