Climbing the Ladder of Creation with St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor

Most Catholics who have a decent acquaintance with theology will be familiar with the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) — at least, with questions from his Summa theologiae. Apart from Franciscans who are devoted to their own tradition, however, it is rarer to find an appreciation of or familiarity with St. Thomas’s exact contemporary and colleague at the University of Paris, St. Bonaventure (1221–1274; feastday July 14 on the traditional calendar, July 15 on the modern one). Although their theological approaches differ in interesting ways, the Angelic Doctor and the Seraphic Doctor are complementary more often than not and are always beneficial to study together.

St. Bonaventure excelled in discussions of the virtue of art (in Latin, ars; in Greek, technē), in the broad sense used by the ancients and medievals: the making of anything into what reason discerns it should be. In his little work On the Tracing Back of the Arts to Theology, Bonaventure takes as his theme the nature of art and the activity of the artisan to see what we can learn about God and ourselves. Looking at the effect intended by the artificer in his work of art, he says:

If we consider the effect, we shall see therein the pattern of human life; for every artificer aims to produce a work that is beautiful, useful, and enduring, and only when it possesses these three qualities is the work highly valued and acceptable. Corresponding to the above-mentioned qualities, in the pattern of life there must be found three elements: “knowledge, will, and unfaltering and persevering toil.” Knowledge renders the work beautiful; the will renders it useful; perseverance renders it lasting. The first resides in the rational, the second in the concupiscible, and the third in the irascible appetite. [i]

The works of God are beautiful, useful, and enduring. The goal for man is to make his own works similarly worthy. The decisive work entrusted to us in this life is none other than the making of ourselves. The life of virtue is the art that, when executed with knowledge, will, and persevering toil, disposes us to be clay in the Potter’s hands (cf. Jer. 18:4–6; Rom. 9:21).

This self-making takes place when we attend to habits of virtue and prayer, and, mounting the ladder of creation, seize one rung after another to climb higher toward the eternal goodness. To reach God through His creatures is in itself a “work of art,” which has as its completion the New Man patterned after Christ, a state attainable only by the inward help of divine grace. To neglect virtue and prayer, to walk blithely past the ladder with our eyes trained on the ground, is, accordingly to “unmake” oneself — to become progressively less like God, in whose image we were made.

Says Bonaventure in his Sentences commentary: “The trace or creature is like a ladder for ascending to, or like a road for arriving at, God” [ii]. The world is not an end in itself, nor could knowledge of it be worthy of pursuit for its own sake, if that knowledge does not proceed farther to embrace the ultimate reason behind the skein of proximate causes and effects. Yes, the world of created things is enduring in its own way, it has stability and a built-in order; and through the Incarnation of the Word, God has made possible the sanctification of visible, audible, tangible created reality. But material creatures are meant to illustrate above all the Creator’s knowledge, will, and labor — His wisdom, love, and providence. They demand our active response by turning us toward their divine Craftsman, who conveys through them a call to worship and thanksgiving; they do not stand apart, as though on display for spectators.

The world around us is a sign, a meaningful image, but it also does something for us: it assists us in our journey, functioning as (to use various metaphors) a ladder, a road, a mirror, by which we may rise to a knowledge of the greatest and best, the God and Father of all, that we may not be left orphans, but rather take His hand and be guided to a better place. Again in the Sentences commentary:

It must be said that as the cause shines forth in the effect, and as the wisdom of the artificer is manifested in his work, so God, who is the artificer and cause of the creature, is known through it. And the reason for this is double, one is because of agreement, the other because of need: because of agreement, for every creature leads to God more than to anything else; because of need, for, since God as the supremely spiritual light could not be known in his spirituality by the understanding, which is almost material, the soul needs to know him through the creature. [iii]

The Psalms burst with refrains in praise of a world that leads us back to the Maker, in whom the only explanation for their being is to be found.

In a way that would surely have earned him poor marks from many hipster eco-friendly theology faculties, St. Bonaventure insists that the world itself is abused and God sinned against whenever the “Maker of all things visible and invisible” is not actively sought in and through the things He has made. Bonaventure reiterates the warnings of Church Fathers and medieval masters against the vice they called curiositas, for which the word “curiosity” doesn’t quite suffice. Perhaps “excessive absorption in mundane matters” would be the best we could do in English.

Christian thinkers from the monks of the desert to the scholastics of the universities regarded curiosity as an intellectual defect characterized by the desire to probe into what cannot or need not be known — vain, unprofitable, self-glorifying knowledge of worldly things for its own sake or for man’s satisfaction, unreferred to the divine source, which is our final end, the one end that gives purpose and meaning to all other things. The appetite for knowledge becomes inordinate, says St. Thomas Aquinas, “when a man is withdrawn by a less profitable study from a study that is an obligation incumbent on him” [iv]. The desire to learn is also inordinate, Thomas adds in the same place, “when a man desires to know the truth about creatures, without referring his knowledge to its due end, namely, the knowledge of God.” The beauty of each thing in the world announces that it is not God, but rather comes from God, who is Beauty Itself, the goal of our every longing. The knowledge of worldly things has its value and justification in being a stimulus to worship, a furnace of purification, an enrichment of spiritual wisdom.

While the Christian wayfarer comes to know God through His creatures, which is an imperfect state of knowledge, the blessed who have attained the end of their journey see all lower and higher beings in the God who is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). “The blessed know the creature, yet they do not remain in the creature, but return to God” [v], says Bonaventure.

When the world’s beauty failed to serve its purpose due to human blindness, God sent His only Son, the Word in whom that beauty is inscribed and from whom it emanates, to lead captivity captive, to teach men how to read the book of creation rightly, how to ascend through it to reach its Author. As St. Athanasius in On the Incarnation and St. Anselm in Why God Became Man had done before, so too St. Bonaventure demonstrate the sublime fittingness of the Word’s becoming flesh to lead men back to the Father from whom we are estranged by the darkness of sin and error. God’s greatest work of art is the New Creation, the Second Adam, through whom man can return to his original purpose in the artistic economy of creation.

The great Franciscan Doctor, in his mystical treatise The Mind’s Journey into God, reminds us that we are sojourners on our way to a greater reality:

Let us place our first step in the ascent [of Jacob’s ladder] at the bottom, setting the whole visible world before us as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the Supreme Creative Artist. Thus we shall be as true Hebrews passing over from Egypt to the land promised to the fathers; we shall be Christians passing over with Christ from this world to the Father; we shall be lovers of the Wisdom Who calls to us and says: “Pass over to me all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits. For by the greatness and the beauty of the creature, the Creator of them may be seen so as to be known thereby.” [vi]


[i] De reductione, §13.

[ii] In I Sent., d. 3, pt. 1, qu. 3, ad opp. 2.

[iii] In I Sent., d. 3, pt. 1, qu. 2, body.

[iv] Summa theologiae II-II, qu. 167, a. 1.

[v] In I Sent., ibid., arg. 1 regarding the state of blessedness.

[vi] Itinerarium, cap. i, §9.

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