Perhaps St Bonaventure might not be the easiest saint in the world to understand, but he nevertheless has much to offer us today. A contemporary of St Thomas Aquinas, he was born in the 13th century and is considered to be, in effect, a ‘second founder’ of the Franciscans. He wrote at a time when theology was not a separate academic discipline, but was fused with philosophy, spirituality and prayer.

Bonaventure’s most famous work is the Itinerarium mentis in deum (‘The Journey of the Mind to God’), a masterpiece of medieval Christian spirituality. Although it’s not an easy work to make our way through, the effort is worth it.

To give you a taste, here are three key spiritual insights from the text—and these are just from the prologue!

Made for ecstasy

‘Anthropology’ is the study of the human being: what we are, where we come from, how different societies and cultures have developed over time.

At its heart, Catholicism invites us into a ‘theological anthropology’: a consideration of who we are and what we were created for in the light of eternity; in the light of the God who reveals himself, who created and redeemed us.

Throughout Bonaventure’s reflections, there are a couple of words used repeatedly that tell us a lot about what the soul was created for: excess and ecstasy.

When we use the word excessive, it’s usually in a negative way, denoting something that’s a bit ‘over the top’ in someone’s words or actions, a ‘going beyond’ what’s called for. Bonaventure shows us ‘excess’ in a more positive light: we were created to ‘go beyond’ ourselves, to pass over into an inheritance that is ‘over the top’ and far more than we could ever imagine or deserve.

Interestingly, this is also the root of our word ecstasy: to be in a state of ecstasy is to go beyond or stand outside oneself.

Bonaventure plays on these words excess and ecstasy throughout the Itinerarium. We were created to pass beyond ourselves, Bonaventure says, into an ecstatic, rapturous union with the living God. The spiritual life is nothing less than the journey into that union.

It all starts with desire

How do we begin this journey? How do we begin to step out of ourselves and go beyond, passing into union with God?

The analogy of spousal love is helpful. A couple’s union begins with the desire for one another. In the same way, Bonaventure says, we cannot be given over to this ‘ecstasy’ unless we become someone ‘inflamed’ with desires.

There are two ways to stoke desire in ourselves, Bonaventure goes on: first, ‘through the clamour of prayer, which makes us cry out with an aching heart’; second, ‘through the brilliance of investigation, through which the mind turns itself most directly and most intensely towards the rays of light’.

In other words, desire is stoked through prayer or by contemplating the mysteries of God. In the same way that our senses can elicit desire in us, so contemplation and prayer can elicit desire for God. They go hand in hand, too. If we want to be one with God, then we have to learn how to desire God.

Christ crucified is the door

Of course, Bonaventure wouldn’t be giving us a truly Christian vision unless Christ were at the centre of it.

The object of our desire is not something vague, abstract or ethereal—on the contrary. ‘This path,’ Bonaventure writes, ‘is nothing but a burning love of the Crucified’.

He quotes St John’s words in the book of Revelation: ‘Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb, that they may have a right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city’ (22:14). It is the blood of the Lamb that cleanses us, that heals our minds, our hearts, our souls, even our bodies. The blood of Christ crucified purifies us so that we can see clearly, love purely and live nobly; so that we can enter into the inheritance God has laid out for us.

The union we desire, the ‘ecstasy’ for which we were created, can only be achieved because of Christ’s work on the cross. ‘My first invitation, then, is to the cry of prayer through the crucified Christ,’ he says, lest we think that human efforts alone can get to us to where we need to be.

The Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St Bonaventure on 15 July.