· The theology of St Bonaventure ·
“Anyone who receives the Eucharist with the proper disposition”, St Bonaventure writes in his splendid Sermon on the Most Holy Body of Christ , “obtains a quadruple grace: This sacrament instils in us the strength to work, raises us to contemplation; prepares us for knowledge of divine reality; stirs up and and kindles contempt for the world and the desire for heavenly and eternal things”, as was said of Elijah who, “strengthened by that food, climbed God’s mountain, saw divine secrets and stopped at the entrance to the cave”.
“From this sacrament the devout soul draws first of all the energy to act, and in fact it is said of Elijah that he walked “in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights”. “That food”, the Seraphic Doctor observed, refers to “the Body of Christ”, by virtue of which “man succeeds in sustaining his tiring and ceaseless growth in spiritual life”.
Then interpreting the number “forty” allegorically as a symbol of the Old and New Testaments, Bonaventure continues: “Walking for forty days, invigorated by that food means improving in spiritual life throughout our time, in which our existence is guided by the New and Old Testaments”.
The second fruit of the Eucharist consists in “uplifting the person [who receives it] to contemplation”: it is said, in fact, that Elijah “went to the mountain of God”. Now, “to what does the term ‘mountain’ allude, if not to the elevation of the mind?”.
Bonaventure therefore provides an illustration against the background of the story of Moses: “occupied in action” while tending his flock; “bent on pondering in his innermost heart all his actions and affections”, when he led the flock out of the desert; “with his mind raised to heavenly things”, once he had climbed God’s mountain, “with his soul now given over to contemplation”, that he received as a gift after the apparition of the Lord.
It was an apparition “in flames of fire”, the Seraphic Doctor noted: “fire has the power to warm and illuminate, to show that when the soul reaches the grace of contemplation, from it the mind draws the light of knowledge, and the sentiments, the blaze of love”.
In the third place, the Eucharist prepares us for the manifestation of God and here the figure of Elijah recurs. Having reached Horeb, he awaited the coming of the Lord; but the Lord was present neither in the “mighty, roaring wind that split the mountains”, nor “in the earthquake”, nor “in the fire”, but in the “whispering of a light breeze”.
It was however important to Bonaventure to surpass allegory: if God reveals himself in this gentle breeze, it means that “he is not found in the spirit of pride, or in the agitation of impatience, or in the fire of cupidity or in carnal concupiscence, but rather in the stillness of a serene conscience”.
Lastly, the Eucharist gives rise to contempt for the world and to the desire for the goods of Heaven. This is the effect suggested by the gesture of Elijah who “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave”. “Indeed as soon as the soul is uplifted to the vision of God's immense beauty and of his infinite strength, it immediately falls back into its own smallness, covers its face in profound humility, makes an exit from the world's cupidity and stops at the entrance to the cave, that is, the heart is set on eternity. The cave represents the human body whereas the entrance represents the desire to emerge from it”.
For Bonaventure an intimate link exists between the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the experience of God: communion with the Body of Christ instils in the soul the spiritual resources to climb, little by little, to the mystical peak of Christian life, namely, to contemplation in which the light of the mind and the fire of love are fused in the ardent longing for eternal life.
It is easy to recognize in this Eucharistic language the evocative themes, emphases and terms typical of Bonaventure’s theology, understood as wisdom, which comprises at the same time “knowledge and love”.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 17, 2020
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