The medieval era, we are told, was defined by suspicion and opposition towards the natural, material nature. “In medieval Christian doctrine, ” celebrates academic and author Joel Kotkin in his new book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, “the world we grasp with our smells is ephemeral, while the spiritual world is more real …. The emphasis on a future life over the present world diminished the passionate commitment of the res publica and family.” For this claim, Kotkin quotes Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a critical, if anti-Christian eighteenth-century history, many of whose assumptions have all along been been proven erroneous.
Such is certainly the case with Gibbons’ and Kotkin’s claim regarding the reputed anti-nature worldview of the medievals. St. Thomas Aquinas( 1225 -1 274 ), manufacturing recourse to Aristotle, announced today that “intellectual insight is caused by the senses”( Summa Theologiae I. 84.6 ). As Aquinas extrapolates throughout the Summa and his other writings, the material world is good, and we gain much of our knowledge of truth, and even of God, by considering the natural line-up.
St. Francis of Assisi( 1181 -1 226 ), whose fete day the Church recently celebrated, too had a high view of nature, indicated in his “Canticle of the Creatures” and “Canticle of the Sun, ” that thank and praise God for all of invention. “Praise the Lord for our Mother Earth, who sustains us and preserves us, and returns forth the grass and all the fruits and heydays of every color.” G.K. Chesterton in his biography of St. Francis, commenting on this love of formation interprets: “Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature worship, and can return to nature.”
Moreover, both St. Francis and the Dominicans, the say to which St. Thomas belonged, were vehement pundits of the dualistic Albigensian heresy, which taught that the material world, and even the human body, were evil. The Nativity scene, which St. Francis created and disseminated, affirmed that the human body, colonized by God Himself in the Incarnation, signaled gues approbation of its goodness. The Domicans in turn vigorously preached against Albigensianism.
Medieval Catholic affirmation of the goodness of mood is not simply for doctrinal purposes. Contemplation of nature too helped as a means for the Christian to direct his psyche and centre to the eternal, as Franciscan monk St. Bonaventure( 1221 -1 274) illustrates in his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum( tr. Into God ), of which Regis J. Armstrong, OFM, Cap. has recently published a new, annotated translation. It is an excellent resource to introduce a less familiar Church Doctor.
The “rungs of a ladder of light” directing us to God “begin with people and precede all the way to God to whom no one rightly starts except through the Crucified, ” illustrates Bonaventure in the Prologue. Moreover, this spiritual ascent is for the “man of passions, ” who with petition that originates with “anguish of heart” and a sharpened attention, orients his natural yearnings toward the divine. Affirming mortals and human want doesn’t sound like a reversal of nature.
One of Bonaventure’s favorite allegories is that of the reflect. He describes the “whole perceptive world” as a “mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan.” Creation is a mirror of the perceive because “from the greatness and appearance of organized beings, their Creator will knowingly be able to be seen.” Everything in the universe owes its existence to the First Cause, to quote Aquinas, and thus shows, albeit imperfectly, His beauty, truth and goodness. “The highest power, wisdom, and goodwill of the Creator reflects in established objects, ” certifies Bonaventure.
With autumn upon us, there are ample opportunities to perceive God in the created order. There are the gleaming complexions emanating from the needles of the trees, which, as they come and spoil, grow an abundance of wistful, musky-sweet odors. Yet this in turn reminds us that we, unlike our architect, who is “purely spiritual, incorruptible, and unchangeable, ” are finite, fragile, and perishable. When we gather around the autumn campfire to drink our Oktoberfest and cider, we realize in the sparks “the sweep of the supremacy, gumption, and goodness of the triune God who, by His power, proximity, and essence, exists in all things without being limited.”
The diversity of formation too derives awe and admire. There is in nature a “unique diversity in textile, figure or organization, and verve beyond all human planning, ” which evidents the power, knowledge, and goodness of God. Is it not the remarkable diversity of precipitate foliage in its countless colours and colours that is so arresting to the eye? Nature urges the charm of God in its “medley of flames, blueprints, and pigments, in simple, mixed, and even complex bodies.” The oak, ash, maple, black walnut, hickory, birch and beech light up the tract in my native Commonwealth of Virginia. When I am prepared to hear their sermon, it ever induces to worship.
Equally stirring is the activity of mood: “manifold in what is natural, in what is craftsmanship, in what is noble — exhibitions by its bountiful variety the vastness of that concentration, skill, and goodness.” In the late summertime, sorrowing descends demonstrated a nest in a tree in our breast garden( a Yoshino cherry ). Our family watched in wonder as the birds built their little home, laid their eggs, perched in guarded care for them, and nursed the hatchlings. Then, one day in late September, the newborn doves took flight, perhaps never to return. How many same little undertakings of formation follow, unnoticed, right under our noses, because we are too busy or amused to care?
The natural world is designed, argues Bonaventure, which “implies the primacy, sublimity, and dignity of the First Beginning.” The elusive ruby-red fox that scoots confidently through the timbers or the red-tail hawk that reigns the tree-tops with its screech certainly stimulate a sort of dignity. When we seek out and rightly understand these traits of sort, we can trace them back to the “first and the highest, the strongest, the wisest and the best.”
The Medieval church was no opponent or critic of the natural environment or human body. Rather, it celebrated both, and, per Bonaventure, innovation was an important means to communion with the gues. “Whoever fails to be dazzled by such brightnes of developed things is blind; to be awakened by such thunderous disapprovals is deaf; to praise God for all of these flaunts is mute; to turn toward the First Beginning from such huge mansions is stupid, ” declares Bonaventure. Creation is good because it originates from and is sustained by our Lord. “And God saw everything that he had obliged, and gazed, it was very good”( Genesis 1:31 ). St. Bonaventure is only getting started: his meditations on sort in Into God is only the first call of his ladder to the divine.
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