The medieval era, we are told, was defined by suspicion and discord towards the natural, material world-wide. “In medieval Christian doctrine, ” find academic and columnist Joel Kotkin in his new book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, “the world we grasp with our abilities is transitory, while the spiritual world is more real …. The emphasis on a future life over the present world decreased 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 pivotal, if anti-Christian eighteenth-century history, many of whose assumptions have since been proven erroneous.
Such is certainly the contingency with Gibbons’ and Kotkin’s claim regarding the belief anti-nature worldview of the medievals. St. Thomas Aquinas( 1225 -1 274 ), spawning recourse to Aristotle, announced today that “intellectual acquaintance 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 fiat.
St. Francis of Assisi( 1181 -1 226 ), whose fete day the Church recently celebrated, also had a high view of sort, indicated in his “Canticle of the Creatures” and “Canticle of the Sun, ” that thank and admire God for all of formation. “Praise the Lord for our Mother Earth, who sustains us and deters us, and imparts forth the grass and all the fruits and grows of every color.” G.K. Chesterton in his biography of St. Francis, commenting on this love of creation clarifies: “Man has divested 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 furiou critics 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 popularized, affirmed that the human body, inhabited by God Himself in the Incarnation, signaled deduce assent of its goodness. The Domicans in turn forcefully preached against Albigensianism.
Medieval Catholic affirmation of the goodness of mood is not just for doctrinal intents. Contemplation of nature also performed as a means for the Christian to direct his spirit and feeling to the eternal, as Franciscan monk St. Bonaventure( 1221 -1 274) shows 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 animals and extend all the way to God to whom no one rightly embarks except through the Crucified, ” explains Bonaventure in the Prologue. Moreover, this spiritual rising is for the “man of longings, ” who with prayer that originates with “anguish of heart” and a sharpened judgment, familiarizes his natural yearnings toward the divine. Affirming individuals and human inclination doesn’t sound like a reversal of nature.
One of Bonaventure’s favorite analogies is a matter of the mirror. 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 discern because “from the greatness and form of formed beings, their Creator will knowingly be able to be seen.” Everything in the universe owes its existence to the First Cause, to cite Aquinas, and thus wonders, albeit imperfectly, His beauty, truth and goodness. “The highest superpower, ability, and goodwill of the Creator gleams in established objects, ” swears Bonaventure.
With autumn upon us, there are ample opportunities to perceive God in the created order. There are the radiant pigments to be derived from the leaves of the trees, which, as they descend and decomposition, display an abundance of wistful, musky-sweet odors. Yet this in turn reminds us that we, unlike our inventor, who is “purely spiritual, incorruptible, and unchangeable, ” are finite, fragile, and perishable. When we gather around the autumn campfire to imbibe our Oktoberfest and cider, we perceive in the glows “the sweep of the influence, knowledge, and goodness of the triune God who, by His power, vicinity, and essence, exists in all things without being limited.”
The diversity of start-up similarly derives awe and admire. There is in nature a “unique diversity in fabric, figure or formation, and vigor beyond all human forecast, ” which evidences the capability, knowledge, and goodness of God. Is it not the remarkable diversification of drop foliage in its countless colors and hues that is so arresting to the eye? Nature preaches the charm of God in its “medley of glowings, motifs, and colorings, in simple, mingled, and even complex bodies.” The oak, ash, maple, pitch-black walnut, hickory, birch and beech light up the region in my native Commonwealth of Virginia. When I am prepared to hear their sermon, it ever spurs to worship.
Equally stirring is the activity of sort: “manifold in what is natural, in what is craftsmanship, in what is noble — exposes by its abundant selection the vastness of that fortitude, aircraft, and goodness.” In the late time, mourning ducks launched a nest in a tree in our figurehead ground( a Yoshino cherry ). Our family watched in wonder as the birds built their little dwelling, laid their eggs, perched in policed care for them, and harboured the hatchlings. Then, one day in late September, the babe doves took flight, perhaps never to return. How many similar little stunts of start pas, unnoticed, right under our snouts, because we are too busy or agitated to care?
The natural world is designed, postulates Bonaventure, which “implies the primacy, sublimity, and dignity of the First Beginning.” The elusive blood-red fox that whisks confidently through the timbers or the red-tail hawk that predominates the tree-tops with its screech certainly conjure a sort of dignity. When we seek out and rightly translate these mannerisms of mood, we can trace them back to the “first and the most prominent, the most powerful, the wisest and the best.”
The Medieval church was no opponent or critic of the natural world or human body. Rather, it celebrated both, and, per Bonaventure, start-up was an important means to communion with the see. “Whoever fails to be dazzled by such gleam of organized things is blind; to be awakened by such resounding outbursts is deaf; to praise God for all of these flaunts is mute; to turn toward the First Beginning from such huge mansions is stupid, ” says Bonaventure. Creation is good because it originates from and is sustained by our Lord. “And God saw everything that he had met, and behold, it was very good”( Genesis 1:31 ). St. Bonaventure is only getting started: his meditations on sort in Into God is only the first reverberate of his ladder to the divine.
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