St. Bonaventure was an Italian priest who was declared a saint and a doctor of the church. Bonaventure’s apophatic vision was heavily influenced by Plotinus, St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. The goal of the spiritual life is to surrender into the One, the primary being, first, eternal, utterly simple, most actual and most perfect, it is impossible that he be thought not to be or to be other than unique. Hear, therefore, Israel, your God is one God. If you see this in the pure simplicity of your mind, you will somehow be bathed in the brilliance of eternal light. . . .the Alpha and the Omega. It is most present precisely because it is eternal.
This oneness with the eternal Alpha and Omega is based on a discipline of the mind that is indeed a leap into the unknown, leaving behind and detaching from all sensuous and intellectual activities, and transcending one’s self-consciousness and rational knowing. It is a kind of death, described in various contemplative traditions in some form of “Die before you die.” We might call this the death of the small self or the ego. So, Bonaventure says, “whoever loves this death can see God because it is true beyond doubt that man will not see me and live. (Exodus 33:20). . . . Let us, then, die and enter into the darkness; let us impose silence upon our cares, our desires and our imaginings.”1 This is, indeed, a First Person practice of unknowing that allows us to glimpse, in the “divine darkness,” the One who is the source and destination of all things. Quoting Pseudo-Dionysius, Bonaventure calls the Trinity, the “superessential, superdivine and supereminent overseer of the divine wisdom of Christians. . , the super-unknown, superluminous and most sublime summit of mystical communication.” And, to achieve this resplendent wisdom
. . .it is necessary to leave behind your senses and intellectual activities, sensible and invisible things, all nonbeing and being; and in this state of unknowing be restored, insofar as is possible, to unity with him who is above all essence and knowledge. For transcending yourself and all things, by the immeasurable and absolute ecstasy of a pure mind, leaving behind all things and freed from all things, you will ascend to the superessential ray of the divine darkness.2
Paradoxical language abounds: This First Person realization is a darkness to the mind and understanding, but it is experienced as a kind of light. The darkness is a fire that is enkindled by Christ, the Incarnation of the divine-human marriage. In the play of opposites, here Bonaventure draws on theories of perception that go back to the Greek philosophers. Notice how, if we stand with our backs to the sun on a clear day, the light of the sun makes things visible to our senses. We can see the things that sunlight hits (for example, large objects and dust in the air), but we cannot see the light itself. Just so, says Bonaventure, we see reality because it is receiving and rebounding the light of God’s Being.
Thus our mind, accustomed to the darkness of beings and the images of the things of sense, when it glimpses the light of the supreme Being, seems to itself to see nothing. It does not realize that this very darkness is the supreme illumination of our mind (cf. Ps. 138:11), just as when the eye sees pure light, it seems to itself to see nothing.3
Of course, this “nothing” is not an objective absence but actually the “everything” that makes anything exist. The fundamental question in western philosophy is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For Christians in the apophatic tradition of the First Person, the ultimate nothing (no-thing) actually is a Something and a Someone. Bonaventure assumes that when we trust the Incarnation we are seeing through this physical level of existence to an invisible, infinite, benevolent and trustworthy One who has created a benevolent and trustworthy physical reality in time. The First Person of the Trinity is not a “thing,” but rather, an arena of awareness that is accessed by meditative and contemplative practices.
Cousins, Ewert, trans. & ed. Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life and The Life of St. Francis. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1978, p. 116.
Ibid., pp. 114-115.
Ibid., pp. 96-97.