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Contuition in Bonaventure and Gerard Manley Hopkins


By Zach Watters, Yale University

The following was a college essay written by Zach Watters. It has been edited and approved by Christianus Van Den Eijnden. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry most explicitly invokes the Franciscan Duns Scotus, also demonstrates key principles from the Franciscan Bonaventure. Much of the Seraphic Doctor’s spiritual teaching dwells on the different methods of ascent into God through the uniquely labeled method of contuition. I argue that Hopkins’ poetry is an example of contuition which follows Bonaventure’s steps of ascent, especially in his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, to see God in and through the vestiges of Creation, the image of the self, and the light of God.

Bonaventure uses the word contuition for the sight with which we may look upon the Blessed Trinity (ad contuitionem beatissimae Trinitatis).[1] While he never defines contuition, the context will make more apparent how Bonaventure understands it to be a vision of God by which we as sojourners see God with the created works through and in which God is seen. Though we may learn to see God with or alongside creation, Bonaventure still provides a process by which our sight, indeed all our senses, may ascend towards God. Bonaventure’s first chapter of the Itinerarium explains that the ascent to God involves six steps, like the six-winged seraph whom St. Francis saw in his ecstasy. One climbs this six-stepped ladder through desire, which is cultivated by the clamor of prayer and the splendor of investigation (fulgor speculationis).[2] The six-stepped ladder is comprised, then, of a prayerful investigation of God’s vestiges (or footprints) through and in Creation, God’s image through and in our own selves, and then God through God’s Unity and Goodness, leading to ecstasy. The ascent, though, is through Christ, whose body acts as the ladder, the whole way. His flesh corresponds to contemplating God’s vestiges in Creation, His spirit corresponds to contemplating God’s image in ourselves, and His divinity corresponds to contemplating God in Godself.

Hopkins’ poetry engages in a kind of contuition which sets the exterior world and the interior self as a means by which God is revealed to our perception. While his poetry by no means provides a methodical ascent in the way that Bonaventure does, I suggest that several of his poems display a very Bonaventurean theme in their use of creation as a Christo-form [1] mirror by which to contuit God. I will hope to show, however, that Hopkins’ poetic setting of contuition captures some of the aesthetic experience of contuition that Bonaventure could only describe.

The first rung of the ladder of Bonaventure’s ascent is through God’s vestiges in Creation. For Bonaventure, God is seen through the created world by understanding it as a mirror through which we pass over, with Christ, into God.[3] Our physical perception sees the power, wisdom, and benevolence of God as it shines in created things (Relucet… in rebus creatis).[4] This divine refulgence is announced to our intellect through our rational investigation, which contemplates things in their dimensionality; faithful belief, which contemplates things in their providential order; and intellectual contemplation, which contemplates things in their existence.[5] At this first rung in Bonaventure’s ascent, the created order is contemplated in its most particular and knowable dimensions, which Bonaventure calls the sevenfold condition of created things: origin, magnitude, multitude, physical appearance, fullness, operation, and order of things.[6] By considering these things, we make a natural movement towards the unchanging power, wisdom, and goodness of God.

Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty” makes a similar movement from a consideration of the conditions of created things to the unchanging nature of God.[7] Hopkins spends the poem thanking God for “dappled things” such as the “brinded cow” or “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim,” “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings,” and “landscape plotted and pieced.” Because the first words of the poem are “Glory be to God,” Hopkins has already framed the poem as an act of prayer, rather than simply an observation. He intends to offer the fruit of his investigation to God in thanksgiving. The objects of Hopkins’ investigation are “All things counter, original, spare, strange; whatever is fickle, freckled…”. He gives thanks for their condition of being created, contemplating them in their particular knowability. Even more than Bonaventure’s conditions of being created, those accidental qualities such as quantity and quality, Hopkins dwells on aspects which are incommunicable between creatures, such as their patches and dapples and blemishes, giving a more Scotistic focus on this-ness. The effect, however, is the same as Bonaventure’s, because Hopkins makes the same natural movement from contemplating Creation to contemplating God’s power and goodness: “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.” By contemplating the particular appearances of created things, Hopkins is able to see through them to an unchangeable beauty, ending in praise.

Hopkins’ poem, though, expands Bonaventure’s concept of moving from vestige to Creator. By using spondees in sprung rhythm, Hopkins guides the reader into an aesthetic experience of the natural movement from vestige to Creator. In the last two lines already mentioned, Hopkins gives three spondees: “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” These pairs of accidents are contrary in meaning and so cover the range of extremes of changeable being, but they are also contrary in pace, with the first word of each pair moving quicker and lighter than the second word. With no change in pace, Hopkins moves into the last line: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.” The seamless transition between the two lines presents an aural image of the seamless transition from contemplating changeable being to changeless being, and from there into worship.

The second rung on the ladder of ascent is seeing God in the mirror of the world. Bonaventure says the world as macrocosm enters into us as microcosm through the gate of the five senses, which we apprehend, delight in, and analyze.[8] When Bonaventure speaks of the world’s movement into us through our senses, he treats this entrance as agency on the part of the sensibilia entering into us, rather than the modern concept of our observation acting upon them. The sensible things of the world enter us, “not in substance, but through their appearance (per similitudines), having generated first at their center (in medio); from their center they move to the external organ, from where they move into the interior organ, and finally into that power which apprehends them.”[9] The process that Bonaventure explains is one of a substance generating an image from its center. When we experience the appearance of something, it is because that thing has generated its own image and acted upon our powers of apprehension. Moreover, this apprehension is something agreeable, and so we are moved to delight in the perception of an object, by which means the delightful thing enters our soul[10]. Thirdly, after apprehension and enjoyment comes analysis, which is an inquiry into why the object is delightful. This is an act which causes the perceivable object to pass from the senses into the intellectual power.[11]

By contemplating each of these powers, Bonaventure demonstrates how the act of perception can look at God’s vestiges in creation. For example, when we apprehend, we see that objects generate their perceived form in a way that is analogous to the Father’s eternal generation of the Son, the splendor of His glory and the form of His substance. Objects generate their form, but because our perception actually perceives the object itself, the form returns back to its source. Similarly, through the hypostatic union, the eternal Word is united to a form perceivable by us and then returns to the Father as primordial source and object. By delighting in the appearance of an object which is delightful, we can see a mirror of God who alone is the source of true delight.[12] Thirdly, by analysis we are led to look upon the “eternal art” and so see eternal truth with more certainty.[13]

At this point, the distinction between contemplation through God’s vestiges and in God’s vestiges is worth clarifying. Bonaventure does not seem to make a systematic distinction between the two, but a noteworthy difference does exist. Regarding the former, the Latin word per connotes a kind of use of the created thing, in the Augustinian sense, after which it is left behind for the sake of what is eternal. The word in, however, does not seem as much to connote leaving behind the created thing for the sake of the eternal. Tellingly, Bonaventure uses the image of shining or glistening to describe God’s presence in a created thing. For example, in addition to saying that the power of God shines in created things (relucet), Bonaventure says that the divine things shine in the mirror of our mind (relucent). The image of a divine glisten inside of created things helps clarify why we might investigate God in God’s vestiges. Furthermore, God is seen in created things, not just through them, because it is in things that the eternal generation of the Image is mirrored.

Because God can be seen both through things and in things, Bonaventure understands the world as a signum for the invisible things of God. Creatures are given the power to signify the invisible things of God by their own power of representation, by prophetic use of signifying powers, by angelic ministry through means of created signs, and by Christ’s instituting for particular significations. The last kind of signification, one that is instituted, is both a sign and a sacrament.[14] Tellingly, Bonaventure only uses the word contuition when speaking about seeing God in something, whether the vestige, image, or light of God. I suggest that while intuition occurs through something, as it leaves it behind, contuition occurs in something, because it includes the sign along with the sign signified in the scope of its vision.

Hopkins’ poetry makes use of the different kinds of signifying potential in created things, from their own representational power to their instituted signification. While “Pied Beauty” presents a good example of seeing God through created vestiges, excerpts from “God’s Grandeur,” “Kingfisher’s Catch Fire,” and “Hurrahing in Harvest” represent seeing God in created vestiges. In “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins says, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil crushed.”[15] Hopkins’ image is that God’s grandeur is in things in a similar way as Bonaventure’s refulgence. God’s grandeur will “flame out” like the glistening of a sword in its use. Like Bonaventure’s understanding of how the image proceeds from the substance, Hopkins envisions the divine flame proceeding or emanating, in an outward direction, from the world that it charges. Hopkins’ use of “grandeur” is an alliterative synonym for Bonaventure’s power, wisdom, and goodness, which shines in things. Hopkins continues, “And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Creation’s source of renewal is from a kind of freshness that exists “deep down.” Hopkins’ poem highlights how God’s refulgence is in the created vestiges and emanates from them.

In “Kingfisher’s Catch Fire,” Hopkins further expands some of Bonaventure’s themes of perceiving God in God’s vestiges.[16] However, in this poem, a salient feature is how Hopkins draws out the soul’s experience of nature emanating itself. In the first stanza, he writes:

“As kingfisher’s catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

Hopkins only uses active verbs to name the activity of created things, giving them a kind of agency. When Hopkins says that each mortal thing “deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves – goes itself,” he gives a poetic image of created things emanating their ‘selves.’ Hopkins describes a world that is alive in the speaking of itself, a kind of generation of itself from “indoors.” Thus, simply by being itself, the created vestiges engage in a kind of evangelical activity that proclaims the glory of God. Moreover, the aesthetic effect of this stanza is an image of how created things emanate, a vision that Bonaventure might have shared when contemplating how the world mirrors the Father’s generation of the Son. Even in the indentation pattern of the lines of the first stanza, Hopkins creates a symmetry which evokes an exitus and reditus of the vestiges in their self-emanation and return. The words of Hopkins’ poem, “Hurrahing in Harvest,” have a similar effect:

“Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty,
the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely
behavior
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, willful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across the skies?
I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our
Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?
And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding
shoulder
Majestic – as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! –
These things, these things were here and but the
beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under
his feet.[17]

The stooks, or sheathes of grain, “rise,” the clouds walk on the wind, the meal-drift moulds and melts. Like Hopkins’ description of the world in “Kingfisher’s Catch Fire,” nature is an active agent. This first stanza might be compared to Bonaventure’s apprehension. In the second stanza, Hopkins focuses on his own response to the living, moving world he apprehends; this stanza might be compared to Bonaventure’s enjoyment and analysis. Hopkins is able to “down” the glory that is in the sensibilia, enjoying and analyzing it in order to “glean our Saviour.” Via his joyful apprehension of creation, Hopkins can analyze the source of its “barbarous beauty,” and finds it in Christ. He does so visually and joyfully to investigate with delight. Hopkins compares the “azurous hung hills” to his “world-wielding shoulder,” but uses a copula, “are”, to convey a sacramental signification; here, he echoes Bonaventure’s understanding of the signifying potential of created things, such as mountains, by using an image associated with God through representational power and Biblical prophetic utterances.[18] Hopkins continues to say that “these things were here and but the beholder wanting.” When “two they once meet, the heart rears wings bold and bolder and hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.” Hopkins poetically describes the moment when the macrocosm enters into the microcosm, when the glistening vestiges of God in creation enter into the senses, the interior organ, then the power which apprehends them. This meeting is an elaboration of when the heart and eyes “down all that glory.” The heart which rears wings and “hurls for him” is led to mirror God’s vestiges in creation, and thereby learns to be an even closer analogy to God as image-bearer.  

Hopkins also uses a certain poetic technique that gives an aural experience of contuition. Hopkins often makes use of neologisms, that is, different ways of combining two words. For example, when he says that “each tucked string tells,” Hopkins combines the words “touched” and “plucked” to form the word “tucked.” The effect evokes both words simultaneously  to produce a dual image within the same scope of understanding. Also, with words such as, “Selfyeast” from “I Wake and Feel,” or “Betweenpie” from “My Own Heart,” Hopkins sandwiches two dissimilar words for the similar effect of stacking both images together in the same aural, visual, and mental instant. Thus, Hopkins not only creates a vertical contuition, but also a horizontal contuition whereby multiple created things may be seen at the same time.

Bonaventure, then, contemplates the soul, which is the image of God. For Bonaventure, the movement from the world into the self is a natural movement because a natural correspondence exists between the world as macrocosm and the soul as microcosm. Already, he has spoken of how the world enters into us by means of appearances generated by substances, and so now it is apt to talk about how we ourselves are a mirror of God, which is the third rung on the ladder of ascent. Here, Bonaventure speaks of the vision of God through the image “ensigned” with natural powers. By focusing on us as an image, Bonaventure has now moved past vestiges, which are in creation, and now looks inside the human soul. Bonaventure contemplates how the human soul is, in a certain, sense, Trinitarian. The soul, according to its natural powers, remembers itself, and so knows itself, and so loves itself.[19] Through the activity of the memory, the soul imagines God present to itself and present to God’s eternity in its retention of unchanging truths. Through the activity of the intellect, the soul imagines God conjoined with the eternal art by its ability to make inference. Through the activity of love, or what Bonaventure calls the elective power, the soul is an image of God when it counsels, judges, and desires the highest Good.[20] These powers of the human soul imagine the Trinity who has memory, intellect, and will, which are appropriated respectively to the hypostases of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For Bonaventure, seeing God through ourselves is less effective than seeing God in ourselves when reformed by grace, since the effect of sin is that our memory is distracted by what concerns it, our intellect is clouded by illusion, and our will is enticed by desires.[21] Grace reforms our natural powers and makes our soul more radiantly reflect the Trinity in both its natural and supernatural gifts. Bonaventure’s treatment of contemplating God through the natural powers of the soul is already seen through the lens of grace, which understands the natural powers in their reformed state. Thus, Bonaventure does not deal with sin when discussing the soul’s natural powers. Hopkins’ focus, also, is on how to read the image of God as it is reformed by grace, and so the soul’s purely natural potential for mirroring God does not feature as explicitly. However, in several of Hopkins’ poems of lament, he portrays a soul that is in despair over itself. Yet, in the very act of self-knowing, Hopkins portrays a soul that, according to Bonaventure, imagines the Trinity through its natural powers. For example, in “I Wake and Feel,” Hopkins writes, “I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me; Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.”[22] Here, in a more tragic use of the copula “am,” Hopkins’ predication of his suffering with himself shows how the soul’s signifying potential still exists, only in this case, the human is also capable of signifying bitterness and suffering. He says that God would have him taste God’s bitter decree, and that taste is “me.” For Bonaventure, taste is the most intimate of the senses because it is touching something from one’s inside. Hopkins uses this image to describe his own self-knowledge, which, in this case, is bitter. In this act of taste, Hopkins’ poetic character still enacts the three intellectual powers that mirror the Trinity. Since the “taste was me” is in the past tense, Hopkins evokes the memory. By naming the bitterness as God’s decree, Hopkins evokes the intellect. Though the taste is actually a distaste, Hopkins still evokes the will which relates to desire and the lack thereof.

He carries on in the last stanza to say, “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see The lost are like this, and their scourge to be As I am mine, their sweating selves: but worse.” For Hopkins, the self, even with grace, though especially without, is a burden and a scourge. It acts as a yeast that sours a dough. The lost are burdened by their “sweating selves” only because they, like the self that is redeemed by grace, have the natural intellectual powers to remember, know, and love themselves, thereby being a mirror through which to see the Trinity, but they do so without knowing the God they image. Hopkins paints a similar image in “My Own Heart,” where he says to himself “Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather – as skies Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile.”[23] Here, though Hopkins’ poetic self is disconsolate, he deals with himself in a way that Bonaventure would recognize as imagistic of the Trinity, especially in the will or elective power. By speaking to his soul, he demonstrates the activities of the elective potential, namely counsel, judgment, and desire. He begins with counsel: “let be; call off thoughts awhile Elsewhere,” thereby being “concerned with an inquiry as to whether one thing is better than another,” as Bonaventure says.[24] Secondly, by telling himself that God’s “smile’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather – as skies Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile,” he uses his deliberative faculty to judge the truth of a divine reality, which is God’s fatherly patience and indulgence. Thirdly, he moves his desire to be consoled by the highest Good. For Bonaventure, the highest Good is not experienced in this life, but only at the ultimate end. However, Hopkins chooses to place his desire on this Good by focusing on God’s smile. 

Bonaventure’s next step in the rung is to contemplate God in God’s image reformed by grace. Since man is fallen, Bonaventure says, however enlightened he may be in terms of nature, he cannot truly enter into himself “in order to delight, in his very self, in the Lord unless it is by means of Christ” (ut in se ipso delectetur in Domino, nisi mediante Christo). When the soul is clothed in the threefold spiritual powers of faith, hope, and love, it is reformed and made into an offspring of the “heavenly Jerusalem.” Once remade, the soul recovers its spiritual senses: hearing and seeing to receive His teaching and light; smell after cultivating desire and affection to receive the Word of inspiration; taste and touch when it desires in ecstatic love to embrace the Incarnate Word.[25]

Hopkins dwells especially on the human image reformed by grace. In “Kingfisher’s Catch Fire,” after dwelling on the evangelical activity of the vestiges, who fling out broad their name, Hopkins says more on the what it is that the just man does: “Í say more: the just man justices; Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Chríst. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Hopkins draws attention to how the human soul, reformed by grace, represents Christ, for Christ is lovely in the eyes of creatures. Again, by using the copula “is,” Hopkins says that humans have, by their uniquely signifying potential as image, the power to be Christ. Here, Hopkins says that we may consider what is in the just man’s soul “in order to delight, in his very self, in the Lord.” Not only we, however, may enter into the soul of the just man to delight in the Lord, but the Father also sees the Lord in the just man’s soul and is led thereby to delight.

An excellent example of Hopkins’ meditation on the soul reformed by grace is his poem, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe.”[26] Hopkins says that the “Wild air, world-mothering air, Nestling me everywhere… Minds me in many ways Of her who not only Gave God’s infinity Dwindled to infancy Welcome in womb and breast…” For Hopkins, Mary, as the Mother of Christ and the soul reformed by grace, may be mirrored in the created vestiges as well, since she is “Merely a woman, yet Whose presence, power is Great as no goddess’s Was deemèd, dreamèd.” However, she herself is a mirror, because, “who This one work has to do – Let all God’s glory through, God’s glory which would go Through her and from her flow Off, and no way but so.” Similarly, he says in a later stanza that “Through her way may see him Made sweeter, not made dim, And her hand leaves his light Sifted to suit our sight.” As the reformed soul par excellence, Mary is so translucent to God’s glory that God is able to shine through her. Her graced soul also has uniquely signifying potential, “Since God has let dispense Her prayers his providence: Nay, more than almoner, The sweet alms’ self is her And men are meant to share Her life as life does.” Therefore, Mary is also a mirror in whom God can be contemplated, and so she may be equated with the “sweet alms’ self.” Indeed, she “is” God’s almsgiving and mercy. Her grace is not her property alone, though, since Christ “makes, O marvelous! New Nazareths in us, Where she shall yet conceive Him… Men here may draw like breath More Christ and baffle death; Who, born so, comes to be New self and nobler me In each one and each one More makes, when all is done, both God’s and Mary’s Son.” Because of Christ’s Incarnation in the flesh of Mary, the reformation of souls is available to others, and so others can become an image in which God may be contemplated. The soul becomes a new and nobler self, no longer a burden and scourge, as it is for “the lost.” Like Bonaventure, Hopkins says that the reformed soul becomes a new offspring of the heavenly Jerusalem, which Hopkins here names with the humbler moniker, Nazareth. Hopkins has relied on heavily incarnational themes here to represent how Christ is in the soul.

Thus, Hopkins involves the human soul, Mary, the air, and God’s mercy in an imagistic chain of signification. The human soul can become an aesthetic idea of another image, which in turn can also become an aesthetic idea of another image. Here, Hopkins again displays Bonaventure’s contuition, whereby the multiple signs and their referents can be set before the mind’s eye at the same time in an act of poetic polyvalence. Especially when the soul is reformed by grace, the poetic chain of images can directly invoke God, or it can invoke other vestiges and souls which themselves invoke God. Thus, as Bonaventure would say, the vestiges and the image become signs divinely given to us so that we may contuit God through and in the signs.[27] After having predicated the air with Mary, Mary with the soul reformed by grace, and Mary’s motherhood with the mercy of God, Hopkins ends the poem by saying “World-mothering air, air wild, Wound with thee, in thee isled, Fold home, fast fold thy child.” He no longer needs to explicate the images since he has already given their mutually signifying potential. Rather, he gives some of the images together, such as the air and a mother, and allows for contuition to accomplish the rest. By looking into the mirror of Mary’s soul, the poet is able to contemplate the image of God’s mercy in and with the images of creation.

Bonaventure’s fifth rung on the ladder of ascent, after having contemplated God outside ourselves in God’s vestiges, and after having contemplated God in ourselves, the soul moves to contemplating God upon ourselves through God’s light (extra per vestigium, intra per imaginem, et supra per lumen).[28] In “Habit of Perfection,” Hopkins writes about the spiritual senses, a theme from the fourth step with the image in which God is contemplated, though he does so in the context of Bonaventure’s negative theology. For Bonaventure, the fifth step is a focus on the divine unity through its primary name, which is Being. Being, as pure act, is what first occurs to the intellect, according to Bonaventure, even before the apprehension of any particular beings because it is the logical condition of potential being and even non-being.[29] In the same way that when the eye notices colors by means of light but does not notice the source of light, the intellect fails to notice Being when it observes particular beings, though Being is the light by which it sees anything.[30] However, since we are used to the shadowy nature of changing and potential being, when we look upon the light of the Summum esse it seems to be nothing. Bonaventure says more: “Because it does not understand that darkness is the supreme enlightenment of our minds, when the eye sees pure light, it appears that it sees nothing” (quod ipsa caligo summa est mentis nostrae illuminatio, sicut, quando videt oculus puram lucem, videtur sibi nihil videre).[31] Bonaventure continues to describe Being in terms that are intended to demonstrate the impossibility of understanding it, such as “first and last, eternal and utterly present, utterly simple and the greatest, utterly now and utterly unchanging, utterly perfect and ultimate, utterly one and in all ways.”[32] While Bonaventure dwells mostly on affirmative concepts of God’s Being here, in his De Triplici Via, he explicitly says that the higher way of theology is negation because it is more consonant with the reality of God’s darkness. Only in negative, or apophatic, theology, is there a “night of the intellect” which allows the intellect to exceed itself.[33]  

The poem, “Habit of Perfection,” uses the language of the recovered spiritual senses, which Bonaventure explains in the fourth rung of the ladder, but Hopkins synthesizes the spiritual senses with God’s Being experienced as darkness. The first three stanzas are worth repeating in full:

“Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight. [34]

Hopkins plays with the apophatic approach to God by describing God in terms of silence, nothingness, fasting, and dumbness. In a poetic representation of Bonaventure’s darkness, Hopkins writes paradoxically about the Elected Silence which sings. In a double image with Psalm 23, he combines the darkness of God’s Being with the image of God as a shepherd whose pastures are God’s nothingness. That God’s Silence is elected has resonances with Bonaventure’s concept of elective power, or God’s will, which pertains to God’s love. Because God’s silence is elected, it is a loving silence. By asking that this be the music that he “care to hear,” Hopkins is petitioning for reforming grace to renew his spiritual sense, attuning it to God’s true Being. Furthermore, he says that lips which “shape nothing” and are “lovely-dumb” are the most “eloquent.” Again, Hopkins builds off a Bonaventurean emphasis on the “night of the intellect.” Hopkins tells his eyes to be “shellèd” with “double dark And find the uncreated light.” Here, Hopkins most explicitly relies on the image of God’s uncreated light being darkness. He goes on to invoke the other senses, such as smell, touch, and taste, each of them characterized by a taste for the divine darkness. By using the spiritual senses to experience God’s darkness, Hopkins performs the theology that Bonaventure points at when he suggests the negative way is the higher way.

In the sixth rung of the ascent, Bonaventure focuses specifically on the contemplation of the Blessed Trinity in its primary name, which is the Good. After having contemplated the essential characteristics of God, the soul may now contuit the Blessed Trinity (elevandus est… ad contuitionem beatissimae Trinitatis).[35] The reason that the Good is the name of the Trinity is because the “good is said to diffuse itself,” and the ultimate Good must diffuse itself ultimately, that is to say “immanent and intrinsic, substantial and hypostatic, natural and voluntary, open and necessary, unfailing and perfect.”[36] Therefore the Trinity is the ultimate Good. Bonaventure uses the word contueri to name the vision of God’s purity of goodness, which is the actus purus of the principle of charity. Tellingly, Bonaventure did not use this word when describing the vision of the essential characteristics of God as Being, but rather used intuere.[37] The word may also seem inappropriate here because God’s actus purus is utterly simple, so what else could be included together with the pure vision of God’s goodness? I suggest that the vision of the goodness of the Blessed Trinity is a contuition because the Good diffuses between the Persons and so is shared, therefore making the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit equal objects of the vision. Though the Persons are essentially One, contuition is still the apt word for contemplating the Trinity because the three Persons are hypostatically distinct objects of the vision, and so they must be seen with each other. This Goodness is utterly communicable between the three Persons, and it is also diffused into the hypostatic union of Christ, thereby making the mystery of the Incarnation another object of contemplating God’s name as Good. At this point, Bonaventure not only uses the words of contemplation, or vision, but also of wonder,[38] since in the Incarnation, God as First Principle is joined to the last, and eternity has joined with the temporal. Because of God’s Being and Goodness which is in, and communicated to creatures in, the Incarnation, contuition is now possible on the vertical level. We are able to “see in one thing and at one and the same time both the first and the last, the very heights and the very depths, the circumference and the center, the Alpha and the Omega, the causer and that which is caused, the creator and the created…”[39] God’s Being and diffused Goodness are the very grounds of contuition, which is able to see simultaneously in one thing contrary extremes. Contuition is an aesthetic vision which sees the plenitude of the image across its farthest boundaries. God’s self-disclosure, especially in the Incarnation of the Word, communicates the possibilities of contuition by encompassing temporality, humanity, and even death into God. Therefore, a poet may write about God’s vestiges, images, and light, and dare to predicate God.

Before returning to Hopkins, I shall look at the final fruit of Bonaventure’s ladder of ascent, namely, mental and mystical ecstasy. When one arrives at the sixth step and sees Christ, who mediates between the most contrary boundaries of Being, the mind transcends the perceivable world and its own self into God. Bonaventure calls this “excess of mind,” or ecstasy, and Christ is the only door through which this is possible. For this transcendence to be perfect, all intellectual activity must be transformed into God (transformetur in Deum), but this ecstasy is ultimately secret. The only way to truly accomplish it is to “impose silence upon our cares, our desires, and our illusions.”[40] Christ, though, is the only one who truly experiences the ecstasy of contuition, for He “sets light to the fervor of his own strongest passion, which only He truly perceives, and of which He says, ‘My soul has chosen suspension, and my bones have chosen death.’ Whoever loves this death can see God…” For Bonaventure, Christ is the condition, the object, and the best practitioner of contuition. He is the man of desires who clamors in prayer and brilliantly investigates. He is the one who chooses the negative way and so may lift His human mind into ecstasy.

Ecstasy is a frequent element of Hopkins’ poetry, which often ends in praise and expletives of desire. Whether he finishes the poem with “Praise him,” or “ah! bright wings,” or “O half hurls earth for him off under his feet,” his poems can sometimes end on a note of inexpressible delight tending toward worship. Hopkins does not follow Bonaventure in each poem step by step up the ladder; but a relatively consistent pattern, especially in Hopkins’ poems on nature, is to begin with contemplating created things, and then moving from there to either God, or the self, or both. In “The Windhover,” he writes to “Christ our Lord” a poem which sees Christ’s ecstasy in the vestige of a falcon.[41] He writes, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon… how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy!… My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” In the middle stanza, Hopkins makes clear that he is comparing the falcon to Christ: “AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” Christ, to use Bonaventure’s term, is the exemplar cause of the falcon, and as the Highest Good, He is the cause of what is delightful in the falcon. Like the falcon, the fire that breaks from Christ is the fire which is their own ecstasy. The falcon and Christ both cause ecstasy in the poet’s heart as well, as Hopkins, in excessive delight, remarks on how his heart stirs for the bird’s “mastery of the thing,” while he says to Christ, “O my chevalier!” The falcon and Christ are both masters of their particular act, and so both of them are “Brute beauty.” Hopkins ends the poem by saying to Christ, “ah my dear,” again evoking the image of pining after Christ in love.

While Hopkins’ poems certainly present much of Bonaventure’s concept of ascent, they do not do so in a methodically linear way. Hopkins frequently ends his poems with images of worship and love, but he does not reach the ‘top’ going step by step as Bonaventure describes. Often, Hopkins poems present a more circular image of ascent, where, like the falcon riding on the thermals, he feels more freedom to go between vestige, image, and Creator and back again, as was shown in “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe.” In this sense, Hopkins’ poetry can be seen as an enactment and even expansion of Bonaventure’s contuition because Hopkins’ poems frequently return to the created thing, whether vestige or image. The created thing is never left behind, so much so, that Hopkins insists on enjoying God with God’s creation. Hopkins makes clear that he is content for his poetry to be “contemplated for its own sake.”[42]

However, Hopkins never lets the created thing be the fullness of the image, at least in the poems here presented. God and God’s diffused Goodness are always a possible object of contuition in the poem.

In conclusion, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins portrays some key themes from Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Both poet and theologian see the world as a means through which and in which to see God. They both see God’s Goodness as diffusive in Creation through Christ, and so the world has the potential to signify the invisible things of God. Contemplating created vestiges and images can lead the soul in a visionary ascent from the world to the Creator. Both understand this vision as being contuition, which is able to see multiple images, including God, in a coherent, mutually signifying polyvalence. Hopkins gives an aural experience of this ascending contuition, but more so than Bonaventure, he is content to return to God’s vestige and image.

Works Cited

Bonaventure, De Triplici Via. PDF File.

Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Translated by Simon Wickham-Smith. http://faculty.uml.edu/rinnis/45.304 God and Philosophy/ITINERARIUM.pdf.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Hopkins: Poems and Prose. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose. Penguin Books, 1963.


[1] Bonaventure, Prologue, 1.

[2] Ibid., Prologue, 3.

[3] Bonaventure 1.9

[4] Ibid., 1.10

[5] Ibid., 1.11-13

[6] Ibid., 14

[7] Hopkins, Poems and Prose, 30.

[8] Bonaventure, 2.2.

[9] Ibid., 2.4.

[10] Ibid., 2.5. Delight as the means by which appearances enter our soul hearkens back to one of Bonaventure’s first claims that the man who learns to delight is the one who climbs the ladder to the vision of God.

[11] Ibid., 2.6

[12] Ibid,. 2.8.

[13] Ibid., 2.9

[14] Ibid., 2.12.

[15] Hopkins, 27.

[16] Ibid., 51.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] Cf. Isaiah 2:2

[19] Bonaventure, 3.1.

[20] Ibid., 3.2-4

[21] Ibid., 4.1.

[22] Hopkins, 62.

[23] Ibid., 63.

[24] Bonaventure, 3.4.

[25] Ibid., 4.2.

[26] Hopkins, 54.

[27] Ibid., 2.11.

[28] Ibid., 5.1.

[29] Ibid., 5.3.

[30] Ibid, 5.4.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 5.7.

[33] Triple Way, 93.

[34] Hopkins, 5.

[35] Bonaventure, 6.1.

[36] Ibid., 6.2.

[37] Ibid., 5.4.

[38] Ibid., 6.5.

[39] Ibid., 6.7.

[40] Ibid., 7.6.

[41] Hopkins, 30.

[42] Hopkins, Poetry and Verse, 123.

1 comment on “Contuition in Bonaventure and Gerard Manley Hopkins

  1. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
    This is the most direct way that I know of for arriving at a connection with God. Surrendering all to God is another way of phrasing it. See also 1Peter 5:5-7, James 4:6-10, Philippians 4:6-7, Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9 and Galatians 5:22-23.

    Like

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