St. Bonaventure and Christ's Mystical Body - St. Bernard's

St. Bonaventure and Christ's Mystical Body

Jul 18, 2023

Kasey Kimball, Ph.D. (cand.)

One Sunday in August of 2018, I found myself at an outdoor Mass seated between the Protestant friends with whom I was vacationing on one side, and a Catholic stranger on the other. The order in which we happened to sit on that morning was oddly symbolic: I’d been wandering in ecclesiastical no-man’s land for months, stuck between my native Protestant church and the Catholic Church I wanted, but in good conscience remained unable to embrace. It was, I think, the first time I’d been to Mass since dropping out of RCIA shortly before Easter. It was also, providentially, the first Sunday after the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. I say providentially not because the abuse detailed in the report was anything other than abhorrent, but because as the priest spoke honestly about it before Mass, something happened to me: I found myself drawn unexpectedly to the Church. As best I can describe it, the sense I had was that if the Catholic Church was the Church founded by Jesus Christ and therefore His body in a particular way (claims about which I was, admittedly, still unsure), then I had to move toward her, even as her sins and the profound suffering they caused were brought (again) into the light. In other words, I could not claim to love Christ the Head while standing apart from His body as it suffered. The end of my long journey to Catholicism had begun.

While the visceral attraction I felt to the Catholic Church as Christ’s body on that Sunday almost five years ago remains largely mysterious, I suspect that some of it was the fruit of studying St. Bonaventure (whose feast we celebrated on July 15th), specifically his meditations on Christ’s passion (The Tree of Life and The Mystical Vine) in my Master’s degree. In these texts, Bonaventure makes frequent use the language of the body of Christ: it is as the new Head of humanity that Christ reversed humanity’s fall from the inside—healing our disobedience with His obedience, our pride with His humility, our propensity for vengeance and hatred with His mercy and love—even at great cost to Himself.

Bonaventure invites the readers of his meditations to pay attention to the suffering that this healing involved, not because Christ’s suffering is good in and of itself, but because it demonstrates the depth of His love for us, His Body. While Bonaventure is clear that Christ has decisively defeated sin and its consequences, this does not mean His body ceases to suffer in this world. In fact, the opposite is true. This is not merely because we live in a fallen world of disease and disaster, of personal and communal sin, but also because the process of becoming obedient, humble, merciful, and loving like our Head simply entails suffering. It should come as no surprise that dying to ourselves feels like death. And this is to say nothing of the suffering that many saints have opted into as part of doing penance, tending the sick, serving the poor, and reaching the lost.

Even as Bonaventure acknowledges the inevitability—necessity, even—of suffering in the life of Christ’s body on earth, he is clear that this suffering is transfigured because the Head has shared, and continues to share, in it. In The Mystical Vine, Bonaventure says this about Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross:

Our Head, the most loving Jesus, spoke in this way for the whole body, that is, the whole Church. In order to evince His unity with the Church, His bride, and His love for her, he thus made it clear that He would suffer in all her members—He who was suffering as her Head, that is in His own body, born of the Virgin. Hence, the One who cannot possibly be derelict cries out that he is forsaken, because many of His members are to suffer distress to the point of appearing almost abandoned by God. Blessed be the most lovable Lord, Jesus most kind, who deigns to suffer for us, first in Himself, then with us and in us, regarding as His own our sufferings for justice’s sake, and proclaiming, I will be with him in distress [Ps. 90:15], so as to strengthen our confidence in Him (X.2, trans. DeVinck).

Here Bonaventure draws our attention to the mysterious mutuality of suffering: because the Head shares in the suffering of His body, all the suffering that the body endures is transfigured by Christ’s presence there. This is not to say that suffering magically ceases to be difficult and painful, but that because of the interpenetrating union between Head and body, suffering also becomes an occasion of contact, of intimacy with God Himself. This is true for individual members of the body of Christ, but also for the body as a whole.

By the time I heard the latest catalogue of the Church’s sins on that sunny August morning, I’d spent two years immersed in The Tree of Life and The Mystical Vine. It was, I think, largely Bonaventure’s tutelage that made it seem untenable for me to watch Christ’s body suffer from a distance, even when some of that suffering was a result of her own sins. If Christ, the Head was suffering for her, with her, and in her, to do otherwise would be to move away from Him, and that I could not do.

Kasey Kimball is a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology at Boston College. Her current research focuses on early Franciscan anthropology and sacramental theology; she also has an abiding interest in pre-Modern Scriptural exegesis and theories of secularization. Inspired by the 20th century ressourcement movement, she intends her scholarly work in (sometimes the lesser known corners of) the Patristic and Medieval theological tradition to be of service to the contemporary Church as well as to the academy. Raised an Anglican in Newburyport, MA, she received a BA in International Studies from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) in 2008 and served for six years with a Protestant campus ministry in Baltimore before moving to Canada for graduate studies. She received her MA in theology from Regent College (Vancouver, BC) in 2018. She was received into full communion with Catholic Church in 2018, influenced, in part, by writing her MA thesis on St. Bonaventure. When she’s not studying, she enjoys British detective fiction, distance running, teatime, and making friends with other people's dogs.