Sarah Edwards, Francis of Assisi, and the Bodily Aesthetics of Sanctification

Within contemporary theological aesthetics, the goal of sanctification is articulated in terms of form and beauty. As the process of becoming more like Christ, sanctification involves being conformed to Christ aesthetically: the beauty of saints conforms to the beauty of Christ. The discussion here primarily focuses on Christ’s moral beauty, as humans are to imitate Christ in virtue and holiness.

What this means for the body has not been sufficiently considered. As Patrick Sherry notes, the significance of Christ’s physical beauty for sanctification has proved much more difficult. While Christ’s resurrected body offers saints hope for their own bodies, its significance is deferred until the eschaton. One day, the body will be glorified, made beautiful in conformity to the incorruptible body of Christ. In the present, sanctification of the body is often limited to its diminishment through ascetic practices and the discipline of bodily desires.

In contrast, Jonathan Edwards and Bonaventure both offer portraits of the amplification of the body in sanctification. This paper considers two narratives, one of Sarah Edwards, written by Edwards, and one of Francis of Assisi, written by Bonaventure, as narratives that insist that the impressive work of the Spirit on the soul ought to have expression in the body. Sanctification, in these accounts, effects the body and the soul in tandem, and we ought to expect an aesthetic, bodily expression of the Spirit’s internal work.

In the context of the New England revivals, Edwards offers his wife’s bodily experiences as an exemplar of the influence of the Spirit upon a person. Body and soul are so united, Edwards says, that the ecstatic bodily responses to spiritual experiences should be expected. Edwards insists that we should not be surprised when the Spirit so impresses divine love and joy on the heart that the body bears witness to that experience.

Bonaventure’s narrative of Francis of Assisi, as a biography commissioned by the Franciscan order, provides a unifying centre in Francis for the expanding Franciscan order. Bonaventure positions Francis as one who has been conformed, in body and soul, to Christ. The Spirit does not simply impress Francis’s heart; the Spirit also leaves “tokens” on Francis’s flesh.

Although Edwards and Bonaventure both theologise from an integrated anthropology that refuses to divorce body and soul, their narratives do not express the same conclusions about the bodily aesthetics of sanctification. This paper will consider the differences in these conclusions and the significance of these differences for spiritual formation.