(Thomist spirituality) refers to the spiritual life and teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225/26-1274) and of those who belong to his school. As a child, so it is said, Thomas was already asking the question ‘what is God?’ and this remained the central pre-occupation of his life. He opted for the Dominicans rather than the Benedictines for reasons that remain unknown but the intellectual concerns of the new Order may have appealed to him as well as its commitment to countering the neo-Manichean ideas of the Cathars. In practice this meant developing a theological approach in which an appreciation of the goodness of creation was central.
Thomas had already been introduced to the philosophy of Aristotle at Naples and his studies under Albert the Great in Paris strengthened his interest in the newly translated works of Aristotle. On the face of it Aristotle seemed less promising an ally for Christian theology than the more religiously minded Plato. In fact there was little of Plato’s work available in the 13th century although he had already had a significant impact in the development of theology in the Patristic period. In any case Thomas found in Aristotle the ally he needed for supporting the theological affirmation of created reality. Issues that are central to Christian life and thinking such as creation itself, human individuality and integrity, grace and freedom, incarnation and sacrament – all receive fresh and exciting treatment in the light of Aristotle’s scientific, ethical and metaphysical teachings.
Thomas’ holistic anthropology – his understanding of the essential unity of body and soul in the human individual – is a distinctive and original contribution to human thought. Much moral and spiritual wisdom follows from his conviction that the human is essentially a physical being, that the soul needs the body just as the body needs the soul, and that there is no human knowing, even the highest forms of spiritual understanding, that do not depend on what has been experienced physically. It has been claimed that Thomas is the first Christian philosopher to take the corporeal character of human existence calmly. For Thomas the human body is even essential to what he calls ‘the well-being of our eternal happiness’: no one had given such honour to the human body before.
With characteristic provocativeness, G.K.Chesterton says that Thomas, with Francis of Assisi, saved the west from spirituality. By this he means that the affirmation of the goodness of creation by Francis and Thomas strengthened a characteristically Christian understanding of the Word becoming flesh and of God seeing all that he had made and finding it very good. The world itself is already gift of God in virtue of the mystery of being or existence that is found at the heart of the smallest thing there is. On this view all one needs is an ant or a leaf to initiate a meditation on existence that will lead ultimately to God. In the thought of Thomas Aquinas we find a mysticism of being in which the divine presence is recognised primarily in God’s creative and continuing emanation – Thomas does not fear the term – that is the being of things. Because it is created in the image of God the human creature has the capacity to receive the gift of being with awareness and gratitude.
His most famous work, the Summa Theologiae, was intended as a moral theology, concerned with the living out of the Christian life understood as the human creature’s pilgrimage of return to God. A key, structuring theme of this work is beatitudo, blessedness or bliss. Thomas uses this term to characterise the Trinitarian life of God in which creation and salvation originate. He uses it also to refer to the final end or fundamental desire that moves human beings to moral and spiritual searching. Beatitudo is what Jesus Christ brings because it is he who in fact opens the way for human entry into the blessed life of God. Thomas did not live to write the parts of the Summa devoted to eschatology but it is clear from what he did write that the blessedness to which we may now look forward is beyond anything human hearts can conceive.
Thomas speaks of the human appropriation of beatitudo in terms of grace and deification. His understanding of grace is essentially Trinitarian. The Son and the Spirit have been sent by the Father to bring the world within God’s embrace so that it might share in God’s own life of knowing and loving. Grace refers to the strengthening and elevation of nature that attends the indwelling of the divine persons. Grace operates within the human capacities for knowing and loving and conforms human beings to ‘the Word that breathes Love’. Graced humanity is Word-bearing and Loving, made to be like God.
In practice this happens through the virtues or gifts of faith, hope and charity with the many actions, expressions, initiatives and practices to which they give rise and which constitute the pastoral and spiritual life of Christian individuals and communities. The life of the believer, stimulated and sustained by Christ in his Church, is nevertheless a life lived in mystery, since in this life, Thomas says, we can only be united with God as with an unknown. Faith is profoundly paradoxical for him. It is a firm assent unsupported by evidence sufficient to satisfy the intellect. It is a speaking or articulation whose hold on truth reaches beyond what the words used contain. It touches a reality signified by those words, which yet remains unknown. ‘It is in the dark night of ignorance’, he writes, ‘that we come closest to God in this life’ (In I Sentences 8,1,1).
For Thomas, wisdom means knowing that we do not know God. We are viatores or travellers who live in a tension towards that which is and is not yet ours. We live then by hope, a virtue whose characteristic act is prayer, which Thomas describes as ‘the interpreter of desire’. Prayer is the struggle of mind and mouth to find words for what the heart wants.
Thomas understands charity to mean friendship with God. No longer simply creatures or servants, we are established in friendship with God by Jesus Christ (John 15.15) so that we become God’s partners and co-workers in caring for the world and guiding its progress. It is in this friendship of charity that we begin already to experience beatitudo as we are brought to participate in the nature of God who is love.
Christ won this gift for us through his passion and the sacraments are the fruits of his passion. They adapt the gift of divine life or grace to the kind of creature we are: linguistic, sign-making, social, political, physical, ritual-celebrating and historical. We know from the witnesses who testified to his way of living that Thomas’s personal spiritual life was centred on the celebration of the Eucharist. His devotion to the Eucharist is still to be seen in the poetry he composed to accompany the liturgies of Corpus Christi. Having been to confession and celebrated the Eucharist, he then spent his day studying the Word of God, trying to penetrate and expound wisdom’s truth in a sustained and creative theological life.
In his life of Jesus, Thomas describes him as a wandering teacher whose mission was to serve truth in a life of poverty, prayer and preaching. Thomas sought to imitate this way of living, devoting himself without reserve and without ambition to the ministry of study and teaching. Some sections of the secular clergy reacted strongly to the emergence of the mendicant orders and sought to have their way of life disallowed. Thomas wrote a number of works in defence of the new form of religious life. At the heart of the friar’s life, he said, is obedience, the highest exercise of human freedom as a person entrusts himself completely to God and to God’s unfolding plan for the world. He argued that this was a valid way of following Christ whose love and obedience are the world’s salvation.
Thomist spirituality, at least as we see it in Thomas himself, combines intellectual dedication and discipline with a comparatively simple life of prayer and liturgical practice. On 6th December 1273, the feast of Saint Nicholas, Thomas had an experience during the Eucharist that led him to give up writing. He had often cited a saying of Pseudo-Dionysius to the effect that the search for God involves not just learning about divine things but experiencing them, literally ‘suffering’ them (non solum discens sed et patiens divina). This saying became reality for him on that day. He had given his life to contemplation, meaning the study of the Word of God. Now, it seems, he was brought to that place of silence of which the Christian mystical tradition had always spoken, into those mists within which – as Thomas well knew – God is said to dwell.
Thomas F.O’Meara, Thomas Aquinas Theologian, University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, Indiana and London, 1997
William H.Principe, Thomas Aquinas’ Spirituality, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1984
J.-P.Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (translated from the French by Robert Royal), Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 2003
Simon Tugwell, Albert and Thomas, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1988
James A.Weisheipl, Friar Thomas d’Aquino: His life, thought, and works Oxford, Blackwells, 1974 (second edition Washington DC, 1983)
A.N.Williams, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas, Oxford University Press, 1999