Category Archives: Aquinas

Summer Theologiae

If you are not familiar with Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, or not been formally trained how to read/understand it properly, don’t.  It’s one of the denser, less accessible, “academic” tomes, although, in his time, St Thomas considered it a reference for beginners in the study of theology.  It has less to do with your or my abilities dear reader.  It simply was written for a medieval audience in a form of instruction or lecture we no longer use.  

Medieval teachers, traditionally, would pose a statement or question, which you will recognize if you read an authentic copy of the Summa, as the first sentence in any given section, or question, the Summa tackles.  The order of these questions is very logical and methodical.  It makes sense.  So far, so good.  

Once the professor had posed the statement to the class, their homework was to go home and think up “objections” to the statement/question, or why it could not be true.  Students would return to class the next time and pose their objection to the instructor.  

Having been trained/educated himself, the instructor was familiar with the most popular or reoccurring objections, and during class, in his lecture, he would go on to address each objection or concern, and this is how medieval students learned.  

So, the Summa, written in the 13th century, is still in this format, but is and can be a difficult read in the 21st century, to the untrained eye and mind.  I warned you.  Below is a lighthearted and humorous play on words, Summer instead of Summa, and using the joys of the beach to help us better understand the thirty thousand foot view of what St Thomas accomplished.  I can definitely relate! Enjoy!!!


-by Br Ignatius Weiss, OP

Having been practically raised on the beach, I delight in the smell of salt air, the sighing of the waves, and the feel of sand between my toes. The shore remains the site of some of my favorite memories, as well as the world’s most beautiful sights, yet too often people miss the beach for the sand.

While I don’t imagine many people tote their copies of the Summa Theologiæ or the commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics to the shoreline (it isn’t what most would consider “light reading”), I do see some similarities between the thought of St. Thomas and the beach:

  1. Sands on the Seashore. As the vast field of sand is composed of thousands of grains deposited by nature’s currents, so Thomism draws together a number of varied sources in a new way. St. Thomas’ genius drew together the wisdom of Scripture, pagan philosophers, and his own contemporaries into a cohesive expression of reality. Each of these sources brings elements from its origins and adds its particular hue to his theology.
  2. Playing in the Sand. The beach is the world’s greatest sandbox. A few scoops of sand, a bucket of water, and a little handiwork can turn a formless plot into a beautiful sand castle. Thomas’ grand collection of wisdom is always open for continued creativity. The centuries-old wisdom of Thomas continues to inspire people to seek answers to today’s questions.
  3. Thomistic Sunbathing. The beach is home to the sun bather and the oceanologist alike. There are many scientists who comb the coastline examining land, sea, and sky. Most people, however, come to the sea with coolers and beach chairs. Similarly, the main way people encounter Thomism is through Aquinas’ Eucharistic poetry like the “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo,” sung at Adoration. Basking in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, we are also exposed to the penetrating theology and elegant lyricism of St. Thomas Aquinas (no sunscreen required).
  4. The Perfect Perspective. Thomism offers a privileged perspective for beholding God’s glory in this life. The sunset can be seen from anywhere with a glimpse of the horizon, but from the shore we can look out on an unhindered vision of the horizon. Here our sight is limited most by the weakness of our frail, human eyes, but this perspective is undoubtedly better than through the city’s blocky skyline. Thomism shares a similarly open vantage point with its clarity and simplicity. It is easy to get distracted by the broad field of questions, articles, and distinctions presented in Thomism, but the incredible vantage point it provides to behold the glory of God on the shores of this life is unmatched.

The coarse sand and bright sun deter some people from enjoying a summer at the beach. Don’t miss the shore for the sand, don’t dismiss Thomism for its technicality.

Love & thought,
Matthew

Faith is an intellectual virtue…

2/6/14
-by David G Bonagura, Jr., teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.

“I don’t feel anything when I pray.” “I am bored at Mass.” “When I talk to God, I do not sense that someone is listening.” These laments, experienced at one time or another by both the pious and the lost, rise from the very heart of Christian praxis. They express the natural human desire for vibrant emotion and feeling in prayer, a reality that many often lack, especially as the faith is lived over the years.

Emotion, as a reality of the human experience, has a role within the life of faith. The Scriptures themselves express the full pantheon of human sentiment: joy and sorrow, gratitude and jealousy, trust and doubt, hope and fear, love and hate are all part of the divine economy of salvation because they, in their different ways, bring us into contact with God. But it is critical for believers to understand their emotions as one aspect within the broader context of their faith and their relationship with God – not as constitutive of their faith.

Because of the prevalence and power of sentiment, there has always existed a temptation, often well intentioned, to reduce faith to emotion and experience. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher declared, “faith is nothing other than the incipient experience of a satisfaction of that spiritual need by Christ.” Today “youth Masses” attempt to make Schleiermacher’s definition a reality among young people through excited cheering and contemporary music. Other Masses border on sentimentality with overly sappy hymns such as “Here I am Lord” and “You Are Mine.” We are then supposed to feel the presence of Christ and respond to Him in faith.

These personal experiences and feelings can indeed kindle faith, but they cannot be the sole pillars of our spiritual lives, because emotions are not the essence of faith. Rather faith rests upon a loving God Who is not the product of our subjective longings, but a real independent Being Who calls us into union with Him through the revelation of His Son. Faith requires us to acknowledge and accept revelation. The response we make to God may be spurred and accompanied by an array of sentiments, but it is with the intellect that we assent to God and His will.

For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas classified faith as an intellectual virtue: “[T]o believe is an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will.” The intellect has priority because it accepts what comes from God, yet it does so at the insistence of the will, which can be moved by the power of religious experiences. These experiences, when properly integrated within the contours of faith, can contribute to the further development of our relationship with God.

But because faith is the province of the intellect, we need not worry or doubt when emotion and religious sentiment ebb or even disappear from our lives, as they inevitably do. Spiritual aridity – the absence of feeling from the life of faith – is a normal occurrence in the spiritual life, and it can be temporary or prolonged. The saints, many of whom endured painful spiritual aridity for decades, teach us that the absence of religious feelings is God’s way of purifying our faith, which rests ultimately not on emotion, but on our trust in the authority of God’s word.

Often faith is stirred within us due to some profound experience that propels us forward joyfully in our relationship with God. But as the power of these experiences wanes over time, we are forced to trust that we remain in communion with God even as His presence seemingly vanishes. Our situation is akin to that of the apostles: for three years they experienced directly the presence of Christ, and the attendant joy and security that came with it. But after His death and resurrection, they learned, courtesy of Thomas, that it is not feeling but raw trust that constitutes faith. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

Because God is real and not the product of our emotions, we know He hears our prayers and is present to us even if we do not “feel” Him. Our restless hearts must continue to reach toward God, knowing that He alone is their end and fulfillment.

Contrasts are often drawn between Catholics’ more stoic worship with the energy of certain Protestant services. The different styles are pathways to faith; religious feeling of itself neither constitutes nor measures the faith present within the community or the individual. Faith’s true vibrancy depends on the degree to which we trust in God and assent to His revelation. When our trust and assent is strong enough that we give ourselves wholly to God, then we have the love of God in our hearts. And love is not merely sentiment: it is action and commitment as well.

Carmelite Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen writes that “the enkindling of love does not consist in the joy the soul may experience, but rather in the firm determination of the will to give itself entirely to God.” Faith puts us in union with the love of God. We need not fret over lack of religious emotion in our lives, and we need not think our preferred religious experience should be shared by everyone else. True love withstands the flux of all emotions because it is anchored in the certain hope of the God who made us for Himself.”

Love,
Matthew

Reason & emotion

-by David Nolan

“The Scottish philosopher David Hume famously claimed, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” In recent years, growing public awareness of the centrality of the emotions and desires to the human experience has superseded an earlier emphasis on emotional restraint. From psychoanalytical therapy to the emergence of a therapeutic direction in our justice system, the effects of this revolution in thinking are hard to overestimate. In many ways the changes are positive. Empathy, mutual understanding, and self-reflection now receive a healthy emphasis. Our culture encourages us to tolerate others and see alternative points of view as we try to appreciate each person’s background and emotional experiences. However, there is a major problem in the usual application of this ethos. Desires, we have come to believe, justify themselves. When asked why we do something, we say, “Because it feels good;” when asked what our opinions are on a political matter, we reply, “I feel…” Yet we need only to look at the example of emotionally motivated murder to realize desires are not self-justifying. St Thomas Aquinas, writing nearly 800 years ago, built upon Aristotelian notions of the passions and the appetites to develop a corrective picture of the human psyche. He demonstrates why desires cannot be self-justified and how we can positively proceed, neither denigrating human emotion below its rightful place nor exalting it to heights that can only precede a fall.

Aquinas’s passiones animae, translated as “emotions,” do not only refer to passions in the modern sense of overwhelming and perhaps incapacitating feelings. Instead, they refer to our reaction to the nature of every object or situation. He thinks we react in two ways, either to the object itself or to the difficulty we face in trying to obtain or avoid the object. For example, as a child I desired a dog. Dogs are naturally lovable, so I loved them and desired one for myself. This is the first type of emotion— what Aquinas calls concupiscible emotions—which entails having an emotional response to an object because of that object’s inherent nature. My parents, on the other hand, were not so amenable to my idea, and prevented me from fulfilling my desire for an adorable dog. Frustrated, I courageously fought for a puppy but eventually gave up hope and despaired of ever having one. Because my parents had stopped me from obtaining my goal, I was angry with them. Anger, courage, hope, despair—these are all emotions of the second sort, the irascible emotions; they describe our reaction to our perceived ability to obtain an object of desire. Aquinas thinks that both types of emotions have a close relationship with reason. In fact, he thinks our reason in a way rules our emotions, “not by a ‘despotic supremacy,’ which is that of a master over his slave; but by a “politic and royal supremacy,’ whereby the free are governed who are not wholly subject to command.” Eventually, I realized that a lasting anger at my parents was unreasonable and that I should probably encourage my anger to subside— and it eventually did.

Reason and emotions, then, enforce each other day by day. Aquinas grounds his understanding of emotions in the infinitude of little impulses that arise spontaneously throughout our normal experience. Focusing too heavily on extreme cases has largely skewed popular culture’s conversation on the relationship of emotions to reason. Usually, the impulses of our sensory appetite (emotions and passions) align quite closely with our reasoning abilities and our intellectual apprehensions. For example, in a given day, we desire to eat food, we want to complete tasks, and we try to care for our friends. While there are cases of overwhelming emotions, most of our life is more accurately described in little impulses of joy or sorrow, hope or despair, that we can encourage or check with our intellect and reason. The question remains, however: what impulses ought we to encourage?

Well, passions must be appropriate to their objects. In order for this to be true, apprehension must precede desire: we must know what something is before we want it. For example, I must know about cake before I can want cake. Once I have apprehended that the cake is sweet and delicious, I will then desire it. If I thought it was a pile of mud rather than chocolate cake, I would believe it to be distasteful and undesirable. Clearly, correct apprehension leads us to experience passions appropriate to the object. Only in light of the ‘appropriate’ can we understand the greater value and purpose of passions.

Emotions and desires, as aspects of the everyday, carry moral weight. We can make judgments as to the appropriateness, the goodness or badness, of our emotions. Aquinas writes, “in so far as they are voluntary, [passions can] be called morally good or evil. And they are said to be voluntary either from being commanded by the will, or from not being checked by the will.” Before competing in a race or a game, we can voluntarily work up positive emotions; in response to someone cutting us off while we drive, we can discourage our anger and try to remain levelheaded. Emotions are both reactive and willed, and their origin need not necessarily describe how we then respond to them.

Measures of good or bad can refer only to voluntary impulses. But when, if ever, are emotions voluntary? Our lives are a history of partially voluntary actions and reactions. Humans learn many things through experience, and as an essential part of this experience, the emotions help develop our habits. Even our instinctual drives, like the drive for food, can become more and more voluntary as we get older. Not only do we learn to like a broader range of foods (I learned to like onions only as an older teenager), but we also learn to have “will-power” in to restrain our consumption of some foods. As one of Aquinas’s commentators has said, by deciding which impulses we encourage and discourage, which emotions we try to check, we “tell our life story.” The choices we make now both reveal our current preferences, and encourage specific future preferences and future choices. Thus, it is impossible to be sure that an emotion is voluntary or otherwise in the moment: we have to understand ourselves as beings progressing through time. We do know, however, that emotions can be scrutinized according to moral standards.

If we can judge our emotions, how should we do this? We judge emotions based upon their relation to the person about which they arise and in relation to their object. Our emotional response must be appropriate to the context in order for it to be good. By our will, which we inform with our reason, our desires, and our emotion, we plan our path of action. Reason informs us when our path is contradictory— when our plan will not bring us to the goal that we willed. For example, competitive sports highly prize the quality of being a good loser. An overreaction to a loss comes off as immature. On the other hand, athletes who are apathetic to winning not only are less likely to succeed, but do not have enough emotion invested in the sport. Our reason must balance these many impulses, neither neglecting self-control nor suppressing a healthy passion. Over time, reasoned responses discourage inappropriate emotions and encourage appropriate ones. Eventually, I might not even have to really focus to keep my temper—it may start to come naturally. The joy of competition does not contradict a healthy appreciation for sportsmanship. Reason can balance our particular goals with our particular situation.

But there is a more fundamental way that the will, the reason, and desire all work together. One particular desire underlies all our other impulses: the desire for the good, for happiness. We cannot help to desire to be happy— it is our nature. If we ask ourselves why we wish to be happy, there is no answer other than “because.” Nothing transient, passing, or temporal can actually fulfill this most fundamental of desires. When we plan paths of action with our will, we are trying to fulfill this desire. Our will, as it aims at the universal good, ideally aligns the sensitive appetite (the source of desires and emotions) with the larger goal.

Aquinas recognizes the universal Good in the Incarnation— God is the ultimate object of desire, the source of happiness, and the greatest good. Our nature, to use modern terms, is programmed towards God, and in so far as we either pursue or reject God, we expand or limit our opportunity for real fulfillment in this world and the next. Against the measure of the ultimate good, our desires and emotions begin to fall into place. Slowly, through the building of good habits, we can desire objects and guide emotions appropriately. This is not to deny the many layers of emotional complexity. Emotional complication is part of growing up in the world, but through a growing awareness of self, we can begin to understand our emotional impulses. Through the practice of self control combined with the contemplation of God, our highest desire, we can hope to develop a greater internal unity. Our goal is to desire particular goods as the goods themselves deserve, and through the practice of virtue we begin to experience intense love and joy and desire towards objects that actually deserve that intensity of feeling.

Emotions are incredibly valuable, and the therapeutic insight of self-discovery through the examination of emotions is helpful. But as we understand ourselves and see extreme emotions in the light of many everyday impulses, we need to cultivate emotions that align with our intellect, reason, and that most fundamental desire, the desire that God implemented within us for Himself.”

Love,
Matthew

Aquinas on Work


-by Br Jonah Teller, OP

“The necessity of meat.” Certainly a pithy and memorable way to describe the principal object of manual labor. This is the first of four objects, or reasons, that St. Thomas gives for manual labor (STh., II-II q.187 a.3). The other three objects are as follows: for the sake of staving off idleness, so as to avoid all of the evils that can spring out of the sheer fact of nothing-to-do; for the sake of corralling one’s concupiscence, driving one’s body and training it in penance; and finally, manual labor is directed to almsgiving, working so as to have some way to support materially those who are less fortunate.

Here in this ordering a gradual progression emerges. The four objects of manual labor form four steps of ascent in the spiritual life, as it were. The first object—to obtain food—terminates in the body. We must eat to stay alive. There’s no way to phrase that, it seems, without sounding simple, but there it is. This action stays in the body and on the level of the physical.

The second object—the removal of idleness so as to avoid evil—moves beyond the purely physical realm, taking on a spiritual concern. This second object seems to be a privative or preventative one: stay occupied with work so as to avoid the expanses of time in which temptation creeps in. An image comes to mind: filling a container to its brim so that there’s no room for anything undesired. While this second object progresses from the purely physical nature of the first, it is still mostly negative in character.

The third object—curbing concupiscence by penance—is like the second but with important developments. It is concerned with conquering evil, but here things take on a more direct approach. Whereas the second object of labor focused only on keeping oneself occupied so as to avoid the evils attendant to idleness, this third object of work gives to labor an active quality in which it can be used as an instrument for spiritual purification.

Almsgiving—the fourth object of manual labor—marks an important shift in St. Thomas’ consideration of the question. Up to this point, the objects of labor have been focused on the self of the worker. They are turned inward, though not improperly so, to be sure. Here, however, in viewing manual work as a means by which one can help one’s neighbor, there is a turn outward to facing the other and allowing lives to intersect with each other. The second and third objects of work have a spiritual dimension, but as was noted earlier, they are either privative or combatting some evil. Here, with almsgiving, the spiritual work is positive: a work of charity towards another fellow human.

In all of these objects taken together (and there is no reason that they could not all be combined in the same act of work; indeed it seems that they should be combined), we can see a spectrum of spiritual progress delineated. Work begins as a way to sustain our animal life; it keeps us from many temptations; it addresses evils present within us; and it opens our hearts to our neighbors.”

Ora et Labora,
Matthew

Aquinas & “the old woman”


-by Br Isidore Rice, OP

“A little old woman now knows more about what belongs to faith than all the philosophers once knew.” (See here for the full text)

“No one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” (Full text)

“Is it not correct that a charity with knowledge is more eminent than a charity without knowledge? It seems that it is not, for then a wicked theologian would have a charity of greater dignity than a holy old woman.” (Full text)

“Unlike the many philosophers through history who tended to absolutize philosophic knowledge and denigrate the simple faith of their less scientifically enlightened neighbors, St. Thomas clearly has a deep respect for the “holy old woman”. However, he also firmly values knowledge. Responding to that last quote, St. Thomas shows that knowledge, of a certain sort, can and does enrich charity: “what is discussed here is a knowledge which exerts its influence. For the force of the knowledge stimulates one to love more since the more God is known, so much the more is He loved.”

The knowledge which makes charity more splendid is not the breadth of knowledge of facts that leads to … victory. Knowing what a certain theologian said about God, the chapter and verse of various Bible passages, or the years of the eccumenical councils can be quite helpful, but the aim of theology, as well as the little old lady’s meditations, is not to know a wide breadth of opinions and facts related to God, but to know God Himself, with depth.

‘The most elementary truths of Christian faith, such as those expressed in the Our Father, are, we find, the most profound truths when we have meditated upon them long and lovingly; when, through the years, we have lived with them, while carrying our cross, and they have become the object of almost continuous contemplation. To be led to the heights of sanctity, it would be enough for a soul to live intensely but one of these truths of our Faith.’ – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

Love,
Matthew

Only 3 Goods


-by Peter Kreeft

BOLD = Aquinas, Summa Theologiae = ST

“How can I simplify my life? It’s not lacking in good things, it’s too full of them. How can I find space, and time, and simplicity?

The answer is: By realizing that the only things you need are good things, and that there are not as many good things as you think, because there are only three kinds of goods: Goodness is rightly divided into (1) the virtuous, (2) the useful, and (3) the pleasant. . . .

‘Goodness is not divided into these three as something univocal to be predicated equally of them all, but as something analogical to be predicated of them according to priority and posteriority. Hence it is predicated chiefly of the virtuous, then of the pleasant, and lastly of the useful’ (I,5,6).

What is “virtuous” is good in itself. The reason to be virtuous, to do right and not wrong, is simply because it’s right and not wrong. What is “pleasant” is simply what makes you happy. And what is “useful” is whatever is a means to either what is virtuous or what is pleasant.

These are three different kinds of goods. They are good analogically, good in different ways, different senses. They are not the same in rank. They are in a hierarchy. (1) The virtuous good is the “goodest” because it is good absolutely, in itself. (2) The pleasant is next because it is also an end in itself (we seek pleasure for no other reason than pleasure), but it is not absolute but relative (“different strokes for different folks”). Also, not all pleasures are virtuous, though all virtues are pleasant. And the deepest pleasure is an effect of virtue, not vice versa. (3) Finally, the useful is good only as a means to either virtue or pleasure.

Hedonists are fools who seek only pleasure. But these people are never really deeply happy, deeply pleased. Pleasure comes only as a by-product. Pleasure-addicts are like hypochondriacs. They destroy the very thing they seek by idolizing it.

Pragmatists and utilitarians are fools who seek only utility. But as Chesterton says, “man’s most pragmatic need is to be more than a pragmatist”, to have some end to justify all these means, some absolute that all these things are relative to, something all these useful things are useful for.

Most of us are semi-hedonists and semi-utilitarians because we fill up our lives and our thoughts with useful goods first of all, then pleasant goods, then virtue last of all, as a kind of last-minute check. We invert the hierarchy. Especially in modern America, where we idolize our feelings (pleasures) and treat everything else (even unborn babies) as utilitarian, disposable consumer goods.

How can we find more room and time in our lives and our thoughts for the higher goods? By simplifying and minimizing the lower goods, and above all by eliminating everything else that is not really good at all. St. Thomas’ classification gives us a road map for a wonderful simplification of our lives. Everyone needs that today. Everyone complains that their lives are too complex, that there is not enough time, not enough leisure—even though (or perhaps because) we have all these technological time-saving devices, our hundreds of mechanical slaves. We are slaves to our slaves. St. Thomas’ simple common sense can free us from this slavery.

For there are only three kinds of good. So if a thing is not virtuous, useful, or pleasant, it’s not really good. So fugghetaboutit! Simplify your life by throwing out all the things you have that you don’t need, all that’s not virtuous, useful, or pleasant. Don’t do anything for any other reason, e.g., because “everybody’s doing it” or “everybody has one” or just because it’s “expected”, or because you feel a spontaneous desire for it once you see a commercial for it. Do you really need to buy that expensive sneaker or super cell phone, or to read that book that’s on the best-seller list, or go to that dull meeting? Is it your moral duty? Does it give you happiness, or even pleasure? If the answer to all three questions is no, then dump it! A house without a garbage can becomes cluttered and smelly. The same is true of a life.”(1)

Love & truth,
Matthew

(1)Kreeft, Peter (2014-11-28). Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas (Kindle Locations 698-730). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

“One necessary thing”, Lk 10:42 & Aquinas

Why do we sin?

“Seek what you seek, but it is not where you seek it. You seek Life in the place of death.” –St Augustine, Confessions


-by Peter Kreeft

BOLD = Aquinas, Summa Theologiae = ST

“All created perfections are in God. Hence He is spoken of as universally perfect (“all-perfect”), because He lacks not any excellence which may be found in creatures.

This may be seen from two considerations.

First, because whatever perfection exists in an effect must also be found in the effective cause . . . Since therefore God is the first effective cause of things, the perfection of all things must pre-exist in God in a more eminent way . . .

Second, from what has already been proved, God is existence (being) itself. Consequently, He must contain within Himself the whole perfection of being . . . Since therefore God is subsisting being itself, nothing of the perfection of being can be wanting to Him. Now all created perfections are included in the perfection of being, for things are perfect only insofar as they have being after some fashion. It follows therefore that the perfection of no being is wanting to God (ST,I,4,2).

Whatever is desirable, in whatsoever beatitude (happiness, joy), whether true (beatitude) or (even) false (i.e., merely apparent beatitude), pre-exists wholly and in a more eminent degree in the divine beatitude.

As to contemplative happiness, God possesses a continual and most certain contemplation of Himself and of all things else.

And as to that which is active, He has the governance of the whole universe. As to earthly happiness, which consists in delight, riches, power, dignity, and fame, according to Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy III,10), He possesses joy in Himself and all things else for His delight: Instead of riches, He has that complete self-sufficiency which is promised by riches; In place of power, He has omnipotence; For dignities, the government of all things; And in place of fame, He possesses the admiration of all creatures (I,26,4, “Whether All Beatitude is Included in the Beatitude of God?”).(1)

“All sin, therefore, comes from a lack of faith—faith in this very fact, that God contains all perfections, not just some. God is not an option for “religious people”, whomever they are. God is the only game in town(2).”

“Here, in St. Thomas, is a powerful aid to obeying the first and greatest commandment. (“I AM the Lord thy God. You shall have no other gods before Me” -Ex 20:2-3. And, “You shall love the Lord, thy God, with ALL your heart, ALL your soul, and ALL your mind.” -Mt 22:37) It is the realization that every finite perfection we love and seek in the creation is to be found in an infinitely perfect form in God. What are we seeking in human love, in nature, in creativity, in thought? It’s desirable only because it’s a little like God. All that we love in creatures is a reflection of the Creator. There, and there alone, in Him, can we find everything we are seeking in them. The reflections of His perfections in the mirror of creation should send us away from the mirror, not into it. And when we run into the mirror, seeking our happiness there, the mirror breaks and our happiness shatters. For every truth is a reflection of His truth, every good is a reflection of His good, every beauty is a reflection of His beauty. The reflections are real, but they are only real reflections. They point back to the Reality they reflect. All truth is God’s truth. All goodness is God’s goodness. All beauty is God’s beauty. He must contain in Himself the whole perfection of being.

And therefore He is what we need, He is all of what we need, and He is the only One we need. For if we need something else besides God, something in addition to God, then God is not God.

There is a mystery about our desires: they have no limit! We are never totally and absolutely satisfied. Why? Because they are about God.

“The form (nature) of the Desired is in the desire.” St. Thomas means by that saying that there is no such thing as desire simply, desire with no specific object, desire for nothing, or for everything in general, for an abstraction. There is only desire for food, drink, sleep, truth, goodness, beauty, sex, love, friendship, etc. The form of the object of each desire is in the desire itself, and gives it its nature: desire for sex is sexual desire, desire for knowledge is curiosity, desire for friendship is loneliness.

And thus since the form of its object is in the desire itself, and since what we most deeply desire is God, the infinite source of all finite perfections, therefore the infinite nature of God is “in” this infinite desire for God, like a negative photograph, or like a silhouette. When your mother dies, your grief is a mother-shaped grief; when you lack God it is a God-shaped lack, a God-shaped (and God-sized) vacuum. The desire for God has no limit because its object (God) has no limit.

St. Thomas here simply explains, in philosophical language, St. Augustine’s beloved and famous saying that summarizes the whole meaning of life: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and [that is why] our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Confessions I,1).

How this frees us from worry! Jesus tells foolish, fussing Martha the startling good news that “There is only one thing needful!” (Lk 10:38-42). It’s Him. Mary knew that, and Martha didn’t, even though both loved Him. No thought more liberating, more simplifying, more unifying than that thought has ever entered into a human mind. Your life can be one. You can be one. You do not need to be torn apart, harried and hassled, bothered and bewildered. You can become one great person by having one great love.

For you are what you love. Your love is your destiny. Augustine says your love is your gravity (amor meus, pondus meum).

In speaking to Martha, Christ speaks to all of us. He sees us in her, and he wants to liberate us out of her confusions, her illusions, and her worries, and into Mary’s “one thing needful”. He is the One we need to seek, and find, and meet, and love, and serve in all things. Because everything we seek, every good, every happiness, every joy, every perfection, is There.”(3)

Love,
Matthew

(1) Kreeft, Peter (2014-11-28). Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas (Kindle Locations 605-622). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.
(2) Kreeft, Peter (2014-11-28). Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas (Kindle Locations 627-629). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.
(3) Kreeft, Peter (2014-11-28). Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas (Kindle Locations 634-663). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

St Thomas Aquinas on Islam

Taj Mahal Agra India

“[Muhammad] seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh goads us. His teaching also contained precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure. In all this, as is not unexpected, he was obeyed by carnal men.

As for proofs of the truth of his doctrine, he brought forward only such as could be grasped by the natural ability of anyone with a very modest wisdom. Indeed, the truths that he taught he mingled with many fables and with doctrines of the greatest falsity.

He did not bring forth any signs produced in a supernatural way, which alone fittingly gives witness to divine inspiration; for a visible action that can be only divine reveals an invisibly inspired teacher of truth. On the contrary, Muhammad said that he was sent in the power of his arms—which are signs not lacking even to robbers and tyrants.

What is more, no wise men, men trained in things divine and human, believed in him from the beginning. Those who believed in him were brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Muhammad forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms.

Nor do divine pronouncements on the part of preceding prophets offer him any witness. On the contrary, he perverts almost all the testimonies of the Old and New Testaments by making them into fabrications of his own, as can be seen by anyone who examines his law.

It was, therefore, a shrewd decision on his part to forbid his followers to read the Old and New Testaments, lest these books convict him of falsity. It is thus clear that those who place any faith in his words believe foolishly.” –Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG) 1, 6, 4.

Love,
Matthew

Why Aquinas? How Aquinas? What Aquinas?

apotheosis of saint thomas aquinas zurbaran
-“Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas”, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1631, Museum of Fine Arts, Seville, Spain.

Randall_Smith
-by Dr. Randall Smith, PhD, Dr. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. Some days it can seem as though, if it weren’t for bad news, we wouldn’t have any news at all. Brutal acts of terrorism, political correctness run rampant, and a horrible election between perhaps the two worst candidates in America. It’s times such as these when we have to return to the important things – the things that will last and provide a solid foundation on rock, rather than sand. Which is precisely why I’m taking this occasion not to comment on any of our current troubles and write instead about Thomas Aquinas.

I’m sometimes asked, “What should I read by Aquinas?” This question usually comes from a person who has almost no acquaintance with his thought or writing, except perhaps a cursory experience years ago with the so-called “Five Ways,” the five “proofs” for the existence of God. They know that Aquinas is important; some even know that he has been called “the Common Doctor of the Church.” Interested in nourishing their faith, they think: “I should read some Aquinas. But what?”

Like people who decide they should “read the Bible,” and then get a short way into Exodus or Numbers only to regret their decision – “Isn’t there some easier way of doing this?” (There is: go to daily Mass) – so too there are those who decide they should “read some Aquinas,” pick up his great Summa of Theology, and get about three questions in before giving up in despair. “Wow, this stuff is hard.” 🙂 Uh-huh.

Yes, you probably wouldn’t know it from most of your high school religion classes, but theology can in fact be hard. It can make your head hurt (Ed. it does!) like the hardest bit of chemistry or advanced physics. Thomas’s Summa was meant as a “beginner’s” text. Why so many teachers feel it’s necessary to “dumb down” theology when they would never consider “dumbing down” chemistry, biology, or physics, I’ll never know. But they do, and that’s where many people find themselves.

So let’s say you want some of the wisdom of St. Thomas, but you’re a little intimidated by the Summa. You’re not alone in this. What do you do?

Well, you could start with a good introduction, like G. K. Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox or Ralph McInerny’s delightful First Glance at Thomas Aquinas (A Handbook for Peeping Thomists). Or, if you like listening, you could go to the website of the International Catholic University and get Prof. McInerny’s lively “Introduction to Thomas Aquinas.”

But let’s say you want to get right to reading some Aquinas. This shows a good spirit on your part. Where do you begin? I have a suggestion. A good place to begin for someone who isn’t used to reading medieval disputed questions is to begin with any of Thomas’s “sermon-conferences” on the Apostle’s Creed, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, or the Ten Commandments. All of these were meant for an educated audience of non-specialists. They are not “dumbed down.” Thomas still challenges his listeners to think and think deeply. But they’re less technical than the Summa or Thomas’s commentaries on Aristotle.

Most of these texts have been published separately at one time or another. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little “trade secret.” If you want to find anything by Aquinas in English translation, go to the superb web site kept up by my former classmate, Dr. Thérèse Bonin: Thomas Aquinas in English: A Bibliography. It’s an invaluable resource.

But you can also buy all these treatises together in a volume entitled The Aquinas Catechism: A Simple Explanation of the Catholic Faith by the Church’s Greatest Theologian. Thomas didn’t actually set out to write a single “catechism,” so the title is a bit misleading. But it’s fair enough because the editors have brought together in this one volume Thomas’s commentaries on the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Hail Mary, and the Our Father – to which they have added at the end some material on the sacraments.

Regarding this material on the sacraments, the reader should exercise some caution. Thomas wasn’t able to finish the Summa before he died at the relatively young age of 49. What was left unfinished at the time of his death, though, was the final section of the Summa on the sacraments. So what his students did – out of their love for their teacher – was “finish it off” with material they found in some of Thomas’s earliest writings: his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. A noble gesture, but this would be like “filling in” your teacher’s final book, his magnum opus, the fruit of a lifetime’s learning, with material from his doctoral dissertation. So it’s worth exercising some care.

When the news is bad, or just plain silly, as it is pretty much all the time these days, why not skip it? Listen to McInerny talk about Aquinas instead of listening to the evening news. Read Aquinas on the Apostle’s Creed rather than reading The New York Times. Less fretting over the news, and more reflecting on the Good News.

C.S. Lewis used to say he rarely read the news. If there was anything important that he could do something about, he trusted his friends would tell him. As for the rest, he thought the best response to those things he couldn’t do much about — horrible wars, people dying, government scandals — was to fast and pray. If you truly believe that God is the Lord of History, then often the most practical thing you can do is pray. And now while you’re praying the Hail Mary or the Our Father, you can say to yourself: “Didn’t I read somewhere that Thomas Aquinas wrote commentaries on these prayers?”

Yes you did.”

STA
-the St Thomas Aquinas, OP, statue I keep on my desk, always in sight, for inspiration. Patron saint of students, pray for us!

Love & Thomism,
Matthew

n.b. I have found “The Aquinas Catechism: A Simple Explanation of the Catholic Faith by the Church’s Greatest Theologian”, by St Thomas Aquinas/Ralph McInerny, very accessible. This is a collection of Lenten sermons by the Common Doctor given in 1273, the last year of his life.

Being Catholic = asking questions!!: Summa Theologiae

Saint_Patrick_Church_(Columbus,_Ohio)_-_stained_glass,_St._Thomas_Aquinas,_detail

(As Bp Barron will eloquently state, the form of education in the High Middle Ages, and for a long time thereafter, was the “disputed question”. The instructor would pose the question a day, or so, before. Students’ homework would be to then go and prepare objections to the disputed question, of their own creation. The instructor would then address each valid objection produced to demonstrate the validity of the argument and correctness of the answer proposed.  This is why Aquinas’ Summa is written in the form it is.  It is ancient, time honored, and foreign to us in the 21st century.)

robert_barron
-by Bp Robert Barron

There is, in many quarters, increasing concern about the hyper-charged political correctness that has gripped our campuses and other forums of public conversation. Even great works of literature and philosophy—from Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness to, believe it or not, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—are now regularly accompanied by “trigger warnings” that alert prospective readers to the racism, sexism, homophobia, or classism contained therein. And popping up more and more at our colleges and universities are “safe spaces” where exquisitely sensitive students can retreat in the wake of jarring confrontations with points of view with which they don’t sympathize. My favorite example of this was at Brown University where school administrators provided retreat centers with play-doh, crayons, and videos of frolicking puppies to calm the nerves of their students even before a controversial debate commenced! Apparently even the prospect of public argument sent these students to an updated version of daycare. Of course a paradoxical concomitant of this exaggerated sensitivity to giving offense is a proclivity to aggressiveness and verbal violence; for once authentic debate has been ruled out of court, the only recourse contesting parties have is to some form of censorship or bullying.

There is obviously much that can and should be mocked in all of this, but I won’t go down that road. Instead, I would like to revisit a time when people knew how to have a public argument about the most hotly-contested matters. Though it might come as a surprise to many, I’m talking about the High Middle Ages, when the university system was born. And to illustrate the medieval method of disciplined conversation there is no better candidate than St. Thomas Aquinas. The principal means of teaching in the medieval university was not the classroom lecture, which became prominent only in the 19th century German system of education; rather, it was the quaestio disputata (disputed question), which was a lively, sometimes raucous, and very public intellectual exchange. Though the written texts of Aquinas can strike us today as a tad turgid, we have to recall that they are grounded in these disciplined but decidedly energetic conversations.

If we consult Aquinas’s masterpiece, the Summa theologiae, we find that he poses literally thousands of questions and that not even the most sacred issues are off the table, the best evidence of which is article three of question two of the first part of the Summa: “utrum Deus sit?” (whether there is a God). If a Dominican priest is permitted to ask even that question, everything is fair game; nothing is too dangerous to talk about. After stating the issue, Thomas then entertains a series of objections to the position that he will eventually take. In many cases, these represent a distillation of real counter-claims and queries that Aquinas would have heard during quaestiones disputatae. But for our purposes, the point to emphasize is that Thomas presents these objections in their most convincing form, often stating them better and more pithily than their advocates could. In proof of this, we note that during the Enlightenment, rationalist philosophes would sometimes take Thomistic objections and use them to bolster their own anti-religious positions. To give just one example, consider Aquinas’s devastatingly convincing formulation of the argument from evil against the existence of God: “if one of two contraries were infinite, the other would be destroyed…but God is called the infinite good. Therefore, if God exists, there would be no evil.” Thomas indeed provides a telling response, but, as stated, that is a darn good argument. Might I suggest that it would help our public discourse immensely if all parties would be willing to formulate their opponents’ positions as respectfully and convincingly as possible?

Having articulated the objections, Thomas then offers his own magisterial resolution of the matter: “Respondeo dicendum quod… (I respond that it must be said…). One of the more regrettable marks of the postmodern mind is a tendency to endlessly postpone the answer to a question. Take a look at Jacques Derrida’s work for a master class in this technique. And sadly, many today, who want so desperately to avoid offending anyone, find refuge in just this sort of permanent irresolution. But Thomas knew what Chesterton knew, namely that an open mind is like an open mouth, that is, designed to close finally on something solid and nourishing. Finally, having offered his Respondeo, Aquinas returns to the objections and, in light of his resolution, answers them. It is notable that a typical Thomas technique is to find something right in the objector’s position and to use that to correct what he deems to be errant in it.

Throughout this process, in the objections, Respondeos, and answers to objections, Thomas draws on a wide range of sources: the Bible and the Church Fathers of course, but also the classical philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, and the Islamic masters Averroes, Avicenna, and Aviceberon. And he consistently invokes these figures with supreme respect, characterizing Aristotle, for example, as simply “the Philosopher” and referring to Maimonides as “Rabbi Moyses.” It is fair to say that, in substantial ways, Thomas Aquinas disagrees with all of these figures, and yet he is more than willing to listen to them, to engage them, to take their arguments seriously.

What this Thomistic method produces is, in its own way, a “safe space” for conversation, but it is a safe space for adults and not timorous children. It wouldn’t be a bad model for our present discussion of serious things.”

Love & good thinking,
Matthew