“Prayer, St. John Damascene says, is the unveiling of the mind before God. When we pray we ask Him for what we need, confess our faults, thank Him for His gifts, and adore His immense majesty. Here are five tips for praying better– with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas.
5. Be humble.
Many people falsely think of humility as a virtue of a low self-esteem. St. Thomas teaches us that humility is a virtue of acknowledging the truth about reality. Since prayer, at its root, is an “asking” directed at God, humility is crucially important. Through humility we recognize our neediness before God. We are totally and entirely dependent on God for everything and at every moment: our existence, life, breath, every thought and action. As we become more humble, we recognize more profoundly our need to pray more.
4. Have faith.
It’s not enough to know that we’re needy. To pray, we also have to ask someone, and not just anyone, but someone who can and will answer our petition. Children intuit this when they ask mom instead of dad (or vice versa!) for permission or a gift. It is with the eyes of faith that we see God is both powerful and willing to help us in prayer. St. Thomas says that “faith is necessary… that is, we need to believe that we can obtain from Him what we seek.” It is faith which teaches us “of God’s omnipotence and mercy,” the basis of our hope. In this, St. Thomas reflects the Scriptures. The Epistle to the Hebrews underlines the necessity of faith, saying, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). Try praying an Act of Faith.
“O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I believe that your divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy Catholic Church teaches, because in revealing them you can neither deceive nor be deceived.”
or, something close to that, so long as not heretical. Check w/your favorite, friendly, faithful, trained Catholic wonk.
3. Pray before praying.
In old breviaries you can find a small prayer that begins, “Open, O Lord, my mouth to bless your Holy Name. Cleanse, too, my heart from all vain, perverse and extraneous thoughts…” I remember finding this slightly amusing– there were prescribed prayers before prescribed prayers! When I reconsidered it, I realized that although it might seem paradoxical, it gives a lesson. Prayer is utterly supernatural, and so it is far beyond our reach. St. Thomas himself notes that God “wishes to bestow certain things on us at our asking.” The prayer above continues by asking God: “Illumine my mind, inflame my heart, that I may worthily, attentively and devoutly recite this Office and merit to be heard in the sight of Your divine Majesty.” The attentiveness and purity of heart needed to attain to God in prayer is itself received as a gift– and we will only receive if we ask.
2. Be intentional.
Merit in prayer– that is to say, whether it brings us closer to heaven– flows from the virtue of charity. And this flows from our will. So to pray meritoriously, we need to make our prayer an object of choice. St. Thomas explains that our merit rests primarily on our original intention in praying. It isn’t broken by accidental distraction, which no human being can avoid, but only by intentional and willing distraction. This also should give us some relief. We need not worry too much about distractions, as long as we don’t encourage them. We realize something of what the Psalmist says, namely, that God “pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber” (Ps 127:2).
1. Be attentive.
Although, strictly, we need only be intentional and not also perfectly attentive to merit by our prayer, it is nevertheless true that our attention is important. When our minds are filled with actual attention to God, our hearts too are inflamed with desire for Him. St. Thomas explains that spiritual refreshment of the soul comes chiefly from being attentive to God in prayer. The Psalmist cries out, “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek!” (Ps 27:8). In prayer, let us never cease to search for His Face.”
Also known as the “Common Doctor/Doctor Communis”, which is high praise, meaning his opine is universal, something for everyone, relevant in every situation.
Probably, for me, the highlight, liturgically, of the year is Holy Thursday, after communion has been distributed and the priest is enwrapped in cope, incense is lit, the Blessed Sacrament is placed in the monstrance, the procession to the place of reservation begins and Pange Lingua, attributed to St Thomas Aquinas, and not just because I am his wonk, is sung beautifully and reverently, nearly as chant…
“Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory, of His Flesh, the mystery sing; of the Blood, all price exceeding, shed by our Immortal King…
Faith for all defects supplying, Where the feeble senses fail…”
It is very moving for me. My mother always taught me to genuflect on both knees when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. The altar is then stripped and ornamentation in the sanctuary is removed in anticipation of the events remembered the following day. There is such a peace, solemnity, silence, and profound meaning beyond words I look forward to each year.
I tried reading the Summa on my own, once, and only once. Emphasis on the word “tried” and “once”. I quickly gave up. Calculus is easier, more self-evident.
There are a great number of erudite tomes way over my head which are best introduced to the novice, literally, with a well seasoned, compassionate guide to whom the bewildered, overwhelmed student can revert with great frequency, great frequency, receiving tender mercies of experienced instruction and wisdom, presuming these qualities are present in the teacher. Thank God for merciful instructors. We would never graduate without their encouragement and support. I try to imitate that with my own students, who, too, are deeply grateful, usually, but there are some… 🙁 For those students, I have to pray even harder!!! 🙂
Don’t try the Summa on your own, boys and girls. Fair warning. Many of the original works of the Church Fathers fall into this category as well. You have been fairly warned! I have the intellectual scars from those “knowledge bombs”, a term one of my students recently introduced me to, to prove it! Wanna see? 🙂
St. Thomas Aquinas was born January 28, 1225, in Aquino, a town in southern Italy from which he takes his surname. In his masterwork, Summa Theologica, he represents the pinnacle of Scholasticism, the philosophical and theological school that reconciles faith with reason and the works of Aristotle with the scriptures.
At the time Thomas lived, the works of Aristotle were being rediscovered in the West and great Christian thinkers of the day spent a good deal of attention and effort trying to unify Divine revelation with human philosophy. In the East, intellectual life flourished. The West was still recovering from the inertia of the “Dark Ages”, where little intellectual innovation occurred. It is said St Thomas was the spark who prepared the the West for the Renaissance. Aristotle had been preserved in Arabic, and Islam was producing great Aristotelian thinkers. Western Christians needed to respond in kind.
The family of Thomas Aquinas was a noble one, his parents, the Count of Aquino and Countess of Teano, were related to Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, as well as to the Kings of Aragon, Castile, and France. He was the youngest of eight children.
During his early education, Thomas exhibited great acumen in the medieval trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Described as “a witty child”, who “had received a good soul”, even as a child student, he posed the question to his instructors, “What is God?”
Because of his high birth, Thomas’ entry into the Dominican order in the early 1240s was very surprising, and especially disturbing to his family. They especially opposed entry into “mendicant”, or begging orders, who beg for their sustenance, thinking it far below their family status.
Thomas’ family employed various means to dissuade him from his vocation, including kidnapping him and imprisoning him for two years. Thomas spent his time tutoring his sisters, and communicating with other Dominicans. His resolve was strong. Family members became desperate to dissuade Thomas, who remained determined to join the Dominicans. At one point, two of his brothers resorted to the measure of hiring a prostitute to seduce him. Thomas drove her away wielding a fire iron. That night two angels appeared to him as he slept and strengthened his determination to remain celibate giving him a mystical belt of chastity. He never faced sexual temptation again. (????!!!! Really? Wow? :< I guess. Mixed feelings on that one…. 🙂 [I DO like my sin, unfortunately. 🙁 Give me strength, Lord! :] Concupiscence.
Upon his escape, which was arranged by his mother, Theodora, as a face saving measure, rather than all out surrender to a religious order, Thomas returned to the Dominicans and his studies. Since, “still waters run deep”, Thomas was a thoughtful, and hence, quiet student. His taciturn nature was deceiving. So much so, his classmates thought him dim-witted. Possessing hefty stature, his classmates nick-named him “The Dumb Ox!”
After a stint as a student in Paris, Thomas made his way to Cologne to teach, receiving ordination to the priesthood in 1250. Soon after this, he was assigned to teach at Paris, where he also worked toward his degree of Doctor of Theology, which he received in 1257, with his friend St. Bonaventure, after some intramural political difficulty.
The remainder of his life was spent in prayer, study, and writing his great Summa Theologica, a systematic attempt to present the findings of scholasticism. Although Thomas is sometimes perceived simply as an analytical and methodical writer, he was, especially in his later years, given to periods of mystical ecstasy. During one such experience, on December 6, 1273, he resigned from his writing project, indicating that he had perceived such wonders that his previous work seemed worthless. During the Feast of St. Nicolas in 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas had a mystical vision that made writing seem unimportant to him. At Mass, he heard a voice coming from a crucifix tell him, “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” to which St. Thomas Aquinas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord.”
When St. Thomas Aquinas’ confessor, Father Reginald of Piperno, urged him to keep writing, Aquinas replied, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value, as so much straw.” St. Thomas Aquinas never wrote again.
The Summa Theologica was left unfinished, proceeding only as far as the ninetieth question of the third part. St. Thomas Aquinas died a few months later, on March 7, 1274. Today, Thomist theology stands at the center of the Roman Catholic tradition.
-The Temptation of St Thomas Aquinas, by Diego Velazquez, 1631-2, oil on canvas, Orihuela Cathedral Museum
– artist anonymous, Cusco School, (1690 – 1695), “Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco”, oil on canvas, H:1,610 mm (63.39 in), W:1,170 mm (46.06 in), Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru.
“Joy is the noblest human act.” -St Thomas Aquinas
“Charity is the form, mover, mother and root of all the virtues.” – Saint Thomas Aquinas
“To love God is something greater than to know Him.” -St. Thomas Aquinas
“Almighty and ever-living God, I approach the sacrament of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Lord, in your great generosity, heal my sickness, wash away my defilement, enlighten my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness. Amen.” -St Thomas Aquinas
“May I receive the bread of angels, the King of kings and Lord of lords, with humble reverence, with the purity and faith, the repentance and love, and the determined purpose that will help to bring me to salvation. May I receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and its reality and power. Amen.” -St Thomas Aquinas
Wonderful Theologian and Doctor of the Church, you learned more from the Crucifix than from books. Combining both sources, you left us the marvelous “Summa” of theology, broadcasting most glorious enlightenment to all. You always sought for true light and studied for God’s honor and glory. Help us all to study our religion as well as all other subjects needed for life, without ambition and pride in imitation of you. Amen.
Father of wisdom, You inspired Saint Thomas Aquinas with an ardent desire for holiness and study of sacred doctrine. Help us, we pray, to understand what he taught, and to imitate what he lived. Amen.
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville