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In the early years of my noviciate and Holy Orders St. Thomas Aquinas was an unfathomable depth in the Marianas Trench of the Pacific ocean. I knew him to be the paragon of Catholic theology but any attempt to enter into his thought left me numb and benighted. St. Thomas Aquinas’, Summa Theologiae was required formational reading in the seminary, something we delved into for 5 years. It was the Theological Formation Program for priests that enabled me to “dip my toes into the water” and now I am contentedly “saturated” in the clear waters of his profound sagacity. So it is with elation that I received the new book with a title that captured my pedagogy: Discovering Aquinas by the Dominican theologian, John Christopher “Aidan” Nichols O. P., whom I had met at Blackfriars Oxford during my Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology.
Cognisant of the “universal call to holiness” based on the Gospel according to Matthew 5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” and promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, This universal call to holiness has always been a teaching of the Church and is rooted in Her mission to take sinners and raise them from their sinful nature into saints by the glory and perfection of Jesus Christ. For God does not choose us by our virtue or goodness, but by His infinite mercy and desire for all men’s salvation. St. Thomas, a consummate spiritual master, was able in his lifetime to maintain the intimate connection between theology and spirituality, faith and reason, by an adherence to Truth which surpasses and unites them in the Being of God. His metaphysics enables one to think through and probe the doctrines and mysteries of faith. Through the application of philosophical principles one is reinforced in the truth that one already believes. This is a source of dynamism and conversion in Christ.
The chapters of Fr. Nichols’ book can be seen as keys inviting one to enter the many gardens of Thomistic thought. In Chapter One, “Thomas in his Time,” after a brief summary of his life and a presentation of his Sacra Doctrina as an orderly reflection on the Bible in the light of faith, there follows an overview of his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae: the exitus of creatures going forth from God by his Word, and the reditus — their returning back to God in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Chapter Two on “Revelation” may come as a refreshing surprise to many. Thomas takes us beyond the current exegetical climate of historical-biblical criticism and ushers the reader straight to the heart of the matter: God, as First Truth, speaking to us. For St. Thomas, Revelation is a gift coming down from the Father of lights, so that by faith, we might pass through the words to the divine reality from which they spring. In Scripture, “God utters himself as he really is” and the light of faith “is a share in God’s own knowledge of himself” (38). By putting faith in first place, the soul adheres to the revealed mystery given us by God with Jesus taking his rightful place as Master and Lord. The chapter concludes with a magnificent invitation to take the gift of God’s Word “as the very measure of our own minds” and to do so “with absolute certitude” (35). Such faith, actualised in the soul by the Holy Spirit’s gift of knowledge, can only be a loving faith by which we possess our whole life. The theological virtue of faith is a fragrant garden in which the sincere seeker will want to linger long.
Chapter Three, “God and Creation,” focuses on St. Thomas’ three-fold teaching of how the creature can know the Creator: first, through the descending gift of Revelation coming down from above from the Father of lights (James 1:17); secondly, in the ascending gift of reason and the analogy of being; thirdly, through the gift of mystical experience, touched on but developed further in Chapter Eleven. In his creation theology, we can know as creatures that God exists, albeit in a real distinction from the world—God is completely distinguished from the world and outside any world-view as totally Other, and we can know how God exists—by means of his attributes, a study which is, in fact, an explanation of the ways in which God does not exist, a saying of what God is not and finally, we can represent how God acts — by means of his knowledge, will and power by which all things come to be. St. Thomas sees creation as the analogical comprehension of created being participating in the Divine Being of God himself. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Creaturely beings are not their own being but are beings by participation in the very being of God. Indeed the creature exists “only in its relation to God” (58). The reader is introduced to the divine simplicity, goodness, immutability, and perfection of God, as well as the metaphysical topics of causality, act and potency, and participation. Attention is given to the chief contribution of Aquinas in the advancement of philosophy: esse—the first perfection and the ultimate act of all reality, the act in which we as creatures participate. The ardent seeker will gradually want to explore all these paths in this intricate but rewarding garden of Thomistic thought.
Chapter Four, “The Trinity,” begins with a summary account of the historical development of Trinitarian theology. I found this chapter particularly tightly packed until I came to its final section, “The Trinity in relation to ourselves.” Here the reader is drawn into the Trinitarian “life of grace and glory” (72) which is ours as adopted sons and daughters of the Father and the ultimate purpose of our creaturely existence. The glory that you have given me I have given them (John 17:22). A tip for the reader: whenever a chapter seems particularly dense it might be helpful to turn to the last few enlightening pages.
Chapter Five, “The Trinity in Man,” discusses the Trinitarian processions and their missions – the indwelling of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the human spirit. How human beings share in this Trinitarian Life was for St. Thomas an important question. The answer he gives is grace (in Chapter Seven) by which we are conjoined to the divine being itself.
The following is a personal reflection on how the Trinitarian ‘conjoining,’ in a synthesis of faith and reason, might be both spiritually and theologically understood—an invitation to the reader for further in-depth study and penetration in prayer of this sublime mystery. St. Thomas, following St. Augustine on whom he builds his Trinitarian theology, speaks of the verbum cordis (word of the heart) as an adequate analogical concept to represent divine life. The procession of the Son (verbum) from the Father, which may be compared to the procession of a mental word in our interior action of knowing according to Thomistic epistemology, might also be compared to a word of wisdom spoken in the soul by a gratuitous gift of the Holy Spirit. “… abide in my love” (John 15:9). When one hears the word of God spoken in one’s being and understands that word in one’s mind, it could be called the term and perfection of the faith-filled soul. Like the procession of the Eternal Word revealing the perfection of the Father, the soul in its act of understanding of the word spoken within, produces in the intellect a conception of what it is called to be. This is the procession of the interior word. In that word spoken within the soul, the Father, so to speak, offers His gift of salvation. The intellect, in its reception of that word through the Spirit’s gift of understanding, is made one with the word which has been impressed in its being. And as the Father’s act of understanding is the generation (conception) of the Son in his own likeness, so the intellect’s reception of the Spirit’s gift of understanding in its “womb” of faith is a conception of the word in the likeness of the Son.
St. Augustine says something similar regarding the soul who has received this perfect knowledge and conceives a mental word in the likeness of the Son of God.
With the eye of the mind, therefore, we perceive in that eternal truth, from which all temporal things have been made, the form according to which we are, and by which we effect something either in ourselves or in bodies with a true and right reason. The true knowledge of things, thence conceived, we bear with us as a word, and beget by inner speech; nor does it depart from us by being born.
So it was with the Virgin Mary who, as St. Augustine teaches, conceived Christ first in her mind before she conceived him in her womb.
When the angel had said this, she full of faith and conceiving Christ first in her mind and then in her body, ‘Behold,’ she said, ‘the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word’ . . . Mary believed and what she believed was done in her (Serm. CCXV).
Are we not all called to the same? The soul will not conceive the word in its life unless it has first, through faith and prayer, conceived the word in the conception of its intellect. When through grace, the soul identifies itself with that word and seeks to express that word in the thoughts, words, and deeds of his or her life, the soul gives birth to Christ again and again: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21).
Adrienne von Speyr has a similar message:
The Word can stick in our memory and at any moment take on life through our will. It can become the measure of our activity, the mantle of our existence, and it can put forth such vital energy that it is, in a certain sense, more alive than our life. It can constantly receive and shelter us within itself. It can do so even insofar as it is a demand; but it does so above all insofar as it is love.
Chapter Six, “Angelology,” introduces the reader to the tract on the angels which won the title by which St. Thomas is most familiarly known—the Angelic Doctor. Thomas was keenly interested in the reality of angels, those pure spirits, indestructible mental realities of knowing and willing, independent of all but God. Angels do not share our human limitations and can be our best friends in our efforts to live the supernatural life of grace. They have been assigned to help us on the way to salvation if we but ask for their powerful assistance.
Chapter Seven, considers “Grace and the Virtues.” Here is revealed the special “spiritual love” of the Holy Spirit, “made interior to the soul’s essence.” God gives his creature the Holy Spirit, “a new inward principle or power” — a “pneumatic existence” which “has its energising centre within.” This is God’s most glorious gift, a sharing in his own divine nature, the “grace of glory [which] will bring us finally before God” (105-106).
Chapter Seven includes a section, “Grace and freedom,” which is a profound study in itself. God brings about his will in the creatures’s regard through grace, while at the same time leaving our personal freedom intact. Fr. Nichols uses the example of a person emerging from sinfulness who does so “by a decision which is really his own yet at the same time is made possible by the ground-preparing grace of God” (106). “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Grace places the intelligent creature in that condition where the achievement of its being is possible. And it likewise places her in a condition of liberty where the choice of this possibility can be made (96).
Fortified with the reality of grace , “the divine energeia,” the mind and will is then prepared to live the life of virtue which begins with the moral order both in ourselves and in society (105). The life of virtue is St. Thomas’ way to reclaim a Christian cultural environment wherein supernatural values are, once again, household realities. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). The supernatural world of grace is a luminous and spacious Thomistic garden for study and contemplation.
Fr. Nichols points out in Chapter Eight, “Christ, Church, Sacraments,” that although Thomas does not provide a sustained study of the Church, “all the elements necessary for ecclesiology can be found in his work” (120). It seems that here would be an opportune place to compare and synthesise those “ecclesial elements” found in St. Thomas with the highly developed understanding of the Church found in the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Such a study could facilitate seeing the depth of meaning present in Thomistic thought. Nichols gives a hint of this depth where he explains, for example, that Thomas’ “key term for the Church is congregatio fidelium, ‘congregation of the faithful,’ but owing to his high view of faith [has] exalted consequences” (121). On the one hand, von Balthasar spells out some of these “exalted consequences” — for example, the Church as bride of Christ— while on the other, St. Thomas undergirds and exalts their reality.
In Chapter Eight, Fr. Nichols does an outstanding task in explaining divinity and humanity united in the one Divine Person that is Christ. Aquinas speaks in a way that can be absorbed by modern ears yet faithful to Chalcedon and the Greek Fathers. To his interpretation of the Chalcedonian Formula there is added his own rich metaphysics of being (113).
In the section, “The grace of union,” the author unveils the splendours of the Christian call to deification which can be found in St. Thomas and is another example of his high view of faith. Here we are told that Christ became incarnate to redeem us for this life of intimate union with himself and that following Thomas’ thought:
our humanity can also attain through grace that further perfection that lies far beyond our capacities. All this came about ‘for us men and for our salvation.’ The life of Christ can be our salvation history because God has filled and super-filled the being of Christ with graces, graces meant not least to overflow from the Church’s Head to the Church’s members (116).
We are meant to live the life of Christ, that is, to be transformed into Christ in his mysteries, which is the next section of this chapter. A quotation from the renowned Thomist, Yves Marie-Joseph Cardinal Congar, O. P., speaks of the abiding impact of the grace of these mysteries as:
mysteries lived out by the Saviour [and] [remaining] in his glorified humanity as a disposition of eternal value, properly equipped to produce in us the saving effects which correspond to each of these mysteries (119).
Meditation on the Mysteries of the Rosary might be suggested here and the parenthetical reference to Mariology made in this chapter (118) might be another opportune place for further development of Thomistic thought.
Chapter Nine gives a thumbnail sketch of “Thomas in History.” St. Thomas (c. 1225-1274) worked in an age when the lectio of the monastery was giving birth to the quaestio which evolved into the disputatio of the university. The lofty coalescence of faith and reason, contemplation and argumentation, which St. Thomas was capable of holding together, began after his lifetime to split apart opening a rift between philosophy and theology. This chapter recounts the turbulent waters which resulted in a “Second Scholasticism,” and then a “Third Scholasticism.” There was another “decline” at the Second Vatican Council and now it seems, as Jesuit Thomist Gerald A. McCool S.J., predicted, St. Thomas is rising again and a “Fourth Scholasticism” is in the making. Notwithstanding the numerous challenges to Thomistic teaching, particularly Scotism and nominalism. Pope John XXII, on July 18, 1323, canonised Thomas with great solemnity; Pius V, in 1567, elevated him to the status of a doctor of the Church, Doctor Communis; and in 1880 Pope Leo XIII declared Thomas to be the patron saint of all Catholic schools and universities. In 1974, the seventh centenary of the Angelic Doctor’s death, Pope Paul VI proclaimed at a Dominican Congress in Rome that we were witnessing a “formidable return of Thomistic influence.” Karol Wojtyla taught Thomism at the University of Lublin for twenty-four years before becoming John-Paul II with world wide influence. In 1997, an international survey of the most important personalities of the second millennium in religious, political and artistic spheres revealed St. Thomas to be in first place.
Part Four concludes the book with a look at some necessary philosophical and theological tools. In Chapter Ten, “Thomas and the Practice of Philosophy,” the reader is introduced to Thomistic metaphysics as the science of being as being together with its properties, of first causes or principles, act and potency, the analogy of being, essence and existence, and the transcendentals. The most exciting of these, yet the most difficult to get a hold of, is St. Thomas’ central innovative concept of esse: existence as “dynamic, energising act” (151). Esse for St. Thomas is so basic and important that it is not captured in “existence” considered as “a fact” or “out there.” Esse is best thought of as actus essendi, the act of the essence, the root actuality of being, the perfection of all perfections, of all acts. Esse is the fundamental dimension of reality at the heart of everything else; it is the root of everything else that is.
The metaphysics of esse can be applied to the spiritual life. Man is composed of two essential principles, soul and body, his essence and existence, but he has only one act of existing (esse)—his spiritual existence—given as a gift from the Creator God. The act of existence belongs to the soul which the soul communicates to the body, making one complete composite person. Each particular person’s act of existence belongs to himself alone, while his specific essence, the ens commune, or common being of man, considered in distinction from its act of existence, is the same for all members of the same species. According to Étienne Gilson “a human soul is an act that stands in need of further actualisation … ‘Become what thou art’ is for such a form [the human soul] an imperative order, because it is inscribed as a law in its very nature.”
The author of a Thomistically flavoured study of St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, proposes that the act for which the human soul was created is “to identify itself with the act by which God desires himself,” to become one Spirit with him (1 Corinthians 6:17). This act, the author continues, is “a kind of participation in the aspiration of love which is in God, associating the creature not with his Being but with the divine act. Union is in the act; St. Teresa compares it to two candles which mingle their flames without being merged together.” Within the Trinity, God gives himself completely to the Son; and the Son returns himself completely to the Father in an endless exchange of love that is the Holy Spirit. We are called to mingle our human love with the totally Other divine love that God is, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). This objective act of pure love is a spontaneous interior choice of God at all times in the depth of the soul. It is a becoming that is entirely interior, an ordering of the potency of our spiritual being toward a precise goal: our true actualisation by grace in a progressive becoming of who we really are in God. Like esse, it is the root actuality of our ‘to be’ in Christ, the root act of all spiritual life and growth, the perfection of all perfections, the fundamental of union in reality with the Heart of Christ “love united to love”: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:20). “An act of this kind is mystical, being the essential reality of the mystical life.” It is mystical because it is supernatural; it can only be accomplished with the help of grace. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5).
The concluding Chapter Eleven, “Thomas and the Idea of Theology,” brings the reader full circle. In Chapter Two on Revelation, we saw that Sacred Scripture was “central to Thomas’ picture of Christian theology” (29). In Chapter Eleven, we are brought back to the same idea — a theology “soaked in Scripture” (169), and a glance at his writings prove this to be true. St. Thomas was first of all a lecturer on the “sacred page.” Like all Masters of Sacred Theology, or Sacra Doctrina, he was fully conversant with the sacred text and had mastered all the Patristic commentaries.
St. Thomas was open to truth wherever he found it. In his study of theology as a science, he adapted a theory of Aristotle and called it the sub-alteration of the sciences, a method by which one can make use of other sciences as subordinates and handmaids. This is possible because in all fields of knowledge there are sub-fields that can contribute to the main subject of investigation. Frequently, distinct fields of their own become sub-fields to something else. Depending on the objective purpose of the study, the sciences, without losing their own integrity as a science, sometimes are subjected to other sciences. An example of this subjection would be the relation of musical theory to mathematics. Consequently, if one is using the historical-critical method in the exegesis of Sacred Scripture, it is necessary to apply the sub-alteration of sciences principle because theology and exegesis are distinct, logically speaking, in the way that theology is distinct from philosophy, astronomy, biology, music, mathematics, etc. The application of the historical-critical method to Sacred Scripture must always be subservient to faith and the Tradition of the Church, the Tradition that St. Thomas considered a fount of revealed understanding not distinct from the Scriptures, since “Scripture itself [is] transmitted by Tradition and the two together are the norm of Christian faith” (30-31). Christians study the Bible in the light of faith and in the Tradition of commentary and doctrine, liturgy and lectionary, approved by the magisterium of the Church. Historical-critical exegesis can be an illuminating tool but it must be shaped to theological purposes, that is, to the fundamental vision of the Scriptural world which all Christians share.
The book’s conclusion offers high praise for “the apostolic value of St. Thomas’ thought and writing” (181), and (this writer would add) for the solid grounding and mystical heights his theology offers. In the opening question of the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas taught “the purpose and meaning of human existence is ultimately to be found only in God who is invincible and incomprehensible.” (24) Because St. Thomas focused his whole life on knowing and loving God, he knew that:
it was necessary for the salvation of man that he should have, beyond the philosophical disciplines investigated by human reason, a teaching that proceeds from divine revelation.
The Doctor Communis dedicated himself to this kind of holy teaching or sacra doctrina. He wrote in the Summa contra Gentiles, “the ultimate salvation of man is that he may be perfected in his intellectual aspect by the contemplation of the First Truth.” But for Thomas, the intellect is more than logic and abstract conceptualisations; his intellectus includes an understanding by “kinship, propter connaturalitatem, rather than by the application of reasoning, secundum perfectum usum rationis,” and the intuitive grasp of truth enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Summa theologiae is meant to engage the whole person in his psychological, physical, spiritual unity, in a living communion with God. “Christian theology moves in the world of grace and depends on a loving intercourse with divine things.” On January 28th, the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, the following passage is read in the liturgy:
Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to sceptres and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction. (Wisdom 7: 7-14)
St. Thomas, one of the great mystics of the Church, desired above all to enter the wine cellar of divine love. During the last three years of his life he experienced ecstatic union with God more and more often. After the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, 1273, he put away his quill and wrote no more. He never completed his famous Summa theologiae. From an image of the Crucified, Thomas heard these words, “Bene scripsist de me, Thoma. Quam ergo mercedem accipies,” “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas. What wouldst thou claim as a reward.” Thomas replied, “Nil nisi te, Domine,” “Only Thyself, O Lord.”
As Fr. Nichols tells us in the beginning of his book (18) and again at its conclusion, the theology of St. Thomas “no matter how speculative its flights, had never had an ultimate goal different from that of Benedict or Bernard in the heavenly city of God.” (178).
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!“For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)