Skip to content

Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master by Robert Barron

by davesandel on November 5th, 2013

Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is at least 4000 pages long.  It’s available as a Kindle book for free, for 99 cents, for $1.99.  I think that means there must not be many people reading it these days.

But some people do.  Robert Barron, rector of Roman Catholic University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois and creator of the popular Catholicism video series, is one of them.  Barron loves Aquinas, because under the influence of his writings, “my life began to change and more than my mind was illumined.”  Barron fleshes out this comment in The Strangest Way, another of his books:

The Christianity into which I was initiated was relatively bland and domesticated, easy to grasp and unthreatening.  Then, in the course of my formal theological education, I began to read the mystics, saints, and scholars of the classical Christian tradition.  What I encountered there took my breath away.  Whatever this Christian phenomenon was, it was certainly not the beige system of thought that had been presented to me.  Rather it seemed to me the strangest, most exotic, surprising, and uncanny of all the religious paths I had encountered.  For at the very center of it is a God who comes after us with a reckless abandon, breaking open his own heart in love in order to include us in the rhythm of his own life.  Christianity is not so much our disciplined quest for God as opening up to God’s relentless quest for us.  God died in order that we might be his friends.

The writing of Thomas Aquinas took Barron’s breath away.  He paid homage to Thomas in his book, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master.  Take a look into Aquinas’ thinking through the eyes of Robert Barron, and through some of the words Barron crafted for his book.  Be not afraid.  Be of good cheer.  For here there is joy to be had.

— November 5, 2013


Quotations from Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master by Robert Barron, 2008, 187 pages.


When one interprets Thomas merely as a rationalist philosopher or theologian, one misses the burning heart of everything he wrote.  Aquinas was a saint deeply in love with Jesus Christ, and the image of Christ pervades the entire edifice that is his philosophical, theological and scriptural work. – p. 11

Prior to 1300 there was no significant split between theology (talk about God) and spirituality.  Theology was not abstract speculation for its own sake; on the contrary, it was a sort of spiritual direction, an attempt to draw people into the imitation of Jesus Christ. – p. 13

In the first article of the Summa theologiae, Thomas writes that the entire purpose of theology is to raise believers outside of and beyond themselves to a union with the God who cannot fully be grasped … His thought is meant to be a guide, a series of landmarks on the journey into God. – p. 13

The best known of Aquinas’ works, his great Summa theologiae or Summary of theology, reflects one of his three major responsibilities as a master professor (along with preaching and biblical commentary).  This responsibility was to exchange opinions and arguments regarding a quaestio disputata, a disputed question.  Often this was done as an event during which he or another magister would entertain objections from the floor, respond to the best of his ability, and finally resolve the question at hand, accompanied by either cheers or catcalls.  Thomas thrived in this environment.

In the Summa Thomas relentlessly raises question after question, stubbornly puts forward objection after objection, and finally gives his resolution and response.  Behind the scholarly page, one must hear the fast-moving, engaging, perhaps irreverent and humorous give-and-take that inspired it, and above all the biblical and homiletic concerns that gave rise to it. – p. 20

All of Christian life begins with Jesus because in him we see the meeting of two ecstasies, that of God and that of the human being.  Though God needs us not, God nevertheless goes out of himself, in an unheard-of ecstasy, and becomes one of us.  There is, in all of this, says Thomas, an excessive, ever greater quality.

And the human being Jesus Christ, in perfect obedience and openness to this ecstatic God, forgets himself, goes out beyond himself in love.  In this radical self-emptying, Jesus does not lose himself; rather he becomes most fully himself, finding his deepest identity in union with God.  Jesus Christ teaches us at the same time who God is (a power of love greater than we can imagine) and who we ought to be in response to God (sheer obedience, sheer ecstasy, sheer wonder).

Jesus expresses the inexhaustible mystery that is God and the never-ending adventure that is the journey into God. – p. 25

Aquinas never tells us what God is, only what God is not.  His entire approach is to undermine all of our idolatrous attempts to turn God into something understandable or controllable, something we could manipulate or avoid.  God is not a being; God is Being itself, ungraspable, unknowable power.  Stop trying to reduce God to your level, he seems to say, and allow yourself to be drawn ecstatically into God’s mystery.  At the heart of Thomas’ doctrine of God is, therefore, spiritual direction, the opening up of the heart. – p. 25-26

Interpreting the act of creation, Thomas says that it is an ongoing, continual gift that flows from the life and being of God.  The world is totally dependent, from moment to moment, on the sheer generosity of the Creator.  To be a creature means to be “nothing,” that is to say, pure openness and obedience in the presence of the creator God.  And in this ecstatic abandon, the creature most fully discovers herself.

To deny the creator God is to live the illusion that one can find oneself apart from total surrender; it is to fly in the face of the Gospel injunction that those who cling to their life will lose it and those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it.  The teaching on creation seeks to place us, once more, in the stance and attitude of the incarnate Son. – p. 26-27

Thomas insists we human beings have all been made to lose ourselves, as Christ did, in obedient wonder.  Any attempt to root our lives in something other than God – in ego, money, power, praise, riches – will set up an unbearable tension, a sort of crisis of the heart.

Furthermore, Thomas embraces the wonderful and mysterious doctrine of human “deification.”  According to this teaching, the ultimate purpose or end of human life is a radical sharing in the very dynamism of God’s own life.  He quotes the patristic adage that God became human that humans might become God.

For Thomas, human life is not played out simply in the cramped quarters of time and space; rather it opens up and out to the infinite being of God himself, to a participation in the perfectly responsive love of Christ. – p. 27


Chapter 1: Jesus Christ: The Coming Together of Two Ecstasies

What is theology and why is it necessary?  We require a science beyond the philosophical and natural sciences precisely because we human beings are oriented to an end that surpasses our powers of rational comprehension.  We are destined to be united to a power that is beyond the web of contingent things. – p. 31

Purely “human” sciences are those that are expressions of the ego’s desire to grasp and cling and control.  The god who is known in this manner is an idol, a creation of the ego, and thus a god who could in no way correspond to the deep and abiding desire for self-transcendence.  The moment you have the mystery or you see the divine, you have, in fact, ceased to have and failed to see.  In insisting on God’s revelation as the starting point of his project, Thomas is holding off the enormous tendency of the ego to control.

Sacra doctrina, or knowledge revealed by God, is necessary because the final goal of human life is not to grasp but to be grasped, not to rise up but to be raised up, not to ascend but to be drawn.  Of course this theme of docility and openness is a commonplace in the great mystics.  What I find intriguing is that Thomas Aquinas, the supposed rationalist, invokes it at the very beginning of his principal theological work. – p. 32

If the power to which human beings are oriented is radically and in principle ungraspable, uncontrollable, unreachable, then that power cannot be a thing or a being in or alongside the world.  It cannot even be the supreme or highest being; rather it must be a reality that breaks all bonds and that surpasses all the categories of thought, in whose presence awe and worship are the only proper responses. – p. 33

Thomas says God’s self-disclosure was necessary “for human salvation.”  God reveals himself in order to move us, to shake us, to push us outside of and beyond ourselves in order that we might be saved.  It provides a radical re-orientation, touching us at the center of our being and spurring us out and beyond.  Not a mere academic discipline, it is a matter of spiritual life and death, a way of conducting human beings to their final destiny. – p. 34

Aquinas takes seriously the problem of the “fallen” mind, profoundly and negatively affected by the power of sin.  Instead of gazing naturally at the vision of God, the fallen mind tends to contemplate the things of the world, to concentrate upon the ordinary realm of creatures.  This fallen mind is simply overwhelmed by the intensity of the light that comes from God’s self-disclosure.

Thus it requires help in the form of a more natural, more down-to-earth wisdom.  For Thomas, philosophical and scientific arguments are precisely those teaching devices used to lead the fallen mind to a richer participation in the vision of God. – p. 37

Thomas teaches us that all things, all objects, all stories, in some way can speak of the transcendent and infinite mystery that is given in revelation.  All wisdom, even the most secularized, can be used to lead us to God. – p. 38

The Event of Jesus Christ

What exactly is revelation and where does it come from? … Jesus Christ is the light in which we see who God is (transcendent and alluring power) and who we are in relation to God (spirits oriented toward transcendence).  Jesus is the icon, the symbol that determines and shapes the whole of Thomas’ theology and spiritual direction. – p. 39-40

It is the condescension of the Incarnation, God’s stooping low to join us as one of us, that “blows open” the mind, introducing the human spirit for the first time to an adequate conception of God’s otherness and transcendence.  What Thomas implies is this: only a reality that is not a being in the world, even the supreme being, could ever become a creature while at the same time remaining true to itself.  Even the highest titles of praise fall short of the glory revealed in the face of Christ. – p. 41

This supreme and surpassing reality by which the human being is radically transformed and given a new ultimate purpose is none other than the strange God who is powerful enough to become powerless, great enough to become small. – p. 43

For Thomas Aquinas, it is the self-forgetfulness of God, made visible in Jesus, that persuades us finally of God’s superabundant generosity.  God’s nature is to go beyond himself, to step outside of himself, to forget himself ecstatically in love. – p. 43

We human beings could never reach up to Incarnation on our own, forcing the issue as it were.  However, when the Incarnation is seen from God’s side, when it is appreciated as God’s self-offering, as an expression of God’s superabundant goodness, then it is entirely appropriate.  The coming together of the divine and human is life-giving and salvific only when it takes place through the initiative of God; what saves us is being lifted up to a share in the divine life, not raising ourselves, not considering it as something due to us. – p. 45

Aquinas spells out in detail the significance of God’s “excess”: Our faith is infinitely strengthened by contact with the sheer power of God’s own mind.  Our hope is superabundantly enlivened by the conviction that God loves us so intensely that he gives us his only son; our love is supremely awakened in response to God’s overwhelming gesture of love, and our participation in the life of God, which is our proper end, is infinitely intensified through contact with the divinized humanity of Jesus Christ. – p. 47

Jesus as the Archetype of the Human Race

Jesus reveals the ecstasy that is God in the measure that he, as a human being, is ecstasy before God.  Jesus becomes transparent to God’s self-forgetting because he, in his humanity, is nothing but self-forgetting love.  Jesus is the moment when the passionate human thirst for God meets the equally passionate divine thirst for us. – p. 49

What appears in Jesus Christ is a sort of interpersonal play of two freedoms, created and uncreated, each one in perfect oneness and surrender to the other. – p. 49

For Thomas, Jesus is not meant so much to be worshiped as followed, or better, shared in, participated in.  Jesus does not want to be admired as a metaphysical wonder or exception; on the contrary, he wants to be eaten and drunk, consumed, taken on.  He wants to be the source of life for the rest of us, to give what has been given to him. – p. 52

All individual acts of the will rest upon, depend upon, the final and all-embracing desire for the good itself – which is none other than God.  To be fully itself, the will must give itself radically to this good.  The will finds itself in surrendering to the good that is its ground and end and raison d’etre. – p. 56

This is but a particular example of the general principle of what I will call non-competitiveness between God and creatures.  Because God is not a being in the world, not something that exists alongside other creatures, God can enter into the being of a finite thing with great intimacy and without compromising the independence and identity of that thing.  When God becomes a creature, the creature is raised up, not diminished, brought to fulfillment, not overcome. – p. 57

For Thomas the great paradigm and archetype of this nonaggressive, noncompetitive relationship between God and the world is the Incarnation itself: the two natures of Christ are present together in a personal unity, but neither is mixed or mingled or confused with the other, neither is compromised or overwhelmed by the other.  The human being, Jesus Christ, finds the deepest meaning of his life and will in his complete dependence upon the will of God. – p. 57

Anselm of Canterbury wrote that what appears to be freedom in the eyes of the world – the ability to choose this or that, good or evil – is in fact the deepest type of slavery.  God’s freedom is equivalent to God’s fidelity in love, to his capacity to say nothing but yes, and our freedom is found in imitation of that divine liberty.  We are bound to “yes” alone. – p. 58

The great tragedy of sin is imagining God and oneself as self-contained rivals and competitors, the conviction that letting go of oneself is tantamount to losing oneself.  What the humanity of Jesus shows us is that leaving the confines of one’s puny ego and allowing the excessus of God to come to birth is the only route to self-discovery. – p. 58

Whenever Thomas speaks of God, he describes, not some philosophical abstraction, but the ever greater, ever more surprising power that appeared in Jesus the Christ.  And consequently, whenever Jesus speaks of God, he implicitly describes the proper human stance vis-a-vis God, that attitude of obedience, openness, and self-transcending love that alone allows the fullness of the divine to emerge. – p. 59

Thomas is a doctor of the soul, trying to show his reader how to see God with the eyes of Christ, to touch God with the hands of Christ, to feel God with the heart of Christ. – p. 59

This is the God who seizes us, turns us around, and frankly shocks us by the strangeness and unpredictability of his love, shown forth in Christ. – p. 60

Why are there so many questions, so many articles, so many objections and responses in the Summa?  One might respond: because there are so many ways that the sinful soul can evade the call to Christlike obedience and openness of heart.  Thomas has the patience and love required to seek out the sinner despite all obstacles.  He will not rest until his reader is lured into wonder and ecstasy. – p. 60

Chapter 2: The Strangeness of God

Wittgenstein’s adage, “About that which you cannot speak, you must remain silent,” applies to Thomas’ teaching on God.  Though he writes volumes on the divine existence and nature, Thomas never tells us anything about God; he only tells us what God is not. – p. 62

Thomas does not formulate his arguments for God’s existence in the spirit of Voltaire or Descartes, as a rationalist unconvinced of God’ existence and endeavoring to prove or disprove it.  He has already been grasped by the God of Jesus Christ, someone already on the way and now attempting to lure others onto that path. – p. 64

Thomas’ careful denial of self-movement negates the sinful drive toward radical autonomy, toward self-direction.  The human being who moves himself has become his own God and has simply identified the ultimate motive force with his own mind and will, his own ego. – p. 67

The one in rebellion against God might let go of himself, admitting that he cannot move himself, only then to surrender his life to another finite reality, to money or power or prestige, to a political party or charismatic leader.  In Thomas’ terms he would be giving the direction of his life over to a “moved mover.” – p. 67

All the causal agency in the world must finally come under the influence of a mover that is outside the web of finite things.  So we are compelled to look, for the final direction in our lives, to an authority that “moves” but that is not itself “moved.”  It is only this reality that effectively lifts human beings out of self-complacency and orients them to a truly transcendent end. – p. 67-68

Augustine interrogates nature in search of God.  The “sea and the deeps … the things that creep … the winds that blow … the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars join in unison and deny their divinity: we are not the God whom you seek.”  In the more sober language of Aquinas, the soul is urged to look for God only in the unmoved mover. – p. 68

Thomas shows that whatever is in motion is in fact always and inevitably moved by God, whether she knows it or not.  The desire for happiness itself is proof that God is subtly at work in the soul of even the most hardened sinner.  There is no move possible in human life that is not, in some inchoate, groping way, a move under the influence of God. – p. 69

Turning to the notoriously complex and puzzling third argument of God’s existence, the proof from possibility and necessity, it is worthwhile to follow the sinuous movement of this proof in order the appreciate the delicacy of the spiritual direction involved.

Things in the world are susceptible to generation and corruption, they come into being and pass out of being.  But there must be some being which is necessary and does not pass out of being.  There are at least two levels of reality: the everyday dimension of fleeting reality and the more ethereal dimension of stable reality.  This second dimension derives its stability of being from a final, ultimate cause that exists through the aid or influence of no other reality.  Thomas says, this is what “all people call God.” – p. 68-70

We come into existence without being consulted, and we are continually haunted by the unavoidable fact of our mortality, by the inevitable onset of the substantial change that Thomas calls corruption. – p. 72

Just as the first proof begins with the demonstration that we do not move or determine ourselves, so the third argument begins with the disquieting observation that we do not exist by and through ourselves. – p. 72

Even the permanent things in the world, those powers that endure across time, those great ideals of the human condition, are not the ultimate or final necessity; they are not God.  Whatever good and permanence they have is derived from the sheer goodness and permanence of Being itself. – p. 74

Here is a triple “shaking”: disciples must first be shaken out of their own self-complacency and tendency to cling to their egos, then shaken out of their immersion of the passing things of the world, and finally stirred out of their allegiance to the mighty and permanent powers that are yet less than God.  Each step in the proof represents a re-orienting intervention of the spiritual director, a call continually to look higher. – p. 74

The divine is not any sort of being, any particular instance of being, but is rather the sheer act of existing itself.  One of the gravest temptations faced by the biblical believer is the tendency to transform the ungraspable divine power into something crudely finite.  This is not merely an intellectual error; it represents the desire to control the divine and hence to place oneself above God. – p. 79

For Thomas, both the sacred name disclosed in Exodus and the description of God as the identity of essence and existence are expressions of the anti-idolatry principle.  Both serve to fight off the sinful tendency to turn God into a god, that is to say, into another being with whom we may or may not be related.  If God is the sheer act of being, then I must be in relation to him.  If the divine existence is the air that I breathe, then I am in rapport with God.  Even when running from God, we are living, moving, and having our being in him. – p. 81-82

Both Paul Tillich and Thomas Aquinas want to dismantle the mythology of a supreme being, the idolatrous view that places God and the world in opposition and competition. – p. 82

The Goodness of God

One could admit that God is perfect and feel at a distance from such a reality.  One could honor God but not be the least bit captivated or drawn to that perfection.  But Thomas demonstrates that the very perfection of god renders him good – attractive, compelling, fascinating. – p. 83

God is called good inasmuch as he enters into the minds and hearts of his rational creatures, luring them to fullness of being.  The divine perfection becomes a sort of magnetic force drawing the whole of the universe out of itself. – p. 85

We recall that Thomas Aquinas, when speaking of the good God, is describing the power that has appeared in Jesus Christ, the power that overwhelms the creature while allowing it to remain true to itself. – p. 85

God’s Presence in the World

Is the perfect, simple, and all-good God implicated in the everyday affairs of the created world, or is he a sheerly transcendent force? Thomas cites a magnificent and mysterious text from the prophet Isaiah: “Lord, you have accomplished all we have done” (Isaiah 26:12).  Notice the beautiful tension in this line: what we indeed have done has been, nevertheless, achieved by God.  We act, and God acts in us, and, in the imagination of Isaiah, there is no final contradiction between these two affirmations.  This is a particularly clear expression of the noncompetitive relationship between God and the world. – p. 85-86

God is not in created things as “part of their essence.”  If this were the case, then created reality would be God, and Thomas is no pantheist. – p. 86

God is not present to the world as an “accident,” or qualification or attribute of finite things.  God is not a force of nature that influences and animates all things.  God is not a dimension of psychological life. – p. 87

God is the agent cause of the whole of creation and must be physically present at all times, to all things, in the most intimate way possible.  God is in the things that he continually makes. – p. 88

For Thomas creation is not a once-and-for-all event that took place “at the beginning of time.”  Creation is the ongoing, continual gift of being that flows from God to the world.  It is the perpetual and gracious constitution of the universe through the outflowing of the divine being.  Thus the creative agent who is God must be present to, must be in all things at the very root of their existence. – p. 88

Is God in things?  Given the event of Jesus Christ, that coming together of divine and human ecstasy, we can answer that question with Thomas’ intoxicating yes.  And we need not affirm this union through an awkward collapsing of God into the world or the world into God. – p. 89

For Thomas the dramatic and infinite difference between God and the world is a modal and not a spatial one.  God’s way of being is qualitatively different from that of any creature.  A finite thing is a being, and God is Being Itself. Precisely because he is so thoroughly other, God can be in the most intimate sense the ground and cause of all things. – p. 90

In speaking of demons, and by extension us sinners, Thomas distinguishes between what is true, good and beautiful in them – that is, their minds, their wills, their faculties, their existence – and what is evil in them: that is, their misguided desire.  Whatever pertains to being in them is good and hence grounded in the loving presence of God.  What is sinful and distorted in the demons – and in us sinners – is a kind of nonbeing, a sort of shadow or darkness, an abuse of what God has given.

What is interesting is the extent to which God is present to us even in our sin.  Indeed, the very capacity to reject God rests paradoxically on the energy and power of God; even in our most dramatic rebellion we are riding the wave of God’s unavoidable presence in us.  And therefore we cannot finally avoid God in and through our sin. – p. 91-92

The Immutability of God

Is it correct to say that the God of Jesus Christ is incapable of change, indeed unresponsive?  Would the assertion of God’s unchangeability not imply that God is a cold and self-contained principle, not truly alive and vibrant?

Thomas cites Malachi, “I am the Lord and I change not.”  But this is tied intimately to God’s covenant faithfulness.  He is reminding the people of his unchanging love.  Thomas appreciates the unchangeableness of God in this way as itself the condition for the possibility of God’s everlasting fidelity. – p. 93

What Thomas denies of God is the changeableness characteristic of creatures, that is to say, a development from nonbeing to being.  Instead the perfect, unchanging God of whom Thomas speaks must be a gyroscope of energy and activity and at the same time a stable rock, a blending of qualities that seem mutually exclusive in creatures. – p. 94-95

Were God changeable, there would be not a qualitative but merely a quantitative difference between God and the realm of creatures.  Then God could not possibly lure creatures dramatically beyond themselves to an infinite and perfect fulfillment.

And it is precisely the sinner who wants to flee from the demands of such a call, who wishes to remain within the narrow confines of his creaturely existence and thus who finally feels compelled to affirm the changeableness of God.  We see the basic strategy of the rebel: turn the infinite God into something resembling a creature so as to rest comfortably in creaturely complacency. – p. 95-96

The Eternity of God

For Thomas God’s eternity has nothing to do with everlasting duration.  It is decidedly not the case that God is a being who exists in endless time, who simply endures across centuries without passing away.  It is not the case that some things last a brief time, others a long time, and God an infinitely long time.  What Thomas argues is that God is not in time at all; God is not long-lasting or short-lasting, neither fragile nor durable.

God is not one of the realities of the world whose movement or transition can be measured.  This properly eternal God is literally unimaginable, inconceivable.  Thomas here sculpts away one more creaturely quality from our conception of God in order to render the power disclosed in Jesus Christ ever more mysterious and alluring. – p. 97

But the God who is outside of time, over time, is present to every moment of time. – p. 98

One could say that one of the greatest sufferings of hell is precisely the inability to lose oneself in the timelessness of God, to be sunk, as it were, hopelessly in time. – p. 99

Because we exist in time, we can never finally rest in the beauty of our experience.  Instead, the present slips into the past, leaving us with only memories.  To be one with the eternal God is not to intensify our sense of time; on the contrary, it is to be raised up to that rapturous state of nunc stans, the eternal present, in which all events, all experiences are wonderfully “now.”  In those moments, we and the world that surrounds us simply are. – p. 99

The Knowledge of God

Is this strange reality of God personal?  Does it or she or he know me, love me, care about me?  Is this God friendly? – p. 100

When Thomas wonders whether God has knowledge, he wants to know to what extent God experiences himself and the world that he has made.

Because the mind of the human being is immaterial or spiritual, it can reach beyond the confines of its own nature.  As spiritual in the richest possible sense, God is that reality in which one can enter, in a supremely affective and personal sense, into another, knowing it from within. – p. 100-101

So God is present to all things, not only ontologically, but personally, knowing them, in Augustine’s magnificent phrase, better than they know themselves. – p. 102

We notice something remarkable here, that God’s immateriality does not imply God’s distance from the world; on the contrary, it is precisely this quality of the divine being that enables God to be absolutely intimate and “interior” to his creation. – p. 102

We cannot finally be compelled by an impersonal ground of being.  No, says Thomas Aquinas, the ground of being must be a person who sees me, knows me, and searches me out. – p. 102

In reflecting on himself, God at the same time reflects upon all that he continually touches with his presence.  For Thomas, God sees the universe in and through himself, through the prism of the divine being.  God sees things properly, in their deepest identity, in their rootedness in the divine.  God appreciates the universe, not as a separate and independent realm of reality, but precisely as an outpouring from his own love.  Whereas our tendency is to lose this vision of the world, to see the universe as separate from its divine ground. – p. 103

In classic epistemology, when a knower knows something other than himself he is brought to greater perfection.  But God is perfect and self-sufficient, hence God cannot know the world.  In response, Aquinas highlights the priority of images in the divine mind.  The images of created things are in the divine mind “before” the created things themselves, acting indeed as their archetypes.  Thus, God’s knowledge of the world does not perfect God; it does not bring to God something God did not already have.  Rather, God’s knowledge is what perfects the world.  – p. 104

So God does not stand outside the world, deriving knowledge from it; on the contrary, the world derives its being from the knowledge of it that God continually pours into it.  – p. 104

God does not know the world because the world exists; the world exists because God knows it.  Notice the subtle spiritual direction at work here.  No creature must ever think that God’s mind is dependent upon him; no finite reality should ever see itself as in a position to manipulate God.  We are encouraged to become a sheer transparence to the divine knowing that flows through us. – p. 104-105

The mind, that most powerful tool, is frequently used by the sinner as an aggressive tool to dominate, take apart, analyze, and finally manipulate the world in which he moves.  And unfortunately, God does not escape the grasp of the manipulative mind.  God becomes all too frequently one more object for the sinful ego to master and “know.”  Thomas Aquinas consistently challenges this pretension of the domineering intelligence. – p. 105

The Will and Love of God

Aquinas says that to be God is to rest in, to savor, the good.  The divine being, marked by will, is nothing but ecstasy, a constant act of finding pleasure in the good possessed.  What does God do then?  Could God possibly care about those things that share in his being, lost as he is in the wonder of his own reality?  Would the God of infinite self-satisfaction be, necessarily, narcissistic? – p. 106-107

But, Aquinas says, God cannot contain himself, cannot refrain from sharing his good feeling with another.  His joyful will jumps about, spills over, overflows.  God wills others in order to allow them to share in the ecstasy that he has. – p. 108

Thus, the grounding and sustaining source of all that is, the perfect and unchanging one, is a person endowed with mind and will and therefore someone who concerns and cajoles and draws the created universe to himself. – p. 108

Love is the will’s basic affection for the good, whether possessed or not.  When someone has the good, he loves it as something he delights in, and when someone lacks the good, he loves it as something he hopes for.  In either case, love is the elemental and grounding force, the deepest “personality” and energy of the will. – p. 108

A God who is love, we all realize in the depths of our hearts, is a God who will not leave us alone in our sin, a God who will bother us and prompt us and push us to to transformation.  This love appears wondrous to those on the path of life and fearsome to those who are clinging to themselves in rebellion against God.  Thomas, the master of the soul, stubbornly preaches this beautiful and harsh truth about the God who will not let go of us. – p. 109


Thomas is decidedly not trying to capture or define the divine; on the contrary, he is attempting to show us precisely how to avoid the temptation of such definition, and how the soul can be liberated in the act of surrendering to the God who reveals himself as an unsurpassable and ecstatic power in Jesus Christ. – p. 112

Chapter 3: Creation: The Nothing That is Everything

Meister Eckhart argued that all things exist in God.  The best way to reach God, he says, is to sink into him, to find him at the root and core of one’s own being. Eckhart was one of Thomas’ successors in the chair of theology at the University of Paris.  In his mystical writings, he simply draws out the implications of Thomas’ doctrine of creation. – p. 113

As we have come to expect, Thomas interprets creation – the fundamental rapport between God and the world – in light of the experience of Jesus Christ. This means, basically, that the world – in all of its particularity and peculiarity, in each of its nooks and crannies – is filled, every moment and in the most intimate way possible, with the sustaining presence of God. – p. 114

The universe is constantly held up by, and suffused with, the creating power of the ground of being.  At every instant, God brings the world from nonbeing into being, illumining it as the sun illumines the sky.  This divine “shining” is creation, and allowing oneself to be “shone through” is to be a creature. – p. 114

Through his thoughts about the creative power of God, the bringing forth of the world ex nihilo (from nothing), and continual creation, Thomas Aquinas is the great theological inspiration for a healthy “creation” spirituality. – p. 115

The Power of God

Thomas Aquinas couldn’t be in stronger disagreement with the voluntarism of Descartes.  For Thomas, God is not a distant supreme being existing outside the world, but rather the act of Being itself, the creative ground of the universe.  Hence, to undermine the basic structures of nature is to undermine himself.  The God of unchanging love is the firm ground of existence that cannot be untrue to himself or to what he has made. – p. 118

God’s power then, as Anselm says, is the capacity not to say yes or no, but only to say yes.  He cannot be untrue to himself or to what he has made through his power. – p. 118-119

Creation From Nothing

Since God truly creates, there is absolutely no aspect of finite reality that does not flow from the divine source.  There is nothing in the world, in nature, in the cosmos, in us, that is not, in every detail, the result of God’s creative act.  For Thomas, as for the author of Genesis, all being is redolent of the divine and hence worthy of reverence and celebration: all ground is holy ground, all places are holy places, all times are sacred times.  As Teilhard de Chardin said, “Nothing is profane for those who know how to see.” – p. 120

If God is responsible for every nook and cranny of the cosmos, then all things are burning with the divine fire, all things begin, endure, and reach their completion in God. – p. 121

In light of the Incarnation, we see that God moves comfortably within the confines of nature, mixing with it and inviting it to transformation.  Literally nothing stands between the world and its divine source; there is no sharp delineation between the sacred and the secular. – p. 122

God is found in the hushed forests, and God is found in the machinations of the lawyer searching for justice, and in the serious playfulness of a game of baseball.  We don’t rise above these various events and activities to find their divine source; rather, as Eckhart pointed out, we sink into them toward their divine ground. – p. 122

Creation as a Relationship

As Thomas’ analysis of creation unfolds, we find we are fundamentally different that we had imagined.  Like a patient Zen master, Thomas is trying to move us out of the realm of illusion and misperception.  We have forgotten that God is the one who creates us from nothing, and hence we have tended to see ourselves as beings set apart from God, things that have a relationship with God.  What Aquinas wants us to appreciate is that, as creatures, we are a relationship to the divine power.  – p. 123

The tragedy of sin is that we attempt to find ourselves by affirming our difference from God.  At the heart of the creation teaching is what I call the metaphysics of the Gospel: the more we lose ourselves in God, the more we find our authentic selves, and the more we cling to our independence of the divine, the more we lose our souls. – p. 123

Relation, not substance, is the primary category of reality.  It is not as though God makes things with which he then establishes a relationship; on the contrary, from the beginning, all “things” already are relations to the divine source. – p. 125

When we realize what it means to be a creature, we know that we are never far from renewal, from freshness of life, from endless possibility.  At the root of ourselves, there is nothing but novitas essendi, newness of being.  This is the key to Aquinas’ creation spirituality. – p. 126

Aquinas’ understanding of creation comes from the stunning event of Jesus Christ.  It is Christ himself who reveals what it means fully to be a creature.  Christ is the one in whom the “freshness of being” was continually apparent, endlessly available.  Christ is the “nothing” that becomes a conduit for the “everything” that is God.  As such, he discloses the nature of the relationship that is the creature. – p. 126

The more the world resembles the ecstatic nature of God and the more it mimics the transparency of Christ to the divine power, the more it finds itself. – p. 127

The more we love God and let go of our awful seriousness and defensiveness, the more we discover correctly who we are.  Here is what contemporary theologians call “panentheism,” the existence of all things in God. – p. 128

When I realize that I am nothing but an outflow of the divine love, nothing but an ongoing gift, I realize that there is no “self” that requires defense.  All things in the universe, especially my fellow human beings, are related one to the other. – p. 128

In our bones we feel our commonality with all things in the energy of God, and we know that this relationship is more basic and enduring than any of the differences that separate us.  It takes an enormous effort of the will and a tremendous amount of cultural conditioning to knock this “creation consciousness” out of our hearts. – p. 129

The “ethics” of the Sermon on the Mount is a dramatic expression of the creation mentality in and through provocative action, a holding up of the icon of creation in a world in forgetfulness. – p. 129

Prayer is neither an activity of the mind, nor a movement of the will, nor a play of the imagination so much as it is to find the deep and serene pool that underlies and informs all that we are and do.  It is to rest in it, to “sink into it,” to affirm one’s identity with it, a discovery, at the deepest possible level, of one’s creatureliness. – p. 130

Creation and Evil

The overwhelming force of evil can easily lead one to conclude that there are two basic principles at work in the world, a positive divine power and a malign demonic power.  One’s spiritual life can then become a dreadful combat, a battle whose outcome is never sure.  Instead, Aquinas avoids this destructive dualism by showing in various ways that the goodness of God can sometimes present a dark face. – p. 130-131

Much misunderstanding comes, says Aquinas, from a failure to appreciate the nature of evil.  It weighs on us with such insistence and inspires such terror in us.  Without denying the psychological import of evil, Thomas denies emphatically that evil is metaphysically substantive.  “By the name of evil is signified the absence of good.” – p. 132

Evil is not a thing or a power that confronts the good; rather, it is a cavity, a vacuum, a lack, a corruption.  The good is always more basic, more enduring, more powerful than evil. – p. 132

Thomas is not denying the spiritual power of evil, but he is telling the sinner there is no place to run.  The sinner is still stubbornly in the greater context of the good.  There is finally no evil place, since all places are, as such, good, and there is no finally evil attitude, since all attitudes, as such, are good. – p. 133

This is an invitation to salvation, convincing the sinner that in standing on evil he stands on shadows and mists.  He is in a vacuum, from which God will ultimately summon him. – p. 134

A world of finite things is, necessarily, a world in tension.  Evil seems to be the regrettable, necessary product of finitude, an unavoidable element of creatureliness.  God does not “permit” evil; rather, in deciding to create, God accepted the inevitability of  conflict and evil.  God permits monstrous abuse of free will in order to allow free will itself to exist. – p. 136-137

Aquinas thinks of a lion and its prey.  The blessing for the lion – finding and consuming food to preserve its life – is an unspeakable curse for the poor antelope that it eats.  Though it sounds ludicrous, it is also correct also to say that, while cancer cells are destroying a healthy human body, they are, from their point of view, flourishing.  This does not deny the power and horror of evil, but it places evil itself in a broader, cosmic perspective and invites the sufferer to a more Godlike vision of suffering itself. – p. 138-139

Creation and Beauty

What compels us to call something “beautiful”?  When the harmony of a thing becomes luminous, when its inner coherence and organization shine forth, the beautiful emerges.  James Joyce calls our experience “epiphany,” and “aesthetic arrest,” a state of enraptured wonder. – p. 139-141

Thomas is a mystic, someone who gazes at the loveliness of the world in an attitude of prayer.  The world in its totality is a sort of icon of the divine beauty, a mirror in which we see reflected some of the unbearable perfection of the divine being.  God engages in explosive and irrepressible creativity because he is determined to show, as fully as possible, some of the intensity of his own beauty. – p. 142-144


The basic energy of the created realm is a relationship of love.  God continually pours out the gift of being, and the world is at every moment a sheer receptivity, an openness toward that gift.  Human beings are in a privileged position because they are able to perceive and to celebrate this relationship that they are. – p. 145

The sacramental imagination, which sees the divine lurking in every corner of the real, is fed and strengthened by the Thomistic doctrine of creation.  Even the profoundest expressions of evil cannot shake our confidence in this intoxicating vision. With eyes cleansed and purified by the revelation contained in Christ Jesus, we can see the divine beauty everywhere in creation. – p. 146

Chapter 4: The Human Being: Made for Ecstasy

Aristotle pointedly disagreed with the dualism of Plato, affirming again and again the fundamental unity of the human being, the coming together of body and soul in an inseparable harmony.  It was this pro-body, this-worldly doctrine of Aristotle that young Thomas embraced and never stopped defending even in the face of violent opposition. – p. 148

Thomas will say throughout his writings that the human being – precisely as a unity of spirit and matter – is a beautiful reflection of the divine and a creature destined for deification. – p. 148

The teachings of the greatest medieval doctor are anything but dualist (body bad, soul good).  In fact – and this is the great irony – they are far more humanist than much of the art of the Renaissance.  Thomas’ thought is a celebration of the human, a consistent and thorough reiteration of the great patristic adage that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” – p. 148-149

Thomas views the human person as built for the movement outward toward God, from the beginning of his life and to the roots of his being touched by a divine energy which lures him to self-transcendence.  We are hunger and thirst for God; we are a longing, a striving for completeness; we are a passion for vision.  We are made for bliss and for light and for the ecstatic realization of our nothingness before God. – p. 149

Aquinas reads human nature in the  paradigmatic humanity of Jesus himself.  And Jesus in his concrete humanity is, as we have seen, nothing but a sheer openness to transcendence.

Oneness of the Human Being

For many of the great Christian spiritual masters prior to Aquinas, there is, to some degree, a suspicion of the body, a tendency to view the flesh as an obstacle to the ascent of the spirit. – p. 150

Immortality of the soul seemed to require a clear demarcation between the purely immaterial mind and the body destined for death and dissolution.  It was one of the principal innovations of Aquinas to show that this dualism is itself a major source of mischief and a block to authentic spiritual development.  It is only when we human beings fully acknowledge that we are good precisely as God made us that we can relate properly to the Creator. – p. 150

For Thomas, “the whole human soul is in the whole body and also in every part of the body, just as God is present to the entire universe.”  This is a wonderful comparison.  Just as God is no closer to the angel than to the rock, just as God immediately and creatively fills every corner of the universe, so the soul is intimately and fully present to all expressions of bodiliness, to all sensation, to all feeling. – p. 151

There is nothing in the body that is unworthy of the soul or beneath its dignity. – p. 151

We must make peace with our bodies. – p. 152

It is absolutely not the case for Thomas Aquinas that pleasure and carnality are signs of, or inducements toward sin – quite the contrary.  Sin has only rendered the bodily passions disordered and hence less intense, less deeply satisfying. – p. 153-154

For Aquinas, the knowledge of God comes through the senses, through the mediation of the body. The great and unsurpassable disclosure of God’s love takes place in the Incarnation, in the enfleshment of the Son of God. – p. 154

It is through bodily contact with the world, through reflection on motion, causality, order, and beauty that we arrive at a vague understanding of God as the ground and creator of all.  For Aquinas we “know” the divine, not through mystical elevation, not through infused wisdom, but through pictures, stories, colors, shapes, events, persons, natural phenomena. – p. 155

On the one hand, Aquinas’ writings are desperately abstract, soaringly philosophical in their attempt to see the whole, but this intuitive style is always balanced by and grounded in an appeal to direct and ordinary experience … “Open the books of Thomas Aquinas and you will find some good brown bread, solid and nutritious.” – p. 155-156

In this life, a stunning vision or a beautiful thought produces a satisfying bodily reaction, an “e-motion,” literally, a movement in the flesh. – p. 157

The Human Being: Imago Dei

If we have within us something like a spark of God’s life, then we are not hopelessly exiled from the sacred presence, and our deepest hopes are then not in vain.  Thomas sees the divine spark precisely in the dynamism of the human spirit. – p. 160

There is a tremendous range to the mind, never satisfied simply knowing material things, but pushing ever outward and upward, seeking to know the formal, the universal, the abstract, and the spiritual.  “Our intellect never understands so many things, that it could not understand more.” – p. 160

In Bernard Lonergan’s striking phrase, the minds wants to “know everything about everything.” Aquinas says “the greatness of the human being consists in this: that it is capable of the universe.”  The mind is kind of a mirror of being, the clear glass in which all that is can be reflected. – p. 161

For Aquinas God is the root and source of all creation, the font from which finite being continually flows.  Therefore, to say that the human mind is oriented to the whole of reality is for Thomas simply to say that it is oriented to God  This openness of the spirit to the divine is the “royal dignity,” the glory of the human, that which makes us, in a word, the imago Dei. – p. 161-162

We are the reflections of God inasmuch as we are the clear pools in which God’s reality can be mirrored.  But whether we are saints or sinners, we are inevitably drawn to God as our final end, “whether this image be obsolete and clouded over or whether it be obscured and disfigured or whether it be clear and beautiful.” – p. 162-164

The imago can never be totally lost, despite the most blinding ignorance and the most debilitating sin, because of the unbreakable bond between Creator and creature.  Even as the sinner retreats into the encircling forest gloom of his rebellion, his imago gives him away, guiding the divine bloodhound on his hunt. – p. 164-166

To the person with false or misguided humility, Thomas urges a frank acceptance of her royal dignity as a child of God.  Our basic relationship to the divine is not primarily that of sinner to savior but rather of child to parent.  There is a “divinity” within us that seeks full expression and full union. – p. 166

The greatest danger Aquinas highlights in these texts on the imago is a sort of forgetfulness of the soul, through sin or ignorance or indifference of who we are in our depths. – p. 166

There is a rebirth of interest today in the ancient category of soul.  Aquinas’ writings on the human person are extremely “soulful,” reminding us of our dignity and destiny as children of the divine.  As such, they are enormously helpful to us pragmatic, commonsensical Americans. – p. 167

The “End” that is God

Atheists, specifically Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Sartre, are convinced that the more God is affirmed, the less we human beings become; the more God is emphasized, the more we are diminished.  They assume a competitive relationship between God and the world, a zero-sum game in which one partner grows at the expense of the other. – p. 169

If there is a supreme being who controls the universe and human affairs, who dominates the universe, who competes with us, then there can be no real freedom.  Thus the fact of our freedom and dignity effectively moves God off the stage. – p. 169

The only proper response to these atheists is to affirm the noncompetitive relationship between God and the world.  God is not a supreme being but is Being itself.  God does not enter into rivalry with the universe or any creature in it.  It is this understanding of the God-world relationship that inspires Thomas’ extraordinarily rich analysis of the “final end” or ultimate happiness of the human being: we come home to ourselves only in embarking on the fascinating journey outward to God. – p. 170

Just as there must be a first mover with regard to physical change in the universe, so must there be a first mover of the will, an uncaused cause of the movement of the heart, and this is none other than the desire for perfect contentment. – p. 171

For Thomas Aquinas the human heart and mind expand as they push outward toward the happiness that they crave.  It is only in the course of the adventure that is human striving that a person comes fully to understand and appreciate that mysterious reality that alone can satisfy.  Along the way, he tends to settle on goals or ends that are not ultimate, and it is his very dissatisfaction that spurs him on toward his proper fulfillment. – p. 173

What is the nature of this ultimate happiness?  It is not found, Aquinas says, in natural or artificial wealth.  Desire for wealth is soul destroying, since it aligns our properly infinite hunger for joy with an object that can never satisfy that hunger: “for when we already possess them we despise them, and seek others, because we realize more their insufficiency.” – p. 175-176

Nor either in “honors, fame, and glory,” when the fleeting sign of goodness is sought as a good in itself.  In fact it is altogether possible, indeed likely, that fame and esteem are counter-indications of one’s real goodness. – p. 176-177

It is obsession with glitter and glamour – what Thomas calls glory (and Cassian called vain-glory) – that leads to a loss of soul.  This soul-sickness, the desire not to serve but to be admired for one’s prominence, can creep into the hearts of politicians, lawyers, business executives, academics,priests, and all of us. – p. 178

On this wheel of glory or wheel of fortune a person is like the sinners in the first circle of Dante’s Inferno, turning and turning, buffeted by the winds of desire and lust, chasing first this banner then that, but making no progress and finding no anchor. – p. 178

Could bodily pleasure be the ultimate good?  But the pleasure sensed by the body is but a “trifle as compared with the good of the soul.”  By soul, Thomas means our capacity for the universe, while the body is oriented toward the particular, a far more restricted range than that of the soul. – p. 179

An orientation to pleasure above all things puts out the inner fire, is a surrender to spiritual torpor and sloth, to what Paul Tillich calls “self-complacent finitude.” – p. 180

Thomas remains convinced that bodily pleasure accompanies even the vision of God, but he is equally convinced that the placing of pleasure at the center of one’s life is tantamount to spiritual suicide. – p. 180

With the following pithy comment, Thomas finds the Holy Grail: “It is evident that nothing can lull the human will but the universal good.  This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone, because every creature has goodness by participation.  Thus God alone can satisfy the will of the human being.” – p. 181

Only when we hook our unlimited longing to an unlimited good, will we find the joy for which we were created.  Nothing less than Being itself will fill up the emptiness of the human heart.  Nothing other than a concrete and complete imitation of Christ, the ecstatic lover of God, will bring us to life. – p. 182

Just as God does not compete with the world, so the love of God is not in competition with other ends and goods and goals.  Once the divine center is established in one’s life, one can do as one wills, singing, playing, relating, trading, entering into relationships – all for the glory of God. – p. 182

Since the fullness of joy lies beyond the range and scope of this life, we will always be restless this side of death.  Therefore no utopia, political, economic or psychological, should ever be expected.  No tower of Babel will ever reach up to God.  But this need not frustrate us; rather it should spur us on. – p. 183

As G. K. Chesterton said about his own life, once he knew that he didn’t have to cling to the world in a desperate attempt to derive happiness from it, he relaxed and allowed its simple beauty and joy to enter in. – p. 183


We are branded, marked, stamped with the image of love, and we are compelled, from our earliest days, by the hunger for love.  When we fail to love, we are miserable, and when we enter into love, we are filled with life. We are wired for self-forgetfulness, built for the journey out of ourselves. – p. 183-184

This mystical journey is an adventure of the entire person; God invites us to come even to the innermost courts of heaven clothed still in the body he gave us.  To bring the grubby flesh right into the heart of the beatific vision is one Aquinas’ humanist masterstrokes. – p. 184




Who are we?  Who or what is God?  How do we and God come together?  For a Christian, the answer to that third question is Jesus the Christ.  In him, we know who we are in the deepest sense and we realize, to our delight and surprise, just who God is. – p. 185

Thomas continually lures his reader onto the ground of the Gospel, onto the field of force opened up by Jesus Christ.  Christians are those people who, electrified by God’s leap out of himself in love, realize that their vocation is love. – p. 185

So who is God for Thomas Aquinas?  God is that strange and disturbing reality whose love and power and goodness infinitely surpass our puny capacity to understand or our pathetic attempts to control. – p. 186

Who are we?  We are those creatures tied to this divine storm, this uncontrollable force, this enigma, this abyss. – p. 186

For Thomas Aquinas, God’s most characteristic act is the jest of the Incarnation, and our appropriate response is sustained and soul-expanding laughter.  Everything else is commentary. – p. 186 (end of book)


Prayer of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) “For Ordering a Life Wisely” (Thomas recited this prayer daily before the image of Christ)

O merciful God, grant that I may desire ardently, search prudently, recognize truly, and bring to perfect completion whatever is pleasing to You for the praise and glory of Your name.

Put my life in order, O my God.

Grant that I may know what You require me to do.

Bestow upon me the power to accomplish Your will, as is necessary and fitting for the salvation of my soul.

Grant to me, O Lord my God, that I may not falter in times of prosperity or adversity, so that I may not be exalted in the former, nor dejected in the latter.

May I not rejoice in anything unless it leads me to You; may I not be saddened by anything unless it turns me from You.

May I desire to please no one, nor fear to displease anyone, but You.

May all transitory things, O Lord, be worthless to me and may all things eternal be ever cherished by me.

May any joy without You be burdensome for me and may I not desire anything else besides You.

May all work, O Lord, delight me when done for Your sake and may all repose not centered in You be ever wearisome for me.

Grant unto me, my God, that I may direct my heart to You and that in my failures I may ever feel remorse for my sins and never lose the resolve to change.

O Lord my God, make me submissive without protest, poor without discouragement, chaste without regret, patient without complaint, humble without posturing, cheerful without frivolity, mature without gloom, and quick-witted without flippancy.

O Lord my God, let me fear You without losing hope, be truthful without guile, do good works without presumption, rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness, and—without hypocrisy—strengthen him by word and example.

Give to me, O Lord God, a watchful heart, which no capricious thought can lure away from You.

Give to me a noble heart, which no unworthy desire can debase.

Give to me a resolute heart, which no evil intention can divert. Give to me a stalwart heart, which no tribulation can overcome.

Give to me a temperate heart, which no violent passion can enslave.

Give to me, O Lord my God, understanding of You, diligence in seeking You, wisdom in finding You, discourse ever pleasing to You, perseverance in waiting for You, and confidence in finally embracing You.

Grant that with Your hardships I may be burdened in reparation here, that Your benefits I may use in gratitude upon the way, that in Your joys I may delight by glorifying You in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You who live and reign, God, world without end.   Amen.

—from The Aquinas Prayer Book




Print Friendly, PDF & Email
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: