Reaching God in prayer

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26 Jan 2022

St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day is celebrated this week (28 January), prized the understanding of God reached in prayer.

St Thomas Aquinas was born in Northern Italy in 1224 into a world of change and cultural ferment. He was born in a castle overlooking a prosperous valley in northern Italy. The area was constantly fought over by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. Thomas was the younger son, destined by his family to be a monk and in due course the abbot of his monastery. He was attracted however, by the recently founded Dominican Order, whose members went out to preach and renew the faith of Christians in towns and the countryside. This was a time of religious revival that inspired passionate movements of reform that were often mixed with political and religious revolt. In such a world the Dominican preachers needed a strong formation in prayer and theology.

Thomas’ parents first forbade and then tried to talk him out of joining the Dominicans, but became reconciled to it when he followed his calling. Well educated and intelligent, he spent most of his life teaching Dominican and other students in the universities that his Order had founded in France and Italy. He was also given responsibility for running these institutions during his life. This work was particularly important at the time.

FRESH THINKING

The universities were a source of fresh thinking about law, politics, philosophy and theology. They were influenced by the recovery through Muslim scholars in Spain of classical learning, and notably of the philosophy of Aristotle. He had focused on accounting for what could be seen and heard. His method challenged the vision of Plato which inspired the account of faith developed by Christian writers and passed on by scholars in the monasteries. He emphasised the ladder of knowledge running from material things to ideas and finally to the point of unity where all was one. Christian thinkers saw in this the ascent from the material world to the world of spirit and so to God through Christ.

The goal of learning was contemplation rather than action, and the highest level of learning was theology, the study of God. Faith and the authority of the Church oversaw the search for knowledge.

Aristotle’s philosophy encouraged an interest in empirical science, in economics and in politics detached from faith and questioned the unity of faith and learning. It was strongly resisted by many Catholic leaders and thinkers who saw the movement it as corrosive of faith and Christian culture. They sometimes caricatured it as holding two truths – one religious and the other scientific and philosophical.

FULLER CHRISTIAN VISION

The choice facing Christians lay between building walls around a monastic theology and dissociating themselves from the new intellectual inquiry, and incorporating the insights of Aristotle into a fuller Christian vision. Aquinas did the latter, showing how Christian faith encouraged a rational inquiry into the nature of the world which had a proper autonomy under God.

He modelled an approach to the world that welcomed all questions, thought through them conversationally and reasonably, and integrated faith and reason. Although critics alarmed by his approach accused him of heresy, he has been seen as the greatest of Christian thinkers.

Although Thomas was extraordinarily intelligent, he prized the understanding of God reached in prayer more highly than his theological arguments. Indeed, among his deepest and loveliest writing is found are his deeply felt and disciplined Eucharistic hymns.    

His great legacy lies less in the details of his theology but in his exploration of new ideas, even those that seem to threaten his understanding of faith. He entered them calmly, reflected on what underlay them, and incorporated what was good in them into a thoroughly Christian vision of the world. He always preferred to light candles than to curse the darkness.

Image: An altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, by Carlo Crivelli (15th century). Wiki Commons

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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