CAN THOMAS AQUINAS SPEAK TO US TODAY?
By: Fr. Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P.
Thomas Aquinas has influenced an extraordinary number of men and women. Over seven centuries, thousands of teachers and writers from Moravia to the Philippines, from Peru to Armenia have studied his writings. To single out a few Dominicans: there was Diego de Deza who advised Christopher Columbus to explore what lay to the west of Portugal, or Bartolomé de Las Casas who early on defended the Americans against the Spanish conquerors. Aquinas’ theology led Catherine of Siena to urge reform on the papacy and it inspired a painter like Fra Angelico. Bishops have condemned him and popes have praised him. In this century he influenced men like M. J. Lagrange who furthered modern biblical studies by establishing a school in the land of the Bible, the École Biblique, and Yves Congar who pioneered a Roman Catholic acceptance of ecumenism, and the restoration of the collegiality of the bishops. Novelists as different as Sigrid Undset and Flannery O’Connor have enjoyed learning from the pages of Aquinas.
Great talent exists in some people, but for that talent to flourish the times must be right. Haydn and Mozart lived in the peaceful Austro-Hungarian Empire; Donatello and Michelangelo were surrounded by the affluence of Renaissance Florence; after 1920 George Gershwin found a dozen theaters, then radio, and then movies avid for his songs. Thomas Aquinas lived during the highpoint of the Middle Ages, a time of climactic warmth, financial affluence, population explosion, and the circulation of new ideas. What were the ideas that he emphasized and that have lasted? If we cannot deny his distance from us, a life lived amid the architecture of medieval cathedrals, nonetheless, many of his lasting ideas about the human person, the reality of God, and the presence of the Spirit remain influential.
The principles of Thomas Aquinas’ theology are the psychology of human life, a universe full of activities, Jesus’ teaching about human beings and their special destiny, and the new life of grace. He wrote nothing about retreats, relics, techniques of meditation, or kinds of mystical visions. For him Christian reflection is about Christian life. The narratives of Scripture, the graced life, the liturgy and the sacraments exist to help people on their journey to a next life. Let us see how the theologian sees God and his special work of art, the human person.
God is not a static supreme being but an all-active source of a universe of beings. His infinite power allows Him to create other beings. “God is a living fountain, a fountain not diminished in spite of its continuous flow outwards.” God has created a great variety of creatures. Some of those beings have knowledge and freedom. He creates to show the variety of his reality; he lets a vast array of beings flourish as themselves. In a striking phrase the Dominican theologian writes that God has given creatures “the gift of being real causes.” God needs nothing and does not exist alone in a lengthy cosmic night. The divine was motivated by generosity to produce the universe. God is “most generous to the highest degree.” The divine motive for both creation and incarnation is goodness diffusing itself.
The human person, above all, is the image of God. That image is composed of intelligence, freedom, and activity. Moreover, each individual personality is a direct creation of God. God loves us as particular persons. God likes our individuality, for he has guided it into existence through the centuries.
In my personality, in my graced relationship to God, my identity cannot come from outside myself; it cannot come from a religious or civil authority, or from a slavish imitation of Elizabeth Seton or George Washington. An awareness of myself will create a receptivity for God’s Spirit within me and will keep me from choosing goals against my nature and God’s grace, choosing dead ends on my journey, what are called “sins.” Aquinas’ theology is a positive view of divine grace leading men and women from life to life.
“The Kingdom of God.” Christianity believes that for men and women, God has a second, further “plan” (in Aquinas’ words): it is called the reign of God, grace. Grace is not a divine electric force but a further life in me. The Christian is not a passive recipient of an other-worldly salvation, not a being living amid a machinery of actual graces temporarily pushing a person here and there. Grace is not a credit card for heaven but a new life principle, beginning here on Earth and finding fulfillment after death. God’s grace is a life-principle within us. We live by actions, and grace brings us new principles of action; faith, hope, love, being merciful, gratitude, etc.
Actions reveal natures and species. Fish swim, birds fly. What do Christians do? They live a life of the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is not concerned solely with souls, now or in heaven, but with human beings whose sexuality, appetites, will power, hopes, and emotions are facets of a personality and are touched by grace. The Christian life is not about miracles or visions for they do not flow steadily from the life principle we call “grace.” That is why the model Aquinas chooses to explain Christianity is the human life on a journey helped by a deeper life holding virtues for good and charisms for ministry.
To be a graced human being is to have two principles that are the source of our activities: there is an interplay of human life and Christian discipleship. In an approach drawn from natural science, Aquinas wrote: “It is not suitable that God would provide more for creatures being led to a natural good by divine love than for those creatures to whom that love offers a supernatural good. For natural creatures God provides generously…, forms and powers which are principles of acts….Even more for those moved to reach an eternal supernatural good he infuses certain forms or qualities of the supernatural order according to which easily and enthusiastically they are moved by God to attain that good which is eternal.” Grace reaches an individual through her personality, and sanctity will reveal itself out of an individual’s psychology. Grace is not something we turn on each morning; not something we easily lose; not something occasional or spectacular. Grace is a principle of a life.
God’s special presence, grace, is ordinary. Aquinas concluded: “Grace in the life of an individual is worth more than the entire material universe.” Still, Christian life is not miraculous or extraordinary: the plan of a kingdom of God, a world of grace, a realm of the supernatural. God has made us graced as he made us humans, as he made pelicans. Jesus called us friends of God. Just as the entry to the kingdom of God is open to all so grace is ordinary; it is perduring unless we drive it out. Even mysticism, prayer in its highest degree is ordinary; a mature spiritual life become more healthily human, more non-neurotic, and freer of display, and compulsions.
Grace and an individual personality are revealed in what people like to do. People are not called to be something bizarre or impossible. God does not command people become what they are not, for he made their natural personalities. Grace does not remove the basic contours of an individual personality; nor will it miraculously supply what is humanly missing or by nature weak. It enhances our true self
In this theology God is not portrayed not as a stingy banker or a strict judge, but as a friend active and generous towards us through love. Aquinas saw human life as a journey in which Jesus and the Holy Spirit teach and help us, not only in the Church but in our deepest personal life. In individual intimacy and active assistance God is, invisibly and silently, with us.
Read more about St. Thomas Aquinas here.