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Aquinas and Prayer

“The starting point of prayer is desire for eternal life, and this persists in all the other works we do in due order, because all of them should be ordered towards obtaining eternal life, and so the desire for eternal life persists virtually in all the good deeds we do,” and again Thomas teaches, “we pray in order to make ourselves realise that we need to have recourse to his help…. By praying we offer God reverence, inasmuch as we subject ourselves too him and profess, by praying that we need him as the author of all that is good for us.” St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P.

As Christians we believe that we stand in the presence of God continually, and whether we are praying or not, we believe that the Divine presence is everywhere and that the eyes of God look on us always. The Lord in the gospel reminds us to pray always (Lk 18:1) and to never loose heart and this is best answered by us when live with an attitude of faith, hope and love and with a joy that comes from the Holy Spirit.(1 Th. 1:6). Thomas teaches (IaIIae.30 ad.1) us that every creature that exists in the world wants what is good for itself, it is natural to want, but within man there are grace given virtues that dispose us to a goal of perfect happiness beyond our natural human desires and God is the only possible source. Every human therefore desires happiness. This desire which comes from God is a desire that we will live eternally in God, eternally for he is heaven itself, our eternal joy. The goals we set in life move us in different ways depending according to whether our goal is present or absent. If our goal is present Thomas teaches that we will simply rest in it, if our goal is absent we must move on for the attraction keeps us in momentum. For Thomas, God by his ineffable will attracts us to himself, for we simply are made to love, we are attracted by what seems an absent self, and so we desire, this desire will lead to our rest but that is only in the presence of God.

This teaching on the desire of man, explains to me how Thomas comes to his conclusions on continual prayer. The desire for God or beatitude which is Eternal life will always remain as a thirst within the human heart; man will according to his desire live his life in relation to this desire. Unlike many things we desire we forget them after some time, or we lose the momentum to keep searching or we find substitutes that quench that thirst, but we discover that what we unnaturally desire only leads to unfullfillment. Like the prayer of Augustine in the first book of his confession we can pray, Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.

We therefore live our lives with this grace given love to desire something which seems absent and unattainable in this life, but God is present and as I stated at the beginning, we are always in God’s presence and his eyes look lovingly upon us. If our deepest desire is God, we will live our lives in accordance to God will, all our works will be ordered towards obtaining eternal life, everything we do comes from this love, this one desire to be united. So we can take from St Thomas that our life becomes a prayer, a continuous prayer if we live the moral life, for every action and decision we take comes from an inert desire to be with and in God. There are times however that the initial movement to come close to God weakens, and we begin to rest in the desires that have an ultimate end, or rightly as Thomas teaches we can start to desire pleasures as they are in themselves and not as steps to union with God, the reason be, according to Thomas, the simple cares of life.

In his commentary on the letter to the Thessalonians, Thomas states that; “Pray constantly” means to pray continuously. But then prayer is considered under the aspect of the effect of the prayer. For prayer is the unfolding or expression of desire; for when I desire something, then I ask for it by praying. So prayer is the petition of suitable things from God; and so desire has the power of prayer. “O Lord, thou wilt hear the desire of the meek” (Ps. 10: 17). Therefore, whatever we do is the result of a desire; so prayer always remains in force in the good things we do; for the good things we do flow forth from the desire of the good.

The desire for God will always be in man for it is a natural desire. Origen understood like Thomas that prayer in a broad sense as a life of love for God and for our neighbour, as long as a person loved virtuously and obeyed the commandments of God in his daily occupations, man was living a life of love and could be said to be praying without ceasing. In general speaking too we can describe prayer as true love, a mother and father have a natural love for their children, it is always there, regardless of what the child does, the parent will always love as demonstrated in the Gospels so many times but especially in the story of the Prodigal Son. The love will sometimes be stronger than at other times but there is never a time when it is not present and what is prayer if it is not love, even the shortest thought about God, even the smallest deed, even faithfully living one’s life according to God’s commandments in the smallest and uneventful ways is but awakening the heart to a life of continual love.

Is it possible therefore to stop praying, to stop desiring God and eternal happiness? I do not think it is, for even when man falls through sin, his desire while against man’s nature was a desire for good, a desire for happiness, though the good desired was not according to God’s commandments. The desire for mercy and forgiveness comes as a grace from God, the child aware of its faults is moved through grace to repent unto the parent, therefore the Spirit within cries out; “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rm 8.26) The Spirit intercedes from within and we are as sinners humbled and in need of mercy rely on that participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity.

We are moved to repentance and conversion of life and through God’s mercy we are permitted to walk freely again, re-directed in many words along the path of life. When man has fallen in sin, he looks up to God and understands his need. When we fall we are humbled and see our need for that which is greater, if we never fell, we would grow in pride, and become in our own minds self-sufficient and independent. God therefore can see in the permitting of us to fall, a greater good, a deepening of prayer, and the begging of mercy which makes us dependent children on a loving and caring father. Through prayer we discover our need, and we as Thomas teaches, subject ourselves to God again and profess by our humble prayer that we need him as the author of all that is good for us.

Praying therefore without ceasing is simply Love, a love which is the grace of God attracting us to himself, through a life lived according to the commandments and the teaching of Jesus Christ who is the source and summit of the Fathers love, itself made manifest on the Cross.

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas, Teacher and Scholar

9781846823084It is a curious fact that while the study of Aquinas’ work has been somewhat sidelined in mainstream Catholic theology, philosophers and historians are more interested in him than ever. This collection of Aquinas Lectures at Maynooth (2002-2010), dedicated to the memory of the great Rev. Prof. James McEvoy and appended with essays by several of his students, is a testament to this lively contemporary engagement with the thought of the Angelic Doctor. Two names stand out among the contributors: William Desmond and Eleonore Stump. Desmond writes a stunning piece on the Beatitudes, marked by his trademark originality and his commitment to philosophy done ‘in a spirit of generosity towards [the] religious ‘other’’ (31). Stump’s piece takes on the thorny question of the problem of suffering, and she explains Aquinas’ theodicy with analytic rigour and sensitivity to the real experience of suffering.

Medievalists will find much to interest them in this volume. Philipp W. Rosemann traces the changes in theology’s self-understanding by comparing a textbook from the 12th century (Peter Lombard’s Sentences) with one from the 13th century (St Thomas’ Summa theologiae). John F. Boyle considers these two thinkers again, outlining the contents of a recently-edited commentary of St Thomas on Book I of the Lombard’s work. He notes that this ‘Roman commentary’ is ‘a work of the classroom; indeed the only work from Aquinas’ classroom that is not a commentary on Scripture’ (78). The role of Thomas’ own teacher, Albert, in mediating an ‘intellectual’ interpretation of the Dionysian corpus (as opposed to an ‘affective’ reading) is investigated in Declan Lawell’s essay. Finally, among these ‘historical’ pieces, Denys Turner gives full voice to the context of Thomas’ theological work as a Dominican enterprise. The Summa is explained as ‘friars’ theology… the one scrip that mendicant preachers must carry with them… in a word, a poor man’s theology, the poor Christ as theology’ (142).

The book isn’t all history, however. Several contributors bring Aquinas’ ideas into dialogue with those of our own time. Gaven Kerr distinguishes carefully between the realism of Aquinas from the idealism of Kant, engaging along the way with a dizzying array of modern philosophers, from Quine to Maréchal. The lecture by the late Thomas Kelly is dizzying too, but such is to be expected from any engagement with Heidegger. He analyses the recently published lectures on Aquinas given by Heidegger, focussing mainly on his treatment of the Five Ways. In the course of this treatment, Kelly nuances a Heidegerrian sweeping statement (‘philosophy lacks any organ for hearing revelation’), producing one of the most memorable passages of the book:

That world and thing can become icon is our ear for revelation. Unless language can become God-talk, no revelation is possible. Unless the conditions of the possibility of language are already Godly, if I may use the word so, there is no God-talk. And, as I have suggested, unless language can become God-talk, there is no language. More strongly: unless language is always and already prayer, there is no language (236).

Julia Hynes’ piece on virtue ethics in a medical context brings things right up-to-date, defending Aquinas’ ethics against utilitarianism and deontology, noting that ‘what it was to be a person in St Thomas’ era remains the same in our time’.

It was particularly pleasing for this Dominican student to read two lectures given by Dominican friars who stand in a long tradition of Thomism. Both Liam Walsh OP and Vivian Boland OP have taught almost exclusively in the same context as St Thomas himself: Dominican studia. Their lectures (Walsh on Aquinas’ treatment of the Eucharist considered in the light of current ecumenical concerns; Boland on the doctrine of divine ideas in Aquinas) represent the continuation of a tradition of Dominican study for which St Thomas stands as the exemplar.

In his account of Thomas as teacher, Denys Turner waxes lyrical on the holiness of the ‘the theological teaching act’ performed by Aquinas, which is figured as a ‘disappearing act, a Christ-like ‘going away’ – so that the Spirit might come’ (151). To extend this metaphor, one might consider this volume of Aquinas Lectures to be a veritable ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Its contributors are as enthusiastic about their subject as the Apostles at Pentecost, and although I occasionally found myself ‘amazed and perplexed’ when reading these lectures, I was often, and happily, prompted to ask, with genuine curiosity: ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:12).

(Thomas Aquinas: Teacher and Scholar, edited by James McEvoy, Michael Dunne & Julia Hynes, is published by Four Courts. This review, written by a Dominican student, appeared originally in The Furrow.)