*Excerpts*, VOLUME 2

Excerpt: St. Thomas Aquinas on Prayer and Contemplation [Vol. 2, #24]

Doulos Christou Press has recently released a new volume in its “Resources for a New Monasticism” series: On Prayer and the Contemplative Life By St. Thomas Aquinas.

You can order this new book through Amazon.

Here is an excerpt:

Is the Active Life a Hindrance to the Contemplative Life?

St. Gregory says: “They who would hold the citadel of contemplation must first exercise themselves on the battle-field of toil.”

We may consider the active life from two points of view. For we may first of all consider the actual occupation with, and practice of, external works; and from this point of view it is clear that the active life is a hindrance to the contemplative, for it is impossible for a man to be simultaneously occupied with external works, and yet at leisure for divine contemplation.

But we may also consider the active life from the standpoint of the harmony and order which it introduces into the interior passions of the soul; and from this point of view the active life is an assistance to contemplation since this latter is hindered by the disturbance arising from the passions. Thus St. Gregory says: “They who would hold the citadel of contemplation must first needs exercise themselves on the battle-field of toil; they must learn, forsooth, whether they still do harm to their neighbors, whether they bear with equanimity the harm their neighbors may do them; whether, when temporal good things are set before them, their minds are overwhelmed with joy; whether when such things are withdrawn they are over much grieved. And lastly, they must ask themselves whether, when they withdraw within upon themselves and search into the things of the spirit, they do not carry with them the shadows of things corporeal, or whether, if perchance they have touched upon them, they discreetly repel them.”

Thus, then, the exercises of the active life are conducive to contemplation, for they still those interior passions whence arise those imaginations which serve as a hindrance to contemplation.

Some, however, maintain that the active life is a hindrance to the contemplative, thus:

1. A certain stillness of mind is needful for contemplation, as the Psalmist says: “Be still and see that I am God.” But the active life implies anxiety: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things.”

2. Again, a certain clearness of vision is called for in the contemplative life. But the active life hinders this clearness of vision, for St. Gregory says: “Leah was blear-eyed and fruitful, for the active life, since occupied with toil, sees less clearly.”

3. And lastly, things that are contrary hinder one another. But the active and the contemplative life are contrary to one another; for the active life is occupied with many things, whereas the contemplative life dwells upon one object of contemplation; they are, then, in opposite camps.

But all these arguments insist upon the occupation with external affairs which is but one feature in the active life, not upon its other feature – namely, its power to repress the passions.

*       *       *       *

Cajetan: “But the five foolish virgins, having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with the lamps.”

By this oil is signified testimony to a man’s goodness or love of God. For there is this difference between people who perform good works, that the only testimony which some men have to their goodness is without – namely, in the works themselves; within, however, they do not feel that they love God with their whole heart, that they repent of their sins because they are hateful to God, or that they love their neighbor for God’s sake. But there are others who so perform good works that both their works that shine before men bear witness without to the good soul within, and also within their own conscience the Holy Spirit Himself testifies to their spirit that they are the sons of God; for such men feel that they love God with their whole heart, that they repent of their sins for God’s sake, and that they love their neighbor and themselves for God’s sake: in brief, they feel that God is the sole reason why they love, why they hope, fear, rejoice, or are sad: in a word, why they work both within and without: this is to have oil in one’s own vessels (On St. Matt. 25:3, 4).

St. Augustine: See the life that Mary chose! Yet was she but a type of that life, she as yet possessed it not. For there are two kinds of life: one means delight; the other means a burden. And the burdensome one is toilsome, while the delightsome one is pleasurable. But enter thou within; seek not that delight without, lest ye swell with it and find yourself unable to enter by the narrow gate! See how Mary saw the Lord in the Flesh and heard the Lord by the voice of the Flesh – as ye have heard when the Epistle to the Hebrews has been read – as it were through a veil. (“A new and living way which He has dedicated to us through the veil, that is to say, His Flesh.” ) But when we shall see Him face to Face there will be no “veil.” Mary, then, sat – that is, she rested from toil – and she listened and she praised; but Martha was anxious about much serving. And the Lord said to her: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and art troubled about many things; but one thing is necessary.”  (“Sermon,” CCLVI., v. 6).

“Bless the Lord, O my soul: and let all that is within me bless His holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and never forget all He has done for thee. Who forgives all thy iniquities: Who heals all thy diseases. Who redeems thy life from destruction: Who crowns thee with mercy and compassion. Who satisfies thy desire with good things: thy youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord doth mercies, and judgment for all that suffer wrong. He has made His ways known to Moses: His wills to the children of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and merciful: long suffering and plenteous in mercy. He will not always be angry: nor will He threaten for ever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins: nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For according to the height of the heaven above the earth: He has strengthened His mercy towards them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our iniquities from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so has the Lord compassion on them that fear Him: for He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust: man’s days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish.”

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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