Long-time friend of the Center for Catholic Studies and professor at the Angelicum in Rome, Father Paul Murray, OP, delivered a lecture on Sept. 17, 2009, titled “Aquinas at Prayer: The Interior Life of a ‘Mystic on Campus.’” Murray’s complete address, forthcoming in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, examines the intimate prayer life of this Church doctor.
The entry point for his discussion is the unusual criticism offered by the “friend and confidant” of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Adrienne von Speyer, who suggests that Aquinas “[did] not let God speak,” “it is as if love got stuck by the busyness of thinking.” In von Speyer’s view, Aquinas was too analytical to enter into true contemplation. Murray answers that “Aquinas held fast to the view all his life that study – theological study – the passionate, unrelenting pursuit of divine truth, was itself somehow an actual form of prayer. Serious thinking about the Gospel was, for Aquinas, nothing less than a sacred activity.”
Murray argues that Aquinas’ remarkable intellectual achievements could have only flowed from an intensely prayerful, mystical life and a “mind in love with God.” Following are three excerpts from his speech.
A Mind in Love With God “There has been for some years now a tendency to set up a contrast … between, on the one hand, the cold, abstract intellect and, on the other, the warm, sensitive heart. We are told that, in order to make progress in the spiritual life – and indeed in life in general – we must make a journey from head to heart, an exodus out of the arid ‘Egypt’ of dull, controlled reflection to the promised land of spontaneous, fresh and exuberant emotion. Needless to say, the unhappy dualism implicit in this way of thinking is something Dominicans have actively opposed over the centuries. Again and again in their writings we find an unembarrassed enthusiasm for the role not only of the heart but also of the mind in contemplation: the mind in search of God, the mind in love with God.”
A Science of Both Mind and Heart “On occasion, Friar Thomas would take time to read works which were in no way academic, devotional texts, for example, which speak more immediately to the heart than to the head. He undertook this practice, [Bernard] Gui tells us, ‘in order to offset the aridity which is so often the result of abstract and subtle speculative thinking.’ And this practice … ‘did both his heart good by increasing devotion and his intellect by deepening its considerations.’ Clearly Thomas had no intention whatever of becoming a merely cold or abstract intellectual. … Theology, he notes, although it is indeed a science, is different from other sciences in the role it gives both to the head and to the heart. He writes: ‘The doctrine of sacred scripture contains not only matters for speculation, as in geometry, but also matters to be accepted by the heart.’”
The Silence Which Honors God “[Aquinas] had written: ‘God is honoured by silence, not because we may say or know nothing about him, but because we know that we are unable to comprehend him.’ … St. Thomas was both a great intellectual and a great, albeit discreet, mystic. The ‘silence’ of which he speaks – the silence which honors God – can be detected between the lines and words of almost everything he wrote. It is a silence, first and last, of attention to the Word of God, the silence of the grace of listening, the silence of a mind continually amazed at the radiant fullness of truth revealed in Christ. It is a silence of willing obedience to the will of the Father, and to the least movement of the workings of the Spirit. It is a silence of love, of Trinitarian communion, a silence of day-to-day intimacy and friendship, a silence which denotes the very opposite of a mere intellectual monologue. It is a silence which, though contemplative of the fact that God is beyond all human thoughts, all human words, is never for a moment disdainful of the humble words we use when we try to speak of God. It is the silence of a mind utterly at rest in the contemplation of truth, and yet ever restless in its search for a deeper understanding. It is a silence which breathes with that freedom of spirit which comes from the contemplation of eternal things, and which yet remains committed always to the immediate task of the hour. It is the silence of a man, living for years in the midst of the ordinary squabbles and conflicts of academia, who was yet able to be somehow at ease, and to live a quite extraordinary interior life.”