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Class 7

Thomistic Contemplation

We finished on the role of contemplation that Saint Thomas places in the center of our desire for happiness. What can we make out of this Aristotelian concept? For Aristotle, contemplation wasn’t dry and cold, but tied to friendship, which is most profound when it grows from mutual sharing and sacrifice. The sharing of contemplation makes friendships solid and greater. Saint Thomas had a similar understanding in saying that we obtain happiness when we use the speculative intellect to think about God. This isn’t a denial of the value of the practical intellect or the other parts of the human person. Only when everything is tied to the cognition of God, of truth, is everything else well ordered. Saint Thomas defines contemplation as he uses the word contemplatio, speculatio, and meditatio: simplex intuitus veritatis, a simple intuition of truth. It’s not a question of rational cognition, but of intellectual cognition. In rational cognition, information is gathered, ordered and worked out. Intellectual cognition is a simple grasping of the truth, the facing of reality by the intellect, whereby we grasp the reality directly. Contemplation understood in this way can be natural, aesthetical, but it can also become supernatural when it is undertaken in faith. If I adhere to Christ, everything I do is transformed by grace, everything becomes supernatural. Then the contact with God through faith transforms the contemplation of beauty and truth. The simple contemplation of truth fascinates and grants a vitality to life. Our mature choices are consequences of our being drawn by the truth we perceive. That’s why he places contemplation at the center of the moral life.

The modern liberal accepts that we may search for truth, but denies the possibility that we can find it, because the truth perceived would bind — we would have to adapt accordingly. The liberal prefers to remain in agnostic abstention from truth, to remain free of its liberating shackles. We must maintain that truth can be known, on both the rational and supernatural planes. If philosophy hasn’t given you the certainty that such a thing is possible, then you cannot make a decision in life. It is this binding quality of truth which Veritatis Splendor writes about.[15] Truth shouldn’t yield to mere sincerity or self-peace.

Individualism, in the extreme, leads to a denial of authentic human nature. If we claim that everyone can invent his own truth, this leads to moral chaos. Although each individual has freedom, there exists a prior obligation to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. Truth ought also to be shared. The Dominican motto can be translated, "sharing with others the values we have discovered." You’re calling your friend into the contemplation of a great beauty. Just as with the perceived beauty to continue a difficult hike to a beautiful vista, so with the intellectual pursuit of truth.

The positioning by Saint Thomas of the intuitive cognition of God as the summit of moral action is done to help us to draw everything together toward God. He proposes such an opening of our intellect, so that we can obtain happiness. When we approach the text of Saint Thomas with the modern understanding of contemplatio, we misunderstand him. It does not refer to contemplative prayer, which is misleading to us today.

Carmelite Contemplation

For the Carmelite, contemplation means contemplative prayer, a prayer in which the praying person persists in the presence of God and the exercise of the Theological virtues and humility. This exercise of faith is in darkness. There is little rational content. It is a commerce with the mystery, an exercise of faith. What is essential is the passive attitude in relation to God. When God is touched by faith, he gives himself to us. Contemplative prayer is always supernatural. We can draw an image of the understanding of contemplative prayer. The emotions and the senses can dispose us toward acts of faith, but in themselves they cannot touch God. But apart from the emotions, we have our intellect. This too cannot touch God. When we reflect on God, we do not reach God but only those concepts which surround God. But from our intellectual faculties flow faith, hope, and charity which are divine gifts rooted in our natural faculties and allow us to touch God. When we exercise faith, we touch God. It is important to stress the supernatural character of our faith. When we exercise faith, we remove obstacles and place ourselves in front of the living God. So it is extremely important in our theological and moral life to begin with the theological virtues rather than the moral virtues. The graces we get can help us sort our moral life. So we need to establish a habit of daily prayer to help us get our moral life together. Contemplative prayer means an exercise of the moral virtues.

Contemplative prayer is not difficult. It is not something above philosophy. Children can be taught contemplative prayer, because children can accept something they do not understand. In contemplative prayer, grace is always present. Saint Térèse compares it to a little bird in the nest looking to the sun, which sometimes is hidden by the clouds, where there will be wind or distractions, but the bird is confident that the distractions will go away and we will see the sun again. This is extremely important that in the essence of our life we will experience this.

Saint Thomas writes about this subject in the treatise on the Holy Spirit. But he does not use the term contemplatio. Our union with God can be deepened by a more firm root of the theological virtues within us. We can define the Carmelite notion of contemplation as simplex intuitus divinae Personae in fide. In this sense, we cannot speak of a pagan or philosophical contemplation. For Aristotle, contemplation is just an exercise of the speculative intellect on truth. Contemplation for Aristotle is just a recognition of the great truths. In this simple intuition of truth, we will have science if we reflect rationally and prudence if we apply it to rational action. Saint Thomas tries to integrate this into his theological system. If we have grace, if we have contact with the living God, everything we have will be transformed from within. The act of faith, a humiliation of the intellect, transforms the power of the intellect. This intuition in Saint Thomas’s understanding of contemplation can be had by an unbeliever, whereas the Carmelite notion is always done in grace.

We do find towards the end of the II-II, the treatise on the active and the contemplative life. It will not satisfy us if we are looking for an explanation of contemplative prayer. This question (180-182) is found at the end of the secunda pars, when he is referring to that which concerns only a selected few. Saint Thomas does not seem to see a great sense in the difference between the active and the contemplative life. Contemplative life means the supreme level of the academic life, the search for truth. So the division refers to two different intellectual dispositions. Some people are more academic, others more practical. This theoretical approach is not for all people. In 182,1, Saint Thomas writes about the superiority of the vita contemplativa, but he means something different by the term and he recognizes that there are situations where and when it is more important to be active. It can be, he says, that the vita contemplativa can inhibit the spiritual life. The contemplative man sometimes loves God less than the active one, where he may need to make many more acts of the theological virtues. Saint Thomas gives eight rational arguments for the superiority of the contemplative light from Aristotle, buttressed by some scriptural support.

Conclusion and Comparison

To sum up, the term contemplatio in Saint Thomas denotes a simple intuition of truth. The strictly moral actions require an awareness of truth. It is also the fundamental ground for intellectual pursuits. It generates an order for life which leads to happiness. The simple intuition of truth unites him to God, in a transfer to the supernatural level. So the natural wisdom that flows from a perception of truth in a Christian is joined with the gift of Wisdom given by the Holy Spirit. If in a professional manner the Christian is searching for God, then his academic life will be open to the life of the divine. In the Carmelite notion of contemplation, this is a mandate for every Christian. This exchange with God is fruitful. The term for Saint Thomas is not a program for all Christians. For the Dominicans a much better form than contemplata alia strata is gratia predicationis. Grace should be evident on the level of the academic life. The grace that God gives us is present in the academic life, in the chapel, and in everything we do. The life shouldn’t be a mere recharging of the battery.

The finality of the sexes

Saint Thomas studies the image of God in man — homo — distinct from animal. Only rarely does he distinguish vir from mulier. If he defines virtue, or stealing, he doesn’t think there is a difference in the way it plays out in men and women. The whole question of developmental pedagogy and the differentiation of the sexes is hardly touched by Saint Thomas. These questions are raised today. Sexual identity plays a role in the way we react. Descartes introduced into modern thought the notion that the body was secondary. This is a form of the denigration of the body which traditional philosophy and theology had rejected. The Church has to respond to this, via meditation on the data of creation. We can draw out from the symbols of the faith ideas already germinally contained therein. The answer to the question of our ultimate vocation must take into account the unchanging gift of our sexuality, a gift from our very beginning. This is a gift which conditions our human nature, which is male or female, and so the sexual identity of our human nature will condition the way we receive and live out the grace of God. The assimilation of grace doesn’t destroy nature but elevates it. There are some who aren’t clear in the sexual identity because of genetic reasons. This is a medical problem, and medicine can facilitate the clarification of a sexual identity. There are also medical techniques to give the appearance of a sexual change. This is a moral problem studied today in bioethics. The fact that there are some people with flawed sexual identity does not lead to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a sexual identity. So we can raise the question about the specific vocation of the sexes, and how each sex is conditioned by grace.

There are six questions:

1,2) Why did God create man and woman?

3,4) In what way the divine plan for man and for woman has been changed by sin?

5,6) In what way the natural vocation of man and woman has been transformed by the redemption?

These questions of theological anthropology relate to Mary. The dogmatic statements of the Church on Mary contain a certain answer to the questions raised by contemporary feminism. If we study Mariology in depth, we can try to find some response to the question of what it means to be a woman. Mary’s humanity is the same as ours, just not wounded by sin. The Immaculate Conception means that we can find in a pure state those natural inclinations that are within us, but wounded by sin. The Assumption means that the female soul and body of Mary is in Heaven by God’s plan. There are certainly moments in the life of Mary which are unique.

Why did God create Eve?

What idea did God have behind this creative act? In Genesis, the creation of Eve was the last creative act of God. Had God reflected more? (What is first in the order of intention is often last in the order of creation, according to Saint Thomas ¼ .) Some women will answer by saying that God created women to bear children, which is certainly a task God gave to women. Although the raising of children can give great happiness, to say that their vocation is to bear children would be to say that women who don’t procreate live a flawed life, contrary to their supreme vocation. Procreation, though a beautiful vocation, is not the supreme vocation. The fundamental purpose of the creation of Eve is the overcoming of Adam’s loneliness.

We must probe the spiritual solitude of Adam, and of Adam in the state of original justice. He had God in the garden of Eden. His relationship to God was not marred by sin, yet the Bible said he was alone. The most fundamental vocation of women leads in the overcoming of the spiritual solitude of men and showing men the proximity of God. We must understand what was lacking in his relationship with God. When men reflect upon God, men find God philosophically, giving philosophical definitions. The best definition of God is given by Saint John in the heart of Mary, "God is love." Women have a greater receptivity for the love of God. They therefore have a greater obligation to live this out and to show this to men. It is easier for women than men to discern in a practical way the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. There is always more women than men in the churches. The wives of the Medieval Kings brought their husbands and kingdoms to Christianity. Women not only are more receptive to the living God but have a greater facility for the gift of self, and therefore a greater responsibility.

The image of God is perhaps slightly more visible in women than in men. When a woman is pregnant and breast-feeding, she speaks to the child and communicates in a Eucharistic dimension. The body of a woman is made to give freely. Young teenage girls find great joy in the gift of self. If she is proposed a life of fulfillment in the image of man, she finds it unattractive. Women are happy helping men to love truly. The deepest vocation of a woman is to get man to see the closeness of God, and to love as God wants. In most important matters, like love, women do such great service. A man can find satisfaction in his work much more easily than a woman, if she has no one to love.

When a woman looks at a man, she looks at him in his totality. A man looks in a split screen. He can see a secretary, or a prostitute, or a cook. A woman has a better vision to see more in him than a boss. She can help the man to integrate the levels of his perception. She can help him perceive the integration. Man looks to the principles, but woman can perceive that truth which needs to be said when. Saint Paul exhorts the older women to teach the younger women to love their husbands and love their children (Titus). It is important for women to place the love of a husband over the love of children. In Poland, men are left unloved very often. The love of a woman for her husband requires a greater effort, with grace, than that for children. But when there is mutual love among the parents, there is greater love toward the children. Children are never jealous of the love of parents and are always unstable during a parental fight. If the love between the parents is not real, then the parents become possessive of their children’s love. Mothers then become terrible mothers-in-law.

Growth in love benefits from the mutual exchange. Saint Paul says that man and woman cannot live apart.[16] The Talmud says that God didn’t create woman from man’s head or feet, but from his side. Love is the capacity to draw out the good from another. The Pope says in Redemptoris Mater that in the life of Mary the reflection of the beauty of the loftiest sentiments a human being can offer.[17]

In the light of Genesis we can say that woman has a role toward man. The entire Church is feminine, because the Church expresses the feminine attitude of awaiting in hope and of receptivity. Jesus does not make miracles for women. Mary awaited in faith beneath the Cross, believing in the fecundity of Jesus’ death. Her faith opened the outpost of faith given by Jesus. The experience of Saint Monica awaiting the conversion of loved ones is the experience of the whole Church.


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