"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Tuesday, 28 January 2014


St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thirteenth Century 
by Josef Pieper  

From the opening chapter of Guide to Thomas Aquinas | January 28, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

So bound up is the life of St. Thomas Aquinas with the thirteenth century that the year in which the century reached its mid-point, 1250, was likewise the mid-point of Thomas' life, though he was only twenty-five years old at the time and still sitting at the feet of Albertus Magnus as a student in the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Cologne. The thirteenth century has been called the specifically "Occidental" century. The significance of this epithet has not always been completely clarified, but in a certain sense I too accept the term. I would even assert that the special quality of "Occidentality" was ultimately forged in that very century, and by Thomas Aquinas himself. It depends, however, on what we understand by "OccidentaIity." We shall have more to say on this matter.

There exists the romantic notion that the thirteenth century was an era of harmonious balance, of stable order, and of the free flowering of Christianity. Especially in the realm of thought, this was not so. The Louvain historian Fernand van Steenberghen speaks of the thirteenth century as a time of "crisis of Christian intelligence"; [1] and Gilson comments: "Anybody could see that a crisis was brewing." [2]

What, in concrete terms, was the situation? First of all we must point out that Christianity, already besieged by Islam for centuries, threatened by the mounted hordes of Asiatics (1241 is the year of the battle with the Mongols at Liegnitz)—that this Christianity of the thirteenth century had been drastically reminded of how small a body it was within a vast non-Christian world. It was learning its own limits in the most forceful way, and those limits were not only territorial. Around 1253 or 1254 the court of the Great Khan in Karakorum, in the heart of Asia, was the scene of a disputation of two French mendicant friars with Mohammedans and Buddhists. Whether we can conclude that these friars represented a "universal mission sent forth out of disillusionment with the old Christianity," [3] is more than questionable. But be this as it may, Christianity saw itself subjected to a grave challenge, and not only from the areas beyond its territorial limits.

For a long time the Arab world, which had thrust itself into old Europe, had been impressing Christians not only with its military and political might but also with its philosophy and science. Through translations from the Arabic into Latin, Arab philosophy and Arab science had become firmly established in the heart of Christendom—at the University of Paris, for example. Looking into the matter more closely, of course, we are struck by the fact that Arab philosophy and science were not Islamic by origin and character. Rather, classical ratio, epitomized by Aristotle, had by such strangely involved routes come to penetrate the intellectual world of Christian Europe. But in the beginning, at any rate, it was felt as something alien, new, dangerous, "pagan."

During this same period, thirteenth-century Christendom was being shaken politically from top to bottom. Internal upheavals of every sort were brewing. Christendom was entering upon the age "in which it would cease to be a theocratic unity," [4] and would, in fact, never be so again. In 1214 a national king (as such) for the first time won a victory over the Emperor (as such) at the Battle of Bouvines. During this same period the first religious wars within Christendom flared up, to be waged with inconceivable cruelty on both sides. Such was the effect of these conflicts that all of southern France and northern Italy seemed for decades to be lost once and for all to the corpus of Christendom. Old monasticism, which was invoked as a spiritual counterforce, seems (as an institution, that is to say, seen as a whole) to have become impotent, in spite of all heroic efforts to reform it (Cluny, Citeaux, etc.). And as far as the bishops were concerned—and here, too, of course, we are making a sweeping statement—an eminent Dominican prior of Louvain, who incidentally may have been a fellow pupil of St. Thomas under Albertus Magnus in Cologne, wrote the following significant homily: In 1248 it happened at Paris that a cleric was to preach before a synod of bishops; and while he was considering what he should say, the devil appeared to him. "Tell them this alone," the devil said. "The princes of infernal darkness offer the princes of the Church their greetings. We thank them heartily for leading their charges to us and commend the fact that due to their negligence almost the entire world is succumbing to darkness." [5]

But of course it could not be that Christianity should passively succumb to these developments. Thirteenth-century Christianity rose In Its own defense, and in a most energetic fashion. Not only were great cathedrals built in that century; It saw also the founding of the first universities. The universities undertook, among other things, the task of assimilating classical ideas and philosophy, and to a large extent accomplished this task.

There was also the whole matter of the "mendicant orders," which represented one of the most creative responses of Christianity. These new associations quite unexpectedly allied !hemselves with the institution of the university. The most important university teachers of the century, in Paris as well as in Oxford, were all monks of the mendicant orders. All in all, nothing seemed to be "finished"; everything had entered a state of flux. AIbertus Magnus voiced this bold sense of futurity in the words: Scientiae demonstrativae non omnes factae sunt, sed plures restant adhuc inveniendae; most of what exists in the realm of knowledge remains still to be discovered. [6] 

The mendicant orders took the lead in moving out into the world beyond the frontiers of Christianity. Shortly after the nuddle of the century, while Thomas was writing his Summa Against the Pagans, addressed to the mahumetistae et pagani, [7] the Dominicans were founding the first Christian schools for teaching the Arabic language. I have already spoken of the disputation between the mendicant friars and the sages of Eastern faiths in Karakorum. Toward the end of the century a Franciscan translated the New Testament and the Psalms into Mongolian and presented this translation to the Great Khan. He was the same Neapolitan, John of Monte Corvino, who built a church alongside the Impenal Palace in Peking and who became the first Archbishop of Peking.

This mere listing of a few events, facts, and elements should make it clear that the era was anything but a harmonious one. There is little reason for wishing for a return to those times—aside from the fact that such wishes are in themselves foolish.

Nevertheless, it may be said that in terms of the history of thought this thirteenth century, for all its polyphonic character, did attain something like harmony and "classical fullness." At least this was so for a period of three or four decades. Gilson speaks of a kind of "serenity." [8] And although that moment in time is of course gone and cannot ever again be summoned back, it appears to have left its traces upon the memory of Western Christianity, so that it is recalled as something paradigmatic and exemplary, a kind of ideal spirit of an age which men long to see realized once more, although under changed conditions and therefore, of course, in some altogether new cast.

Now as it happens, the work of Thomas Aquinas falls into that brief historical moment. Perhaps it may be said that his work embodies that moment. Such, at any rate, is the sense in which St. Thomas' achievement has been understood in the Christian world for almost seven hundred years; such are the terms in which it has repeatedly been evaluated. Not by all, to be sure (Luther called Thomas "the greatest chatterbox" among the scholastic theologians [9]); but the voices of approbation and reverence have always predominated. And even aside from his written work, his personal destiny and the events of his life unite virtually all the elements of that highly contradictory century in a kind of "existential" synthesis. We shall now speak of these matters at greater length, and in detail.

First of all, a few remarks regarding books.

The best introduction to the spirit of St. Thomas is, to my mind, the small book by G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas. [10] This is not a scholarly work in the proper sense of the word; it might be called journalistic—for which reason I am somewhat chary about recommending it. Maisie Ward, co-owner of the British-American publishing firm which publishes the book, writes in her biography of Chesterton [11] that at the time her house published it, she was seized by a slight anxiety. However, she goes on to say, Etienne Gilson read it and commented: "Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St. Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book." Still troubled by the ambiguity of this comment, Maisie Ward asked Gilson once more for his verdict on the Chesterton book. This time he expressed himself in unmistakable terms: "I consider it as being, without possible comparison, the best book ever written on St. Thomas. . . . Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a 'clever' book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called 'wit' of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. . . . He has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas." Thus Gilson. I think this praise somewhat exaggerated; but at any rate I need feel no great embarrassment about recommending an "unscholarly" book.


[1] Fernand van Steenberghen, Le XIIIe siecle. In Forest, van Steenberghen, and de Gandillac, Le Mouvement doctrinal du Xle au XIVe siecle. Fliche-Martin, Histoire de l'Eglise vol. 13 (Paris, 1951), p. 303.

[2] Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (London and New York, 1955), p. 325.

[3] Friedrich Reer, Europaische Geistesgeschichte (Stuttgart, 1953), p.147.

[4] Marie-Dominique Chenu, Introduction a l'etude de St. Thomas d'Aquin (Paris—Montreal, 1950), p. 13.

[5] Gustav Schnurer, Kirche und Kultur im Mittelalter (Paderborn, 1926), II, p. 441.

[6] Liber primus Posteriorum Analyticorum, tract. 1, cap. 1 Opera Omnia. Ed. A. Borgnet (Paris, 1890), tom. 2, p. 3.

[7] C. G. 1,2.

[8] Gilson, History, p. 325.

[9] Joseph Lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1939), I, p. 352.

[10] Heidelberg, 1956.

[11] Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York, 1943), p. 620. 

The Spirituality of St. Thomas Aquinas
We see Aquinas's spiritual self-understanding reveals his deep personal love for Jesus Christ in the words that he spoke before receiving the blessed Eucharist for the last time: "I now receive you who are the price of my soul's redemption, I receive you who are the food for my final journey, and for the love of whom I have studied, kept vigil, and struggled;

We see Aquinas’s spiritual self-understanding reveal his deep personal love for Jesus Christ in the words that he spoke before receiving the blessed Eucharist for the last time: “I now receive you who are the price of my soul’s redemption, I receive you who are the food for my final journey, and for the love of whom I have studied, kept vigil, and struggled; indeed, it was you, Jesus, that I preached and you that I taught.”

While some categories favored by recent spiritual authors, such as religious experience and community, do not figure as key notions in Aquinas’s writings, both his philosophical and theological treatises provide rich sources of insight about the human experience of transcendence and man’s mystical bond with God. It is customary to identify three strains of mystical teaching that appear in the works of Thomas Aquinas: Being-mysticism, Bridal-mysticism, and Knowledge-mysticism.


The twentieth-century German theologian Josef Pieper once suggested that Aquinas should have been known as Friar Thomas of the Creation. For while St. Thomas, as he himself testifies, did everything out of an unstinting love for the incarnate Son of God, the surpassing riches of Christ never kept him from drawing the full theological implications of St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world God’s invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”

As the Catholic faith teaches that the created order witnesses to the existence of a God who entirely surpasses every form of finiteness and contingency, Aquinas can argue that the human experience of transcendence is founded on the causal relationships that bind the created person with the Creator. By appeal to the real distinction in created beings between their specific identity (essentia) and their actual existence (esse), Aquinas unequivocally excludes all forms of pantheism or panentheism.

St. Thomas instead describes an ordering that obtains between intellectual creatures and God and that establishes the basis for a certain kind of justice: Reverence for and submission to an utterly transcendent God are among the dispositions that religion requires of the human person. Of course, to acknowledge an acquired virtue of religion in no way prejudices the fact that the only perfect worship of God remains that which is revealed by Jesus Christ and is practiced in the Church of faith and sacraments.

Aquinas’s appreciation for creation as providing the basis for an analogical knowledge of the supernatural order lies at the heart of his Being-mysticism, for which the most celebrated commentator remains the German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1327).


Aquinas also would have merited the title Friar Thomas of the Incarnation. For as commentary on the magisterial documents that affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ, Aquinas’s discussion of the metaphysics of the Incarnation ranks among the best in this genre of Christian literature. Aquinas locates the supreme moment of alliance between God and man in the hypostatic union. In the person of the Son, a human nature comes together with the divine nature, without either one thereby suffering division or mixture.

As the primordial wedding between God and mankind, the Incarnation makes a personal relationship between God and human persons possible; for each member of the human family becomes an adopted son or daughter of God only in the one incarnate Son.

Aquinas’s Bridal-mysticism emphasizes the intimate communication with God that Christ’s mission makes possible for all persons. So while the human person can approach the Creator in a spirit of reverence and submission, only those who are sons or daughters in Christ dare address God using the familiar name: Abba, Father. Aquinas’s explanations about the person and life of Christ — especially his salvific death, his Virgin Mother, his mystical body, which is the Church, and the sacraments — all serve to explain how this privileged form of personal communion with God begins and develops in the Christian believer.

As Aquinas’s own deathbed prayer witnesses, the blessed Eucharist preeminently realizes his Incarnation-centered mysticism, for at the moment of Holy communion the Christian believer is joined with the person of Christ as present under the sacramental signs of bread and wine. The Sienese Dominican Catherine Benincase (1347-1380), who, while herself communicating, received a mystical ring as a symbol of her extraordinary spiritual union with Christ, best represents Aquinas’s Bridal-mysticism. Moreover, her indefatigable defense of Christ’s mystical body points out the ecclesial aspect of communio that Aquinas assumes as the foundation for all true Christian mysticism.


On Aquinas’s account, the theological virtue of faith is first of all a perfection of the human mind. Under the impulse of divine grace, God moves the human will to assent to truths that surpass reason’s grasp and for which God therefore serves as the only source and guarantor. But theological faith also effects a marriage between the human person and God. In one of his short works, the Exposition on the Decretales to the Archideacon of Todi, Aquinas cites the biblical text from Hosea, “I will espouse thee to me in faith,” in order to emphasize the mystical dimension of Christian belief. Thus, Aquinas teaches that this virtue leads the human person not only to a cognitive grasp of revealed truth, but also to an authentic embrace of the divine Persons that such truths represent.

The transformation of the human intellect that faith achieves in the believer is the beginning of the new life that charity establishes in the person. By the gracious condescension of the divine Goodness, charity makes the human person a lover of God, and this love reaches its earthly perfection in the affective beholding of God that Aquinas calls “contemplation.”

For Aquinas, contemplative prayer forms part of the ordinary dynamic of Christian mysticism. The spiritual elitism that characterizes certain European mystics of the seventeenth century, such as the Spanish priest Miguel Molinos (c. 1640-1697) and the French clairvoyant Madame Guyon (1648-1717), finds no support in the works of Thomas Aquinas. On the contrary, as his teaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit makes plainly evident, the theological life of faith and charity develops into a form of habitual connaturality that makes the felt experience of God a swift matter of ease and joy. Aquinas himself provides a peerless illustration of this Knowledge-mysticism.


You may have been far away from books by and about St. Thomas Aquinas lately. If so, Crisis suggests the following books, both new and old, to renew your acquaintance with the perennial philosophy and, as Father Cessario points out, its inexhaustible spirituality.

Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings, translated and edited by Simon Tugwell, Paulist Press, 1988: Tugwell’s 150-page introduction to his selection of Aquinas’s texts, stressing the importance of his theological reflection and biblical commentary, is one of the most refreshing essays written on St. Thomas in years. The Summa of the Summa, edited by Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, 1990: There is no better way to find shortcuts through the Summa than to be led by one of our nation’s leading Thomists and Catholic apologists. Ralph McInerny, A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists, University of Notre Dame Press, 1990: McInerny brings both his humor and concision to a volume intended for those who want the arguments of St. Thomas, not biography or history. The latter is included in McInerny’s marvelous St. Thomas Aquinas, University of Notre Dame, 1982. Joseph Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas, University of Notre Dame Press, 1987 (out of print). Along with Chesterton’s Dumb Ox, Pieper’s short masterpiece still makes the most persuasive case for Aquinas’s historical and contemporary importance. St. Thomas On Politics and Ethics, edited by Paul Sigmund, W. W. Norton & Co., 1988: Fascinating combination of newly translated primary texts, historical documents, contemporary interpretations, and debates. Very useful in understanding the twentieth-century importance of Thomism in controversies over natural law and social ethics. The Ways of God: For prayer and meditation, Sophia Institute Press, 1995: Although only apocryphally attributed to St. Thomas, this marvelous handbook of spirituality is now reprinted as a pocket-sized book. In 1273, shortly before his death, Aquinas experienced the utter nothingness of his vast literary output. “I can write no more,” he told his secretary, “for all that I have written seems like straw in comparison to what I have seen.” Perhaps Aquinas’s own biography more forcefully demonstrates how he conceived the immediacy of the mystical experience than do his unsurpassed writings on the Christian life.


Cessario, Romanus. “The Spirituality of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Crisis (July/August, 1996).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.


Romanus Cessario, O.P., is a Dominican and teaches systematic theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts.
Copyright © 1996 Crisis 



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