Thomas Aquinas

On Contemplation

Part I: Thomas Aquinas on Contemplation

Catholics hail him as the angelic doctor. Protestants either deride him as the proud product of medieval scholasticism, or celebrate him as the greatest mind since Paul. Classmates called him a dumb ox. Whether celebrated or derided, not many remember this wonderful servant of God as a man of prayer.[1] This is a sore loss to the church of Christ. 

Our thesis for this series is simply this: That for Thomas Aquinas, contemplation is simply gazing upon the divine truth—and, as such, is to be pursued both for illumination in our pursuits and the increasing of our love for truth. This will be shown both in his teaching on contemplation from the Summa Theologica, and in a study of his actual prayer life. 

In this brief study I will restrict myself to Aquinas’ formulation of contemplation, since it is both the most controversial, and the most illuminating, aspect of Thomas’ prayer life. His theology, in fact, flowed out of his contemplation of divine truth. Indeed, contemplation is the lifeblood of the Summa Theologica.[2] Part one of this series will cover the medieval background of contemplation, segueing into Aquinas’ own formulation of the practice. Part two (coming next week) will explore the actual practice of contemplation and Aquinas’ own prayer life. 

The Medieval Background of Contemplation

The first question to ask is: What is contemplation? In modern English, the term is used almost interchangeably with “meditation”—a word that immediately gives us either a picture of someone sitting and omm-ing, or of a person deep in thought (with a Tylenol nearby, of course). Yet the medieval, spiritual masters thought of “contemplation” in different terms altogether. Many, in fact, differentiated it from meditation. The most basic distinction usually was that meditation was thinking with images, and contemplation was praying without images. Since God is spirit, they thought, union could only be achieved with him through spiritual (aka “imageless”) prayer, spirit facing spirit. Pseudo-Dionysius[3] was the most influential of these medieval theologians, writing about contemplation in books such as Mystical Theology. He emphasized apophatic theology, which spoke of what God was not (e.g. “God is immutable”), rather than cataphatic theology, which spoke of what God is (e.g. “God is light”).[4] Consequently, in order to contemplate the divine we must quiet the mind. As Moses ascended Mount Sinai and witnessed that “dazzling darkness”[5] of God’s goodness, so we must ascend by our spirit into God, who is spirit—being both annihilated and assimilated into his essence thereby.[6] 

Aquinas’ Teaching on Contemplation

Having this background in mind, we may now venture into Aquinas’ own mind on prayer—specifically, on contemplation. Aquinas puts it simply: “contemplation regards the simple act of gazing on the truth.”[7] Aquinas poses no innovation in contemplation. He sees himself as only teaching (and somewhat synthesizing) what the medieval fathers before him had taught on the subject. At the same time, he drew from Aristotle in his explanation of contemplation. 

For instance, Aquinas calls contemplation “the end of the whole human life.”[8] He explicitly notes that he is drawing from Aristotle’s Nicomacean Ethics (10.7) in this notion. Yet he notes the Scriptures as well, acknowledging that while we see “face to face” in the age to come, for now we contemplate only “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). 

Now, we may imagine contemplation as a dull practice, rather cold and formless. It often was, and it often is. Thomas would beg to differ. For, “since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense.”[9] Thus, contemplation’s aim is to enflame the embers of the heart in the knowledge of God. Its end is “the consideration of truth.”[10] And love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). 

Conclusion

In this brief study, we have only begun to touch upon Aquinas’ teaching on contemplation. While we have not yet touched on his actual practice of contemplation (nor his teaching on how to practice it), I encourage you to simply seek the Father in your heart, in this moment. “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Ps 37:4), and “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8); drink of Jesus’ living waters (John 4:14), and eat him up by faith (John 6:56). He created us for his glory (Isa 43:7), and loves us to love him. And “whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Cor 8:3). “And this is the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life,” Thomas states: “namely that the Divine truth be not only seen but also loved.”[11]




[1] Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 172.

[2] Aquinas, we must remember, wrote the Summa as a Dominican friar. The Dominicans aimed at a life of contemplata alis tradere—“[handing] on to others what they had drunk from their own wells of contemplation” (Denys Turner, A Portrait, 32). Thomas wrote the Summa as an enlightened guide for a life of contemplation and good works, not as a grounds for idle speculation. (The Secundae Partis [Second Part] of the Summa is an important piece of practical theology, in this regard, and thus the main source for our present study.)

[3] Many Christians from the 6th till the 19th century took this “Dionysius” as the Athenian judge converted by Paul during his speech on Mars Hill (Acts 17:34). No modern scholar holds that Dionysius himself actually penned this book, and it is generally agreed that the author went under the pseudonym of “Dionysius” merely to establish his authority on these spiritual matters (i.e. the author saw himself as merely drinking from the streams of early Christian spirituality). See James Harpur, Love Burning in the Soul: the Story of the Christian Mystics, from Saint Paul to Thomas Merton (Boston, MA: New Seeds Books, 2005), 50.

[4] Notice how the Epistle of James combines both approaches in his description of God: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:17). With the subject matter of this essay, we could even call contemplation a “good” and “perfect” gift from the unchanging Giver of wisdom (James 1:5-8).

[5] An oft-used phrase by medieval mystics to describe their contemplation of the divine essence.

[6] See Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, written in the 4th century, for an extended treatment of this “ascension” imagery in relation to contemplation.

[7] “But; wherefore Richard says again (De Grat. Contempl. i, 4) that "contemplation is the soul's clear and free dwelling upon the object of its gaze; meditation is the survey of the mind while occupied in searching for the truth: and cogitation is the mind's glance which is prone to wander."

[8] ST 2-2q.180.4.a.2co.

[9] ST 2-2q.180.1.a.

[10] ST 2-2q.180 a.2co.

[11] ST 2-2q.180.7.r.1.