Thomas Aquinas

The Prayer Life of Aquinas

Part II: The Prayer Life of Thomas Aquinas

In part one of this short series, we addressed Aquinas’ medieval background and his definition of contemplation. For our second post, we will address two main questions: (1) how do we practice contemplation according to Thomas’ teaching, and (2) how did Aquinas himself put his own teaching into practice? To restate the thesis: 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.

Contemplating the Truth

According to Thomas, the angels have it easy. While “angels immediately perceive the truth in their intellect, we have many means of arriving at the contemplation of the truth.”[1] Angels, being solely intelligent beings without bodies, always see God (see Matt. 18:10). Humans, in contrast, need various means to contemplate God. One popular way of contemplating the truth in Aquinas' day was the practice of lectio divina ("sacred reading"). To put it simply, this practice entailed the full attention of the reader, who would mediate deeply on the sacred text. One would usually mutter the words under their breath, letting the living word engage the senses and, through hearing, enlighten the eyes of the heart (see Rom 10:8, 17; Eph. 1:8). It was a practice meant to engage both the heart and the mind, letting both be illuminated by the light of the word. Many contemporary writers have taken the practice on strange twists and turns, even combining it with Buddhist practices and renaming it “centering prayer.”[2] Aquinas would have taken it to mean simply reading the Scripture aloud, and meditating on the truth therein. His whole Summa Theologica, in fact, is an example of lectio divina put into writing—an extended meditation on divine truth written for thirsty seekers of the Triune God.[3]

A Man of Prayer

As noted in the introduction to the previous post, not many know Aquinas as a “prayer warrior.” Sure, a theologian with a towering intellect; sure, an unassuming writer able to clearly (if sometimes ponderously) communicate divine truths; but a man of prayer? To the contrary! “[It] is a pity,” writes Denys Turner, “that what Thomas has to say about prayer is so sorely neglected in the secondary literature, if only because his own practice of prayer was so essential a part of his practice as a theologian.”[4]

One of Thomas’ closest disciples reveals both his “master’s” method and life of prayer: 

"Brothers, I was forbidden by my Master [Aquinas] to reveal during his life the marvels I had seen. One of those marvels was that his knowledge, which so wondrously surpassed that of other men, was not due to any human skill, but to the merits of his prayers. For whenever he would study, or dispute, or read, or write, or dictate, he would first betake himself to prayer in secret, and there with many tears would implore light wherewith to search rightly into the secret things of God."[5]

Notice here how Thomas’ oratio (prayer) flowed naturally into contemplatio (contemplation). Crying out to his Father “who sees in secret” (Matt. 6:6), he gained the gracious light of God “to search rightly into the secret things of God.” He did not search, however, into what God has mercifully hidden from us (Deut. 29:29), but into what he has graciously revealed to us in Christ (1 Cor 2). 

A Lesson for our Contemplation

Students of the Scriptures (myself included) often rush into the sacred writings without even a thought to ask God for his light. Yet, as the psalmist prays, “In your light do we see light” (Ps 36:9). Furthermore, while the unchanging Father of lights (James 1:17) never rebukes us for drawing near to him, asking for his wisdom (1:5), we “have not because [we] ask not” (4:2). And our desires in praying are crucial. And while we do indeed have the very Spirit of God within us by his grace, we still must gratefully receive “the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2:12). We must always remember, before any study, that we only understand anything by God’s grace; his omniscience is our supply. Any study may be an encounter with the living God, if our desires are aligned with his (1 John 5:14). Aquinas took refuge in God’s omniscience, and only from this ground did he contemplate his essence. 


In this series we have briefly studied (1) the medieval background for Aquinas’ teaching on contemplation, (2) Aquinas’ own definition of contemplation as found in the second part of his Summa Theologica, (3) Aquinas’ teaching on the practice of contemplation, and (4) Aquinas’ own practice of prayer. While we may not possess even a half of a quarter of Thomas’ intelligence, we can certainly practice a part of what we he taught—with the help of the Trinity, of course. By his glorious grace we cry out to our Father who deeply loves and dearly cherishes us (Rom 8:15) by his Spirit groaning within us (Rom. 8:26-27) with the Son who is ever-interceding for us (8:34). And in this very grace we contemplate “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39), the Love who desires our desire to be filled in him (Ps 37:4). In this way, by the sacred Scriptures, we may contemplate the truth of God.

[1] ST 2-2q.180.3.a.

[2] Thomas Kelly is one contemporary teacher of “centering prayer.” For a good explanation of and counterpoint to this practice, see Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York, NY: Dutton, 2014).

[3] Readers may refer to footnote 2 in Part One for a further explanation of this point. Aquinas gives six steps on contemplating divine truth through creation in ST 2-2q.180

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

[5] Thomas Aquinas and Hugh Pope, On Prayer and the Contemplative Life (Paternoster Row, London: R & T Washbourne, Ltd., 1914), 8. The disciple continues to go into the results of such prayer: "And by the merits of such prayer it came to pass that, whereas previous to his prayer he had been in doubt about the subject of his study, he always returned from it illumined. And when any doubtful point occured to him before he had recourse to prayer, he went to pray, and what had previously been obscure was then Divinely made clear to him” (Ibid.).