Thomas Aquinas: Man of Prayer

By the time a Catholic student reaches college, they have almost invariably received a holy card with a prayer before studying to St. Thomas Aquinas. And why not? The man remains unequaled in his prodigiousness and perspicacity among Catholic thinkers. The only other person in his ballpark in terms of quantity and quality of impact on Catholic doctrine is St. Augustine. Moreover, St. Thomas is the only person mentioned by name in the Code of Canon Law (canon 252.3) as required for study by seminarians. In short, the guy was the greatest theologian to have ever lived. 


Oftentimes, however, we forget that intellectual brilliance and output does not make a saint. Prayer and complete service to the will of God is the stuff saints are made of and St. Thomas excelled in these categories, one could argue, more than he did in the intellectual life. 


In his seminal two volume work on St. Thomas, Father Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., dedicates the second volume not to the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas, but to his life as a man of deep and profound prayer. The second volume, Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, is a must-read for any one trying to explore the spiritual life of the Angelic Doctor. Torrell highlights the authentically Trinitarian dimensions of St. Thomas' spiritual life. In almost every way, the prayer life of St. Thomas reflects the doxology offered in the Eucharistic Prayers of the Church -- to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.


For our part, we can learn the importance of having an authentically Trinitarian dimension to our own prayer lives by following the example of St. Thomas. 


In his Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, St. Thomas notes , "Whereas the spiritual man is not only instructed by the Holy Spirit regarding what he ought to do... his heart is also moved by the Holy Spirit." (no. 635)  Thus, to be authentically prayerful is to cede control of one's heart to the movement and will of the Holy Spirit. It is not simply enough to pray to God; we must pray with and, in a unique way, as God. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas writes:


Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence. To make this clear, two points must be observed. First, that man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek: secondly, that the perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object... If therefore the human intellect, knowing the essence of some created effect, knows no more of God than "that He is"; the perfection of that intellect does not yet reach simply the First Cause, but there remains in it the natural desire to seek the cause. Wherefore it is not yet perfectly happy. Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man's happiness consists. (ST I-II, 3, 8


Though St. Thomas does not have as well articulated theology of deification as some of the Church Fathers, particularly the Cappadocians and St. Athanasius, he clearly sees the spiritual life as leading us directly to union with God, to becoming one with God. 


In this life, Torrell notes, "God the Father, acting in us through the grace that he accords us by the mediation of Christ thus conforms us to the image of his first-born Son."Our life, therefore, is not about becoming, as some pop theologians would argue, our best selves. Rather, we are called to be remade in the image of Christ. Our best self is Christ, the Incarnate Word who united humanity to divinity. As St. Paul wrote, "Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come." (2 Corinthians 5:17) 


The life of St. Thomas clearly reflected a man devoted to growing in the supernatural life. He had a tremendous devotion to Our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. To this end, he attended the Holy Mass twice each day and wrote the office for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi that is still in use today. Additionally, he prayed, sometimes for hours, before personal study in an attempt to truly know the One whom all his academic work was intended to please and serve. Finally, St. Thomas had a profound love of the Cross and our crucified Lord.


There is a famous story of St. Thomas praying before Our Lord on the Cross. The crucified Lord looked down upon the praying saint and said, "You have spoken well of me, Thomas, what should be your reward." To which St. Thomas gave his famous reply, "Nil nisi te, Domine." (Nothing but you, O Lord.) Whatever your opinion of that story, it clearly shows that the Angelic Doctor was a man deeply rooted in prayer who, through that prayer, was able to set the world on fire with the love and fire that was enkindled in the silence and adoration of Our Heavenly Father.