M.-D. Chenu, O.P.


- Translation of M.-D. Chenu, St. Thomas d'Aquin et la theologie, "Maitres Spirituels," no. 17 (Paris: Seuil, 1960) pp. 65-74.

St. Thomas presents a definitive understanding of the structure and dynamism of contemplation of God, for which he had received gratifying materials from his experience as a Dominican. For, once again, the objectivity and impersonality of his teaching should not lead us to forget his own personal experience that is implied in that teaching.

Was, then, St. Thomas a mystic? The deficiencies of less happy theological outlooks have overlaid the development of vocabulary with double meanings that can hardly be eliminated: the categories ascetic-mystic, like the scholastic-mystic duo, have been among those causing the most confusion. So foreign are these categories to St. Thomas' language and thought that no amount of word-twisting can make them at home in the teaching inherited from St. Thomas. To be sure, these words have some validity on a certain empirical level: on that level there is some justification in using them for teaching purposes, but they cannot be the mainstays of a serious examination of contemplation or of the graced human organism standing behind it. Schools of spirituality, as they are called, are not of course compelled to recognize St. Thomas' analysis of these realities as dogmatic truth: his analysis derives from a theological discipline whose criteria of truth -- even when taken from experiences whose authenticity is guaranteed by the Church -- are to be judged on their own terms as a way of understanding the faith.

According to St. Thomas, divine life is not imposed on the outer surface of our consciousness like some extrinsic addition. Rather, it is poured into the very roots of our being, where it then grows and develops according to the structuring of our nature even while far surpassing our nature ontologically. We can express this by saying that grace is in us as a (super)-nature, that is, as the most intrinsic source -- the most our own and at the same time the most divine -- of a dynamism enabling us to live in communion with God. From it flow forth virtues that enable us to lead lives -- in an organic fashion in all our activities -- as sons of God. First among these virtues are those capacities for properly divine life: faith, hope, and charity, whose very name "theo-logical" God-directed; God-centered indicates that very divine life which they engender in us.

As we have said, faith is -- under love's pressing-on and hope's tending -- the proper organism of contemplation. Thus the contemplative act, whether considered in itself or in its overflow into a person's way of life, is a sort of concentration into one of the contemplative's sharing in the divine life. It is something entirely different from a metaphysical analysis of God or a search for the cause and supreme reason of the world. The contemplative, in his person-to-person relationship with God based on the Gospel reality of thy God-man, as well as in his involvement in the God-man's human history as it continues in the Church, realises and experiences the words of St. John: He who abides in love abides in God and God in him (1 Jn 4:16). It is the elements and values involved in this mutual inhering that St. Thomas develops in a study that is not only metaphysical, but also theological.

In this mutual personal possession, the taking-hold of the beloved through affective love is no merely exterior movement ardently and sweetly enveloping an intellectual act that is ultimately completely distinct from love. That taking-hold is itself transformed through the beloved so as to assume values in the order of knowledge. Love, to be sure, does not take hold of the beloved unless it knows the beloved: love is not itself, nor does it become, knowledge. But the beloved reflects, so to say, the impulse that moves the lover to embrace it. Love modifies the beloved in various ways, rendering the beloved more conformed, more proportioned, more united to the person of the contemplative; it thereby flows back upon the knowledge That was required for love in the first places. In some way love penetrates into the contemplative's gaze in order to enrich it intellectually and to open it to every kind of going beyond itself. It is a love that gazes. An experience in which the soul, in the secret point from which its highest activity surges, is passive.

The contemplative experiences a sweet attraction to which his love responds -- a sweet attraction of the beloved Who in this case is the Ineffable. He recognizes in Him, beyond even what he can grasp of Him intellectually, that One the vision of Whom alone can satisfy his immeasurable longings. The eastern mystic Dionysius described it as a passio divinorum -- an "undergoing" of the divine realities --, and Thomas readily repeats this phrase.

In such an experience one goes in some ways beyond the "virtue" of faith's normal rhythm (that is, assent to divine truth formulated in human terms). The flowing back of love upon knowledge and into knowledge, that love which is unsatisfied so long as it has not gained the total reality of the beloved, intensifies the light of faith toward a grasp of the Ineffable. It is an interior penetration that cannot be reduced to the conceptualizing that is an inevitable law of faith when it is exercised as a virtue. It is, a grasp that is formed in us by an operating movement of the Spirit, Who is Personal Love in the life of God; it is formed in us not as an operation added over and above our live of grace, but as the very completion in our spirit of the most vital movement aroused in it by love.

In order to locate this singular operation within the organic capacities of our supernatural life, St. Thomas has recourse to a term that is traditional in Christian language and experience, a term that is not without some foundation in the language of the Bible, that is, the term "gift" of the Holy Spirit. In different ways theologians before him had more or less successfully located these gifts among the spiritual categories. St. Thomas not only locates them but gives them their proper value, seeing them at the peak of the living organism of grace. The gifts for him are powers whose origin and qualities we appropriate to the Holy Spirit. They are "gifts" because they are in the truest sense of the word gratuitous graces deriving from the caprice and spontaneity of two loves. They are powers none the less possessed organically by man and therefore not something extraordinary, not something received in a passing whirlwind in which I would be disconcerted or lose control of myself.

These gifts -- whose many-faceted manifestations St. Thomas describes psychologically and classes under the seven traditional categories -- form a normal and integrating part of my organism: there, without disturbing the unity of my organism, two keyboards of action play together in harmony. Faith, hope, and love maintain their direction of me and bring me into union with God -- and at the same time the instinct of the Spirit soften the stiffness of my interior structure of faith, hope, and love, and lead-me to go beyond "reasonable" ways of acting that can neither satisfy love nor imprison the Spirit. "Freedom of the Spirit": with these words there wells up in St. Thomas' theological analysis not only his personal experience but also the text of the Gospel and St. Paul, all of them extolling in a Pentecostal ambiance the normal going beyond the way of life of the commandments whose role is to constrain one towards the good.

At this point we meet a curious reference in St. Thomas: once again he has recourse to Aristotle in order to discern the infra-structure of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Philosopher had already observed the case of those "fortunate" men who achieve success without recourse to reason, even virtuous reason, men who simply followed a happy instinct inscribed within their very physiology. A strange break with normal patterns, observes this moral rationalist, for in such persons a weak role for reason in accompanied by a reinvigoration of the soul's principle of movements. Aristotle calls it a divine instinct, without to be sure in any way ascribing its source to some theological transcendent. With consummate skill St. Thomas takes up this pagan's reflection in order to give a basis within nature itself for the supernatural resources of the gifts of the Spirit, located beyond the "reasonable" conditions in which we operate.

In order to express the originality of these gifts, later authors have frequently used the comparison of the sailor who puts out his sail in the direction that the wind sweeps in, whereas the virtuous oarsman has to stick to his own carefully planned and laborious efforts. Anyone can see the value of this comparison as well as its limitations; by contrast the Aristotelian-inspired analysis instructs us about the very nature of man under grace. Here we have a beautiful example of theology, a theology that some, because they remain on the level of imagination, have accused of naturalism.

For several centuries a number of influences, among them the pressure exerted by certain interactions between the human and the ecclesial spheres, the effects produced by a different theology of man and grace, an almost morbid fear of mystical imprecision, resentment against Protestant interiorism, led to the almost complete dominance of spiritualities that ignored St. Thomas' architecture and viewed in an entirely different manner the human-divine resources of grace. Ascetical and mystical; acquired contemplation and infused contemplation; ordinary graces and extraordinary graces: these categories, heated to fever pitch by controversies, do not lack, as we have said, some practical usefulness for describing "graces of prayer." But they mask over the profound understanding as well as the Gospel tempering of St. Thomas' theology.


No doubt few would hesitate to use the term "interior life" to designate this spiritual ensemble in which contemplation, as a rough sketch of the beatific vision, governs and expresses in its most secret depths the mystery of a communion with God. It is certainly true that no better way than this lofty view of the organism of grace could give an explanation of the absolute inferiority of God's presence. Intimior intimo meo: this expression of St. Augustine tallies admirably with both the personal experience and the theology of St. Thomas. For him mystical passivity is in fact the highest activity of the spirit because he sees in God's action not some aid supplementing my personal work but rather a creative presence inserted into the roots of by being as well as an ontological source of my liberty under grace.

The expression, "interior life," has within itself, however, certain confusing overtones, and the history of its usage displays a serious disequilibrium of the orginal axis of both doctrine and spirituality: that is why it is not found in St. Thomas' ordinary vocabulary. If there is one definitive quality in his doctrine, it is certainly the primacy he gives, in his very analysis of psychological structures, to consideration of the objects involved, and this to situate the powers of the soul and to define the virtues residing in them. It is not the effort put out, not the renunciation, not the impact on the affections, not the interior estates that are the rules and supreme values of the spiritual life. These are found instead in positive adherence to the [objective], realities in which man finds his good and to which the virtues adapt him as their ends. For him psychological consciousness, with it feelings and introspection, remains a secondary phenomenon; furthur still, neither grace nor God's presence are perceived by this psychological consciousness; even the experience given by the gifts is not itself essentially linked to any particular psychological phenomenon.

The descriptions given by the great spiritual authors of the 16th century of their experiences are an admirable material for theologizing; they must not, however, be an occasion for our slipping over into psychologism. For psychologism, virtue is determined by the effort of the will or by the difficulties involved; the goodness or evil of an action is judged by its relation to a command; conscience settles its problems by calculating probabilities; the order within a community is made to rest on decrees; faith is presented primarily as obedience; love is measured in terms of merits. For Thomas, to be sure, several virtues, especially temperance and fortitude, are deployed for the good of the subject: the virtuous man, cultivating them in order to discipline himself, does take himself as an object, concerned as he is to be good and sound. But all this is done only with reference to a loftier undertaking: we must in no way be satisfied with this subjective excellence, but must gain thereby for ourselves the freedom to give ourselves over to objects that, because they surpass man, have the power to make him grow to their level.

This last is true in the highest degree of the theological virtues. God becomes our object, if indeed we may use this word to designate a Being who cannot be an object, as if He were juxtaposed before another who is the creature. But we do understand each other, for everything we have said about the God-directed life, including theology itself, would be vitiated if the creature's powers did not carry within them an objective character from the very beginning. Whether in adhering to the Word of God, or in hoping with assurance in His saving plan, or in loving complacency at sharing His beatitude, or in diving brotherhood with other men, interior recollection is surely the radical condition for the unending efforts of the soul towards moral perfection. But perfection and recollection are governed by the divine objects with which the soul has entered into communion.

This objectivism can be seen visibly in the human equilibrim of the contemplative himself who would if he centered his attention on his "interior life," be tempted to underestimate virtues that turn him towards exterior operations, and this in the name of assuring his own silence and peace. In his solitude he might well forget not only his ardent desire for the salvation of the world but also the human condition itself. The human condition cannot be conceived of or realised except in society, that vital milieu invigorated by the complex of virtues gathered under the general name, "justice." At issue here is the common good, a good more divine, St. Thomas says, than individual perfection. Now the primacy of the common good not only links individual goods to the community, but makes objective, sometimes with great demands, ways of acting that good intentions would not suffice to sustain or intersubjective wills make legitimate. Justice, including political justice, confers on brotherly love its necessary dimensions, dimensions that the most generous fervour would not be aware of.

The mose significant case is that of obedience, that virtue on which every human community turns. In their psychologism, certain spiritual authors treat obedience as an ascetic virtue that would derive its value and find its rule of action in the very submission of the subject in order to achieve a perfection thought to be guaranteed by this very submission. For St. Thomas obedience does, to be sure, involve submission, but this submission finds its reason and value only in that it is directed towards achieving a common good, that common good which the organization of human groups in hierarchical fashion is meant to serve over and above the perfection of individuals. It is not the condition of being subservient that is cause for satisfaction, but rather the service of the common good which this condition seeks to attain: and the will of the superior must itself be subject to this common good.

My virtue receives its objective foundation and enlightenment from this common good, not from my relationship of subject with respect to the one who holds power. There should be no lessening of my concern for true and just judgment, and such judgment will not be satisfied by the judgment of the superior in place of my own, even at the very moment when virtuous obedience makes my will supple, prompt, and joyful in obeying the command I receive. Neither in love, nor in justice, nor in obedience are perfection and truth completed and brought to perfection through subjective relationships of one person to another human person. It is the object that governs, much more so when it is God who has become the rule of my life in liberty of the Spirit.

"Aristotle, when asked where he had learned and where he had learned so much, replied, 'In things, which do not know how to lie"' (St. Thomas, Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent).

- Translation of M.-D. Chenu, St. Thomas d'Aquin et la theologie, "Maitres Spirituels," no. 17 (Paris: Seuil, 1960) pp. 65-74.

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