Aquinas on Contemplating Scripture

In the introduction to his Commentary on the Gospel of John, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that he is going to approach the Gospel the way that Isaiah experienced God in the Temple. As Isaiah described it: “I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the whole house was full of his majesty, and the things that were under him filled the temple.” (Isaiah 6:1)

Seeing is the key experience here. Aquinas thought that John’s Gospel offered a special approach to God that works for everyone. Aquinas quotes Saint Augustine: “The other Evangelists instruct us in their Gospels on the active life; but John in his Gospel instructs us also on the contemplative life.”

Perhaps surprisingly for many Christians today, Augustine and Aquinas did not see the Christian’s active life and his contemplative life as somehow mutually exclusive. Medieval society was a tapestry of completely interwoven strands, which meant, for example, that even artisans organized in guilds had constant reminders of their faith in the guild feasts and celebrations.

They saw their crafts as having a sacred dimension to them where the active and contemplative aspects of life came together as they properly should. The People of God in the Old Testament would have been comfortable with that, too. Which does not mean that they always got it right. Aquinas himself had a ferociously busy active life of teaching and advising both Church and secular officials. And yet he engaged in contemplation and did this through the medium of the Scriptures.

The American theologian Matthew Levering makes the claim that: “Aquinas considers the Gospel of St. John to be the model of the contemplative ascent to knowledge of the triune God.” That is what we are created for. And we cannot let the restricting effects of the secular world – and who these days does not find it omnipresent and oppressive? – overshadow the full scope of human existence, which is meant to be a preparation in this life on earth for the ascent to life in God.

Furthermore, the reality of seeing our eternal destiny as deeply implicated in the inner life of the All-powerful God should also throw light on what we do now in this life. The murkiness that we feel from the social, political, and historical forces around us right now should not be allowed to overshadow the wonder of where the Lord is guiding us in his Providence, right here, while we are on earth.

*

As Isaiah wrote so long ago: “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you working such deeds for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:3) He got it right, supremely right. God is working with each of us in deeply personal ways. Let’s not underestimate Him because we cannot imagine what He could be doing. Our imagination is not a limit on what God is accomplishing, minute by minute.

This is the actual Christian life that otherwise seems so very busy and rushed. It almost seems as if contemplation on Scripture is the very last thing that the average active Christian could imagine as a normal part of the day.

Isaiah spoke about the fact that we “wait” for God. If we do that, in the first place, we come to a more accurate picture of the love of God. It’s similar to having a good friend; the experience illuminates our life in the here and now. Stepping out of the rush, even for a short time, throws light on the overpowering presence of God for us. Remember again Isaiah in the temple. The experience relativizes everything else. It puts things in their proper order vis-à-vis our union with God, which is our oasis even in the middle of earthly life.

Stepping out of the rush also helps us to confirm that we have and are following the true God. Aquinas taught that Scripture is our sure handhold against the many idols. Much spiritual growth involves pulling down the idols to which we have sold ourselves. Whether I am preoccupied with my own importance, or with power or money or vice, I have to detach from these figments of my imagination. If I presume that I am God’s gift to the Church or to the world, if I read Scripture, I will discover the many ways in which I am not. Reality quickly sets in if I start reading a psalm or one of Paul’s letters.

A second discovery is that our image of God grows to be ever truer. Our image of God from twenty or forty years ago gets purified and deepens. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Aquinas explains that Isaiah’s vision of the real God is high and full and perfect: “it is high: I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; it is full: the whole house was full of his majesty; and it was perfect: and the things under him filled the Temple.” Moreover, it is full of love. John was able to better express the vision of Jesus Christ because he was the one Christ loved.

Here is the true core of contemplation, friendship with Jesus Christ: “I have called you friends because I have revealed to you everything that I have from my Father.” (John 15:15) Scripture takes us, in unexpected and marvelous ways, into that friendship.

 

*Image: The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1631 [Museum of Fine Arts, Seville, Spain]. In this altarpiece, originally for the Dominican College of Seville, St. Thomas is lifted up to heaven where Christ, Mary, Paul, and Saint Dominic await. Immediately below are four other Doctors of the Church: Saints Gregory, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Further down are Dominican churchmen and laymen.

You may also enjoy:

Randall Smith’s The Active and Contemplative Life

Pope Leo XIII’s Scripture Is the Bulwark of the Church (from Providentissimus Deus, 1893)

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