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Thomas and the Experience of God

by Fr. Inos Biffi

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    Short article by Fr. Inos Biffi for the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, January 31, 2014

In his intention to consecrate himself to the “zealous study of Wisdom”, Thomas Aquinas declared that his entire effort would be aimed at “showing clearly the truth which the Catholic faith professes and eliminating the contrary errors”:“his every word and disposition must ‘speak God’” (Summa contra Gentiles, I, 2). The theologian’s profession was his supreme interest in life: his time and his works were to be entirely transfigured by sacred doctrine and thus by the exercise of his intellect, which theology both includes and demands. Moreover, he was convinced that all of reality had its beginning and end in God, just as all of reality is closely oriented and destined to return to him — and in fact, it is on this circularity that the Summa Theologiae is based.

“Almost all philosophical reflection”, he wrote, “is ordered to the knowledge of God”, he wrote (Summa contra Gentiles, I, 4, 3) which represents “the apex of human inquiry” (ibid.). It could be said that the Angelic Doctor was unable to conceive of a true philosophy that is objectively and sensibly atheistic, and therefore unable to admit a “laïcité” — to use a recurrent modern term, used in an incredibly confused way — which did not entail a radically religious quality. In a certain sense, I believe that no thinker has perceived the presence of God in reality as clearly as the Angelic Doctor did, above all thanks to his sensibility with regard to “being”, the “being” which pertains to beings but especially belongs to God, to the point that it is his essence and definition.

By examining the beings of experience, he clearly perceives that they do not subsist by themselves; they exist in as much as they are called into existence by an absolutely transcendent and incomparable Cause, outside any “genus” (extra genus) (Summa Theologiae, I, 6, 2, ad 3), on which they radically depend, as on their source, which is equivalent to saying that they are created by the “first Being” (ibid., I, 3, 1, c). In fact, to be created means exactly: to receive being; while to create means “to give being”: “To create is to give being” and to give being “ex nihilo” (from nothing) — as Thomas clarifies (Scriptum super libros Sententiarum, I, 37, 1, 1) —that is, without anything assumed or preexisting. In other words, to be created means to pass from “non-being” absolutely to “being” (Summa Theologiae, I, 45, 1). These substances “were brought from non-being to being by creation” (De Substantiis Separatis, 18), wherefore “there can be nothing among those things that are which does not come from God, universal cause of all being” (Summa Theologiae, I, 45, 2, c). Furthermore, all beings need to be kept in being by God. “The being of every creature depends so much on God that these [creatures] would not subsist even for a second but would be reduced to nothing, unless they were conserved in their being by the work of divine power” (ibid, 104, 1, c). Concerning these presuppositions, one might speak of the “familiarity” of Thomas, philosopher and theologian, with God: a familiarity of thought, of “profession”, and a familiarity of life. We know from biographers how ardent and assiduous his prayer was, yet, in this sense two significant evaluations emerge.

The first thing to say, before anything else, is that he had such a vivid sense of God's transcendence, of his unattainableness. He would repeat: “In the present (life) our intellect is united to God by coming to know what he is not” (In Dionysii de Divinis Nominibus, 13, 3); “We, to speak more truly and correctly, know what God is not” (In I Sententiarum, 34, 3, 1, c); “We have no name which is adequate, or a definition which sufficiently comprehends God” (De Potentia 7, 5, ad 6); “In this life, the more perfectly we come to know God, so we understand that all the more does he surpass that which our intellect can grasp of him” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 8, 7, c); “God’s essence always remains hidden to us; the greatest knowledge we can have of him here below consists in recognizing that he transcends what we can think of regarding him” (De Veritate, 2,I, ad 9).

Neither the philosopher nor the theologian — although they speak about God with certainty — have him at their absolute disposition, and in this sense both move within the opacity of faith, they work within the world of signs, since he inhabits inaccessible light and his being remains radically incomprehensible and unfathomable. Hence their constitutive religious sense, humility, and even gratitude, aware of how in every instant they are beings held in being by the “memory” of God, by the divine gift of being.

The second consideration to make known is that according to St Thomas it is not only possible to seek God and to be united to him by means of the knowledge — with the limitations mentioned above — of the intellect but also through the knowledge which comes from love, wherein knowledge finds its completion: “Love is the terminus (end) of knowledge”, affirmed the Angelic Doctor (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 27, 4, IM); “by the flame of charity is given the knowledge of the truth ” (Super Evangelium Iohannis, c. 5, lect. 6). To use his own words: “For there is true wisdom whenever the work of the intellect is perfected and brought to completion through a peaceful resting and an affectionate love” (Super secundam epistolam ad Corinthios, c. 13, lect. 3).

Thomas aligns himself here with the school of Pseudo-Dionysius, an author he knew well and who profoundly influenced him, although he was critical of his neo-Platonic vision of reality. Likewise, he distinguished clearly between “learning” and “experiencing”, discere divina and pati divina (Summa theologiae, I, 1, 6, 3m).

We recall here a particularly illuminating text from the Commentary on the Sentences: “In some, wisdom is present by virtue of study and learning doctrine, joined to a sharpness of intellect”, and then we are dealing with an intellectual virtue; “in others, however, it is found thanks to a certain affinity for divine things (affinitas ad divina), as Dionysius of Hierotheus says (De Divinis Nominibus, 2), that such a one learns divine things by suffering them — as the Apostle says: ‘the spiritual man judges all things’, and it is written in 1 Jn 2:27 ‘his anointing teaches you about everything’” (In III Sententiarum, 35, 2, I, I, sol. I).

To conclude, Thomas writes: “some are lamps only in regard to their office, but as regards love they are extinguished: for as a lamp cannot illuminate unless it is lit by fire, thus a spiritual lamp does not shine unless it first burns and is inflamed by the fire of charity. Therefore a burning ardor is placed before enlightenment, because knowledge of the truth is granted by an inflamed charity” (Super Evangelium Iohannis, c. 5, lect. 6). Anyone who neglects these texts by Thomas would have a limited knowledge of him.

© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2014

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