“The Love of Learning and the Desire for God”


by Rev. Joseph Koterski, S.J.
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Fordham University
St. Thomas Day Lecture
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
January 28, 2020
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series


To celebrate the feast of St Thomas Aquinas is to honor a man with a zealous love for learning and an intense desire for God. Each of these is important by itself. Some pursue one and not the other. Some pursue both of these, but as separate enterprises. For Aquinas, they are deeply connected, and he is clear about which of them is the higher end.

I draw the title for this lecture from a book that I hope you will someday read: The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean Leclercq, O.S.B.1 The author is a Benedictine monk, whose aim is to provide an understanding of the heart of monasticism by introducing his readers to a rich array of medieval authors. His method is to show the profound interconnection that these authors saw between – of all things! – grammar and spirituality.

For the proper study of revelation as it is found in the scriptures, the monks needed to be able to read, to comprehend what they were reading, and to read what was deeply nourishing. Leclercq traces his theme as it appears in such well-known figures as Benedict and Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as in a vast range of lesser lights, all of whom were committed to living out the Benedictine motto: ora et labora (work and pray).

The writers under study in this volume composed learned commentaries on the Bible. But not all those who entered monasteries had yet mastered the art of reading anything, and so they also composed countless grammars and other aids useful for advancing in the monastic practice of lectio divina. To use a phrase found frequently in their grammar books, their goal was to help individuals with what they needed in order to pray: meditari aut legere (to meditate or to read). In the spirit of Leclercq’s focus on the connection between grammar and spirituality, I will return in due to time to a consideration of the interesting conjunction used in the phrase meditari aut legere – the word aut (or) is more significant than one might at first think.

Thomas Aquinas, to be sure, was not a monk but a mendicant friar. His education, however, began in the great Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, where he was an oblate from about age seven to about age twelve. The wars then ravaging the region led his parents to bring him home. A bit later he was sent to the newly founded university in Naples. There he met the Order of Preachers and decided to join their ranks. Mindful that there might be family opposition, the friars immediately moved to take Thomas north, to their studium in Cologne. They were right to suspect family opposition, for his own brothers kidnapped him from the Dominicans and imprisoned him in the family castle at Monte Sangiovanni (nowadays, a delightful wedding palace that is a much sought after venue in Frosinone and that I have had the chance to visit twice). The year that he had to spend waiting there failed to dull his desire to join the ranks of the new order. What he had learned of the trivium from the Benedictines proved to be of abiding value to his life as a Dominican friar and to all his subsequent theological work.

Before I turn to a consideration of just how the monks and later the friars were accustomed to read and pray the scriptures and the interesting use of the conjunction aut in the phrase meditari aut legere, let me turn to some important aspects of Thomistic theology. One point to consider is just what Aquinas thought theology was. Another is the character of his doctrine of God. And a third is a surprising argument that he makes in the opening question of the Summa theologiae.


1. Thomistic Theology

A. The Proper Subject of Theology: God and the Things of God.

As Jean-Pierre Torrell shows in detail in his masterful biography of Aquinas,2 there was something quite bold in Thomas’s understanding of what it is do theology.

For the most influential Christian thinker of the first millennium of the Christian West, Augustine of Hippo, theology consisted in the work of the interpretation of the scriptures. Bringing to bear the rich resources of his studies in literature and rhetoric, Augustine (like many a patristic writer) envisions the work of theology to be primarily a matter of understanding the various levels of meaning in the texts of the scripture, the better to draw fruit for the life of faith. From his first Christian works, such as On the Sermon on the Mount, through no less than four commentaries on Genesis and an extensive commentary on the psalms, to such monumental works as On the Trinity and City of God, there is a preponderance of attention given to the task of interpreting the Bible. For Augustine, the Word of God is the central concern of the theologian.

For Bonaventure and many in the Franciscan tradition, the proper subject of theology is Christ and the sacraments. Whether we look to such speculative works as Tree of Life or the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, or to such scholastic projects as the Reduction of All the Arts to Theology, Bonaventure’s approach to theology is deeply Christological. The central image of the Mind’s Journey into God, for instance, is the seraphic Christ. Bonaventure takes this image to provide both a map of the soul’s powers and a route for the progress of a soul to eternal rest in God. Likewise, his Life of St. Francis has a Christological structure. To be sure, this book served as an official replacement for those biographies of the Saint whose authors were so enthusiastic about Francis as to risk turning him into the new center for the Christian religion. But it is also a spiritual theology that sees the Saint as offering a reliable new charism to which his followers can reliably entrust themselves. This is so precisely because Francis let his life wholly be shaped on the life of Christ.

Under the influence of Aquinas, however, theology came to be understood as the study of God and the things of God. Every other topic that is to be included in theology has the warrant for its presence by its relation to God, including creation, the fall, the redemption, the way to understand the Scriptures using its fourfold senses, the Church, heaven, and salvation. In this schema such vital topics as the nature of Christ, the persons of the Trinity, the sacraments, and the relation of nature and grace all have their place within the scientia of theology considered as a field whose proper subject matter is God and the things of God. If we still take it for granted that theology properly understood is about God, it is because of what Aquinas accomplished.


B. The First Question of the First Part of the Summa theologiae.

The perspective that Aquinas chose to take in the opening question of the Summa can be surprising. It might even make us wonder whether we have read it wrong, or perhaps whether some error has crept into the text. He boldly asks whether knowing God requires anything besides philosophy!

However curious that notion might strike us, it is his opening gambit. What he assumes is that the philosophical insight that is built up by human reason is enough for many purposes! What he feels the need to argue for is that human beings do still need divine revelation for their salvation!

In this way, what he takes as obvious seems to be just the opposite of what we might think obvious. But the reasons that he gives for holding that we also need revelation are powerful: some truths about God exceed the reach of human reason. And even with regard to those that human reason can in principle discover for themselves, it will take a long time, not all will be up to the task, and there is the ever present possibility of error. These are indeed good and solid reasons. Granted, it is doubtful that most people would start where he starts or would anywhere near so much credit to philosophy for achieving a knowledge of God. [Clearly, they did not have the chance to study at TAC!]

For many believers, to use a starting point such as this is to start the project on the wrong foot! But Thomas provides in the Summa a sustained effort to show the sufficiency of human reason for answering a vast number of questions. The topics he investigates range from the demonstrations offered for the existence of God, through the attributes of God, the hierarchy of angelic intelligences, the powers of the human soul, the differentiation between the acts by which human beings move toward their end (free choices) and the passions of the soul (eleven in total, systematized into concupiscible and irascible passions) that can be molded into our natural moral virtues, and so on. If I have understood the curriculum here at TAC, you will come to study many of these topics.

On the other hand, he is not afraid to point out questions where he finds human reason insufficient to decide a question and where we need to depend on revelation, e.g., whether the universe is eternal or created in time, how may persons there are in the Trinity, the workings of grace.

From the perspective of the topic that I have chosen for this lecture – the love of learning and the desire for God – what he presents to us in much of the Summa falls heavily on the side of the love of learning – learning about God’s existence, about the world, and about human nature. He uses the ways that Aristotelian philosophy often employs: reasoning from effects back to causes, from plurality back to unity, from experiences back to the principles that make them possible.

What about the desire for God? Where and in what ways do we find it in his approach?


C. Aquinas’s Doctrine of God

On any fair estimate, Aquinas’s doctrine of God (as found, for instance, in the first part of the Summa) is deeply apophatic. This technical term is used in contrast to kataphatic, as a way of differentiating between the position that reason must be extremely cautious and reserved in what we say about God (apophatic theology) and the position that we can be bold and effusive in our language about God on the basis of biblical revelation (kataphatic theology).

In question two of the first part of the Summa Aquinas presents his views on the question of whether one can demonstrate the existence of God. After raising his objections to Anselm’s ontological approach, he sets out his famous five ways. But then his apophaticism quickly comes to evidence. He shows that it is impossible for us to know the essence of God. In a sustained review of the traditional attributes of God, he argues forcefully that there are severe limits to what we can discover about God by reason. And yet his awareness of the limits of our mind when it tries to understand what God is does not in any way dull his desire for God.

In brief, St Thomas holds by reason that we can know more about what God is not than about what God is. God is not finite, not composite, not material, not limited. But as regards what we can know about God, we need to practice a deep-seated and far-ranging humility. In any effort to speak about things like God’s knowledge, God’s power, God’s goodness, God’s justice, God’s mercy, and so on, the best strategy that we have is to start with what is familiar to us from our experience.

Thus, the first step is to consider things like knowledge, power, goodness, and so on. But as a second step, we must then deny that God is in any way limited. We use these words easily when we ponder human cognition or animal cognition, or when we ponder human power, animal power, machine power. But when we use them of God, what we must say is that God is not limited in knowing, or in power, or in goodness. We know most of the things we know by knowing the limits of things, but God has no limits. Third: we can, however, point out the direction in which divine perfection lies: God is all-knowing (omniscient) even though we do not really understand what it is to know everything. God is all-powerful (omnipotent) even though we do not really understand what it is to have all possible power.

By following the pathways of epistemic humility (that is, by admitting that God is not limited in any way and that the best that we can do is to point out the direction in which God’s infinity resides), Aquinas can avoid claiming to know what we do not know and cannot know, and at the same time escape the agnosticism that results from supposing we can know absolutely nothing about God.

It may help to use some images here, so long as we remember that they are but images. We know the direction in which divine perfection lies by pointing toward infinity. Normally, we know things by know their limiting forms, their borders, their boundaries. But in this case there are no such limits, no borders, no boundaries, and so we cannot, as it were, ever in principle get our intellectual arms around what those infinite perfections are. By pointing toward infinity in a given direction, we avoid the hybris of thinking that we can comprehend God. We can be grateful to know something about God, even though we do not know all that we would like to know.

On this subject there is an extremely fine book that you should know about: Josef Pieper’s The Silence of St. Thomas.3 In that book Pieper examines the time in 1273, a year before Aquinas’s death, when he mysteriously ceased writing and gave as his only explanation: “All that I have previously written seems like straw.”

While some biographers think that the problem was some physiological event – perhaps a stroke – Pieper proposes a deeper explanation: that Thomas’s desire for God grew ever greater and at this point he recognized that his desire for God entirely outstripped the possibilities of speech and reason to say anything adequate on the subject.

There is a beautiful stained glass window in the University Church at Fordham that shows a miraculous vision that Aquinas had of Christ from an earlier time, atime when he was back in Naples. It shows Jesus appearing to Aquinas and saying to him: “You have written well of me, Thomas. What do you wish of me?” Aquinas’s simple answer: “Only yourself, Lord.” Now, at this later point of his life, it was not some further philosophical distinctions or some careful treatises that he needed to construct. It was a time for prayer. Let us then turn to that question.


II. Medieval Practices of Reading and Praying

Here are TAC, you have undertaken the study of classic texts by Aquinas and other medieval authors. Have you noticed how many of them quote a wide range of scriptural texts so effortlessly? Did they have the whole of the Bible memorized? No matter what is under discussion, there always seems to be relevant passages to cite. And it is not just Aquinas who manages this, but Anselm and Bonaventure, Scotus and Ockham, and many less famous figures. The deeper one looks into the literature, the more one see how widespread the practice was. Their familiarity with the Bible was much more than most of us can claim.

The explanation is not, of course, that they had nothing else to read or nothing better to do with their time. Rather, it comes from the nature of the education that had been developed in the monastic schools. Part of what made it possible for Aquinas to make his mark by developing a new synthesis for integrating faith and reason and by using even works once thought to be dangerous to the faith (the works of Aristotle) was that he knew the scriptures in a way that is astounding both for its breadth and for depth.

In addition to the formal study of the Bible in an academic context, the medieval figures whom we delight in studying knew the bible from their praying, and especially through lectio divina – a reading (lectio) of scripture that is oriented toward meditatio (meditation) and oratio (prayer).

As Father LeClercq shows us in great detail in his study of monastic culture, reading (even the simplest reading) usually involved pronouncing the words with one’s lips – if not aloud, then at least in a low tone, so that one would hear the sentence that one sees with the eyes. As a result, there comes to be more than a visual memory of the written word. There is also a muscular memory of the words one has pronounced and an aural memory of the words one has heard oneself pronounce.4

The figures that Leclercq cites come from across the medieval period. One of the texts that (I presume) you have read is the Confessions of Augustine. It includes a famous scene of Augustine standing in admiration at Bishop Ambrose’s ability to read silently – a skill so unusual in his day that it stopped Augustine from disturbing the bishop with the questions that he was so eager to pose. Augustine read whatever he read aloud, or at least by subvocalizing what he was reading.5

This appears to have been the way virtually everyone then read. That Ambrose was not even moving his lips amazed Augustine and held him back from pressing the bishop for conversation that day. I cannot help but think that the experience also gave Augustine certain insights about the inner life, insights that contributed to his understanding that the mind is a power of the immaterial soul and to his conviction that there is a whole world that is real but immaterial, in fact even more real than the passing parade of material objections and actions that had held him bound by their fascinating allure.

Until the practice of silent reading became dominant,6 the standard way in which to read involved speaking the text or at least subvocalizing, with the resultant muscular memory and aural memory of which Leclercq speaks.

Part of the situation, of course, was a technical problem. Before the practice of putting spaces between the words became common, reading requires that one sound out a text – that one had to parse it out as one went along. Just as when we speak, we run all the words together without separating them, manuscripts were written in much the same fashion. If you should ever choose to study paleography, or perhaps just to make a visit to the Met or the Cloisters or the Morgan, you will have the chance to see for yourself how sounding out the text is vital to reading it, even for a familiar text.

How does the monastic style of lectio divina help to answer the desire for God? Father Leclercq offers considerable insight about this in his description of how it works as an approach to prayer. By pronouncing the words (either aloud or through subvocalization) in the slow and deliberate repetition of a scriptural text, the one praying can develop a muscular memory of the words pronounced as well as an aural memory of the words heard, and not just a visual memory of the written words on the page. In his view, “the meditatio consists in applying onself with attention to this exercise.... It is what inscribes, so to speak, the sacred text in the body and in the soul.”7

A number of the monastic authors whom Father Leclercq quotes in this regard describe the practice of repeating the words of scripture in this way by such phrases as “mastication” and “spiritual nutrition.” By borrowing the vocabulary here from eating, from digestion, and especially from the chewing typical of flocks and herds, the medieval authors come to speak of prayer as “meditation” and “rumination.” To meditate, Leclercq explains, is “to attach oneself closely to the sentence being recited and to weigh all its words in order to sound the depths of their full meaning. It means assimilating the content of a text by means of a kind of mastication which releases its full flavor.”

To take just one of the many examples Leclercq cites, the Cistercian Arnoul of Bohériss offers this account of lectio divina as prayerful reading:

When he reads, let him seek for savor, not science. The Holy Scripture is the well of Jacob from which the waters are drawn which will be poured out later in prayer. Thus there will be no need to go to the oratory to being to pray; but in reading itself, means will be found for prayer and contemplation.8

The effect of this way of uniting reading, meditation, and prayer is to promote a habit of reminiscence. The verbal echoes of a word can arouse the memory in such a way that a mere allusion will spontaneously evoke whole quotations. A scriptural phrase will naturally suggest allusions elsewhere in the sacred books. Each word is like a hook, so to speak. It catches hold of one or several others that are linked to it. For Leclercq, this habit of association explains much about medieval writers and their facility with scriptural texts. When their citations of scripture differ from what is now the standard text of the bible, it is not that they are quoting from some unknown manuscripts or deliberately modifying the text, but simply that they are quoting from memory.9

An important part of the background here is the culture of silence that typified monastic life. Keeping the silence was a principal obligation of the monks. When they speak, the sound of the voice has an importance greater than we might be inclined to give it in a noise-filled culture like our own. This phenomenon strikes me as similar to the situation with regard to images. Monasteries have relatively few images in comparison with our normal circumstances, and so the images that are shown have greater effect.

The constant flurry of images that is present in our lives has effects that we could easily overlook. It seems to me that we are less affected by images than our forebears were precisely because we have so many of them. And yet we get so used to having the flurry of images constantly about us that we have a hard time even imaging life without all these images. Particularly when we get used to the internet and other electronic media, we can easily acquire the habits of looking mindless at a panorama of images. Even though we find few of them satisfying, yet we tend to scroll through the clusters of images, looking for something exciting or titillating. Yet nothing really fills us.

With a proper consideration of the middle ages, we can get a taste of what it must have been like to live in a world where images were fewer, and what images there were could be better treasured. Likewise, in monastic life we find a world that is primarily silent. In this ambience, it is all the more possible to appreciate the sound of a voice, especially when it is used on texts that speak to the desire for God, and to hear them repeated, over and again, in words that speak to this desire.

While we cannot completely replicate the experience for ourselves, there are interesting things that we can do. For myself, in an effort to engage more deeply in the daily recitation of the divine office, I cherish a practice that I learned from the School Sisters of Christ the King in Lincoln, Nebraska. Whether they are reciting the psalms or chanting them, they have the interesting practice of stopping at the end of each line for two beats before going on to the next verse.

I find it amazing how even that the use of that simple device makes for a more meditative reading of the psalms. After they get used to this rhythm, they don’t need even to tap their finger on the book in the way I had to do at first in order to get used to it. The pause to listen to what they have just read and to get its meaning makes the reading meditative. I find now that I simply prefer this way, whether by myself or with friends to whom I have introduced the practice.

Perhaps we might take a minute to experience this by reading a couple of stanzas of a psalm together. On the back of your handout, you will find the first part of psalm 42. Let me invite you to read it with me. Go ahead and say it aloud, at least softly, and be sure to include the two-beat count at the end of each line as we read it togther:

Like the dear that yearns
for running streams,
so my soul is yearning
for you, my God.

My soul is thirsting for God,
the God of my life;
when can I enter and see
the face of God?

My tears have become my bread,
by night, by day,
as I hear it said all the day long:
“Where is you God?”

These things will I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I would lead the rejoicing crowd
into the house of God,
amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving,
the throng wild with joy.

Now that is just a brief exercise, but imagine making it a habit, such that you prayed this way all the time, and that you repeatedly prayed the psalter in this way. The monks prayed the psalms meditatively at various hours of the day (lauds, matins, tierce, none, vespers, compline). In addition to the visual memory that is probably stronger in our typical way of reading, there would come to be an aural memory through hearing the words sounded, and a muscle memory, and a grasp of what the text means, and a savoring of these words about God that would respond to our desire. The learning that we love in this way could become responsive to our desire for God.


III. Meditation and Contemplation

Now, of course, this sort of meditation is only a starting point for the many ways in which the love of learning can be linked to the desire for God. One of the reasons why this is so important is that a diet of largely apophatic theology and its sense of how little we can properly say about God can end up leaving one skeptical about the prospects of ever knowing God, let alone of enjoying the real friendship with God to which Christ restores us. One might never develop a habit or a taste for real prayer. Thomas shows us the way to real prayer and to real friendship with God, and many who have followed in the steps of St Thomas have gladly followed his lead. To develop this point let me turn to some of the other parts of the long tradition of mental prayer as a way to link the love of learning and the desire for God.

The Ignatian tradition that is my own sphere of experience grew out of this starting point, and so I will use the terminology that is distinctive of St. Ignatius rather than Benedictine terminology in my efforts to describe it. We share with the Benedictine tradition the habit of describing meditation as a kind of rumination or thoughtful chewing on the material. We also recommend the mental prayer of contemplation that does something comparable with images.

Meditation as mental prayer can well begin with the slow repetition of the words of the text but can equally well refer to the thinking that we do about some theme or idea that comes from a biblical passage. For meditation in this sense to work well, it generally proves important to prepare for one’s period of mental prayer by identifying some points for prayer beforehand. If, for instance, one wants to do meditation in the morning, it can be very helpful to look over the text the evening before and to select three or four ideas for one’s rumination.

Then, when we settle down for prayer, what we do is to begin by thinking about the first of the items that we have chosen as a point for our period of prayer: what the words mean, what the events are, what their significance is. We continues this for a while, in order to fill the mind with it. And yet the goal is not simply to keep thinking, but eventually to stop thinking and to start speaking to God about it. That is, to raise mind and heart to prayer from what one has been thinking about.

Just as the monks and the friars spoke of savoring what they read, it is perfectly appropriate to cease speaking and to savor what we have thought and what we have said. We can then stay at a given point through a judicious use of the practice of thinking and listening and speaking. We then stay as long as a given point seems fruitful. It is important to be comfortable with a bit of quiet and then to resume the conversation when it seems right to do so. And when one is ready to move on to the next point that one has prepared, then we are free to do so. This is to make use of the mind in prayer, without letting mental prayer simply become bible study. It is to use the mind for praying.

Where the Ignatian tradition uses the word “meditation” for this ruminative thinking and the prayer to which it leads, we use the word “contemplation” for a ruminative imagining. Now, admittedly, some people have a vivid imagination and can practically see the events in a given biblical story unfold as if it were a kind of film that is running within the mind. But many people – myself included – do not have that sort of imagination. Even so, contemplation remains a real possibility for us. In fact, I think that it has special potential as a way to move from the love of learning to the desire for God.

In entering into any form of mental prayer, it is valuable to prepare before hand. Below I will offer some practical remarks on the practice of contemplative prayer. But first let me focus on another aspect of this preparative stage. For both contemplation and meditation in the Ignatian tradition, the preparation really should begin by deciding on the grace that I want to ask God for. It may be obvious to us what we need, and if so, we do well to start the period of prayer by asking for that grace, and to stick with this aspect of praying for as long as we need to. On the other hand, it may not be so obvious to us about what to ask for.

For this purpose, it can be helpful to have another important type of mental prayer in our quiver: a daily prayerful examination of conscience. In the Ignatian tradition, this is intended as a daily prayer of about ten minutes. It has its own structure: (1) gratitude to God, (2) request for his life, (3) an account of our actions and attitudes and sorrow for any sins that we discover, (4) charting a course for the next day by forming a resolution, and (5) entreating the Lord for the energy and enthusiasm that we need to follow the resolution we have made). I would love to discuss the fine points of this form of prayer, but rather than risk any confusion by going into the details of several different approaches to mental prayer at once, let me simply ask you to focus on just the fourth point: after reflecting on how our day has gone and talking things over with Jesus, we need to chart a course for the next day.

Suppose that we did this prayerful examination of conscience every day, and suppose that the one part of it that we wrote done in a little notebook were our resolution for the next day – something like “Be more patient with Joseph” or “spend a little more quiet time in the chapel” or “be more thankful about the gifts God has given me” or “get creative about how to change the topic and avoid gossip” – whatever! If we were to write down that resolution – some crisp and clear statement about what we want to remember to do or to avoid – I suspect that we would find that over the course of a month, we would probably have written down virtually the same resolution a dozen times in the course of a month. Discovering how frequently something needs to be our daily resolution could easily point us to the grace that we need to ask for at the start of our periods of our mental prayer.

Identifying a grace that we want to ask God for at the start of our prayer period is an important part of our preparations for mental prayer. After we choose the grace we want to ask God for at the beginning of a period of meditation or contemplation, the next step is to decide on a topic for the period of prayer. Here the daily Gospel can be a help. Sometimes they are about the words of Jesus, sometimes about his deeds.

When we come to the actual time for contemplative prayer, what we might then do is to mention (out loud, or subvocalizing) a couple of details, and then try to imagine them. For instance, in the gospel passage that the Church uses for Tuesday on the third week of the year (Mark 3: 31-35), we could begin by imagining the Blessed Mother and some of Jesus’s relatives coming to look for him and finding him inside a house, with the crowd that is trying to get inside the house spilling out onto the porch and the into the yard. We might start by imaging what the house looks like and how the porch is arranged. Then we might see the people – some standing, some sitting, and no way for Blessed Mother even to get close. If seeing that much in our imagination leads us to raise mind and heart to God, no need to go any further in picturing anything so long as we find it possible to do some praying.

When we are ready, we can move on to a few more details. Seeing Blessed Mother, in her discrete and lovely maternal way, whispering a message to one of the disciples whom she recognized, a message that she wants him to pass along to others, and eventually to Jesus, who is inside. Then we stop on that image, and watch her and watch them. If there is fruit for prayer, we stay with that as long as it is fruitful.

There is no need to rush even to the second verse, but there is much more available in the text that can be material for our imagination, and a resting place to us, a place where we can stop and pray. Imagine one person passing the message to the next, and to the next, and eventually it gets to Jesus: “Your mother and your brethren are outside, asking for you.” At any of these stages, we can focus on the vocal as well as on the visual. Perhaps while all the message passing is taking place, we can also hear Our Lord’s voice in the house. We might imagine hearing him explain something to those seated around. And then suddenly we imagine another voice, this time someone giving him the message: “Your mother and your brethren...” – We can stop at this point and try to raise our minds and hearts in prayer, saying whatever we want to say in prayer.

In this style of praying with the mind, the point is not to get to the end of the passage. And yet the ending of the passage is there awaiting us when we want it. In this case, it is a phrase that combines Jesus’s incredible praise for His mother with an invitation to us to be as good a disciple of his as she was: “Who are my mother and my brethren? ... Here are my mother and my brethren, for whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

There is much to ponder here, and much to be a springboard for prayer. Doing the will of God – what does it mean in my present circumstances? Perhaps gratitude for having been made his brother or his sister by our adoption in baptism? Perhaps, with our own version of the associative patterns that the medieval monks and friars loved to cultivate, just looking at Blessed Mother and her utter and complete fidelity to her son over the years. Perhaps asking her to let us accompany her in doing God’s will.


IV. Praying with Aquinas

There are many ways of uniting our love of learning with our desire for God, and many ways of cultivating our desire for God by making good use of our love of learning. Let me close by returning to the last period of Thomas’s life, in the spirit of Josef Pieper’s The Silence of St. Thomas.

During various period of Aquinas’s life he had worked as a papal theologian. When Thomas suddenly stopped writing, the pope at one point intervened, hoping to shake him from his doldrums by sending him to the Council of Lyons that was to meet in 1274. It was most unusual for a friar to ride anywhere in those days, for the asceticism of the Dominican order required that the friars were to walk wherever they went. In his affliction, however, Thomas was riding and inadvertently hit his head on a low-lying tree branch. They immediately carried him to an inn at Maenza to recover, but once he regained consciousness he asked to be taken to a religious house.

The closest place was a Cistercian Abbey at Fossa Nuova. I have had the chance to visit there twice, and thus to see a small set of rooms in the guest house where they carried him. As he started to recover, the monks begged him for some conferences. Thomas tried to decline and urged them to study the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, but at the monks’ insistence he agreed to give some talks on a book very dear to St Bernard, the Song of Songs.

The two conferences he gave are the very last things he composed before death took him. They are, of course, instances of his meditations on a text about love of God, and they reflect his deep-seated desire for God. It is a theme that clearly filled Thomas’s prayer all his life and one that is frequently to be found in important places within works like the Summa as well as in his various commentaries on scripture, as well as in this highly incomplete set of texts on the Song of Songs. Thomas used his love of learning, even in a phase of his life when he could not operate in the way that he had been accustomed to do. Even at the end, he remained a student of the Benedictine tradition in which he had been brought up. Meditari aut legere – to meditate or to read. Learning how to read well can be a way of learning how to meditate. It is not a matter of reading quickly or reading a lot of things but a case of reading well – non multa sed multum – not many things but going into much depth. For Aquinas, this is the union of the love of learning and the desire for God.


1 Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, translated by Catharine Misrahi (Bronx NY: Fordham University Press, 1982 [1961]) from L’Amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu: Initiation aux auteurs monastiques du moyen age (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1957).

2 Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. Saint Thomas Aquinas, 2 vols. Volume 1: The Person and His Work, translated by Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996). Volume 2: Spiritual Master (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003). On the theme of apophatic theology in Aquinas, see especially vol. 2, pp. 25-52.

3 Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas: Three Essays, translated by John Murray, S.J. and Daniel O’Connor (South Bend IN: St Augustine’s Press, 1999 [1957]).

4 Leclercq, pp. 72-73.

5 Augustine, Confessions VI.3.3.

6 For that topic, see Paul Sanger, Space between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998).

7 Leclercq, p. 73.

8 Speculum monachorum I, PL 184.1175, quoted by Leclercq on p. 73.

9 See Leclercq, pp. 73-74.


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