"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


What the study of theology owes to the interior life

Often this study remains lifeless, whether viewed in its positive, or in its speculative and abstract aspect. Sometimes it lacks the noble inspiration and influence of the theological virtues and of the gifts of understanding and wisdom. Hence theological wisdom is sometimes not that "savory knowledge" which St. Thomas speaks of in the first question of the Theological Summa.

At times our mind is occupied too much with dogmatic formulas, in the analysis of their concepts, in the conclusions deduced from them, and it does not by means of these formulas penetrate the mystery of faith sufficiently to taste its spiritual sweetness and live thereby.

Here it is fitting to state that a number of saints, who were incapable of such serious studies as we engage in, penetrated these mysteries of faith more deeply. Thus St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catharine of Siena, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, and many others, who certainly did not attempt to analyze in an abstract and speculative manner the dogmatic concepts of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Eucharist, and did not deduce theological conclusions that are known to us. Yet from the fountainhead of these mysteries with a holy realism they drew abundant life for themselves.

Through the formulas they reached by a vital act, in the obscurity of faith, the divine reality itself. As St. Thomas says: "The act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing," (74) in a revealed truth.

Even without the great grace of contemplation, a number of very good Christians, by humility and self-denial, penetrate in their own way the depths of these mysteries. And if this fact is verified in these good Christians among the faithful, with far more reason it must be verified in the religious or priest who has truly understood the dignity of his vocation. Daily the priest must celebrate the Holy Sacrifice with a firmer faith, a more vivid hope, and a more ardent charity, so that his Eucharistic Communion may be almost every day substantially more fervent, and not only preserve but also keep on increasing in him the virtue of charity.

St. Thomas well says: "The more a physical motion approaches its terminus, the more it is intensified. It is just the opposite with a violent motion (the throwing of a stone). But grace inclines in a way similar to that of nature. Therefore (as the physical motion of a falling stone is always accelerated), so for those who are in a state of grace, the nearer they approach the end, the more they must increase in grace"; (75) because the nearer they approach God, the more they are enticed or drawn by Him, just as the stone is drawn toward the center of the earth.

If our interior life were to receive such increase of grace every day, it would have a most favorable influence upon our study, and each day this would become more vigorous. Thus study and the life of prayer are causes that interact in beautiful harmony.

The fruit of this mutual influence

When the priest's interior life is one of great and solid piety, his theology is always more vigorous. After this theologian has made the descent from faith for the purpose of acquiring theological knowledge by the discussion of particular questions, he desires to return to the source, namely, to ascend from the theological knowledge thus acquired by the discussion of particular questions to the lofty peak of faith. The theologian is like a man who is born on the top of a mountain, for instance, Monte Cassino, and who afterward descends into the valley to acquire an accurate knowledge of individual things. Finally this man wishes to return to his lofty abode, that he may contemplate the whole valley from on high and in a single glance.

There are some men who prefer the plains, but others are more attracted by the mountains: "Wonderful is the Lord on high." (76) So the good theologian must daily breathe the mountain air and derive from the Apostle's Creed an abundance of spiritual nourishment for himself, and also, at the end of the Mass, from the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, which is, as it were, the synthesis of all Christian revelation. Daily, in like manner, he must live his life on a higher plane, directed by the Lord's Prayer, the beatitudes, and the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety, which is a synthesis of all Christian ethics in its wondrous elevation.

When the priest has, as he should have, the spirit of prayer, then his interior life urges him to search more in dogmatic theology and in moral theology for that which savors preferably of vitality and fecundity. For then, under the influence of the gifts of understanding and wisdom, faith becomes more penetrating and savory.

Then the most beautiful quasi-obscurity in Christian doctrine becomes apparent, or the harmonious blends of light and shade which, like chiaroscuro in a painting, hold the intellect spellbound and are the subject of contemplation for the saints. As an example of this, gradually all the great questions of grace are reduced to these two principles: on the one hand, "God does not command what is impossible, but by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou art able, and to pray for what thou art not able to do," as St. Augustine says, who is quoted by the Council of Trent against the Protestants.(77) On the other hand, against the Pelagians and Semipelagians we have: "For who distinguisheth thee? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received?" (78) As St. Thomas says: "Since God's love is the cause of goodness in things, no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will greater good for one than for another." (79)

These two principles taken separately are clear and most certain; but their intimate reconciliation is very obscure, the obscurity resulting from too great a light. To perceive this intimate reconciliation, we would have to see how infinite justice, mercy, and liberty are reconciled in the eminent Deity.

Likewise there is another example; for in proportion as the interior life develops within us, so much the more do we realize the sublimity of the treatise on the Incarnation accomplished for the purpose of our redemption; and we are especially impressed with the motive of the Incarnation of the Son of God, "who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and became man."

In the same way, under the influence of a life of prayer, the treatise on the Incarnation is presented to us in a more striking light, and among the various opinions concerning the Sacrifice of the Mass we more and more realize that the teaching of the Council of Trent surpasses them all, when it states: "The victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the Cross, the manner of offering being different." (80) Increasingly Christ appears as the high priest, "always living to make intercession for us," (81) especially in the Mass, which is therefore of infinite value. Thus we gradually discover in the councils those most precious adamantine rocks, and likewise in the Theological Summa the dominant chapters or the more sublime articles are by degrees made known to us, which are, as it were, the higher peaks by which the whole mountain range is clearly outlined.

If we were to apply ourselves to the study of theology in a true spirit of faith, prayer, and penance, we would find verified in us these words of St. Thomas: "Doctrine and preaching proceed from the fullness of contemplation," (82) somewhat in the manner of the preaching of the apostles after the day of Pentecost.

Theology, understood in this sense, is of great importance in the ministry of souls. It thoroughly imbues a priest with the spirit of sound judgment according to the mind of Christ and the Church, so that souls are exhorted to strive after perfection in accordance with true principles, by showing one, for instance, that according to the supreme precept, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart," all Christians must strive after the perfection of charity, each one, however, according to the manner of his state in life.

And we cannot reach this fullness of perfection in the Christian life unless our lives are profoundly influenced by the mystery of the Incarnation in its redemptive aspect and by the Eucharist, and unless, by faith, enlightened by the gifts of wisdom and understanding, we penetrate these mysteries and taste their sweetness. For this, indeed, the study of theology is of great help provided it be properly directed, not for the satisfaction we get from it, but for the purpose of knowing God better and for the salvation of souls.

Thus these beautiful words of the Vatican Council become increasingly possible of verification in us: "Reason, enlightened by faith, when it seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, attains by a gift of God some, and that a very fruitful, understanding of mysteries; and this both from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows, and from the relations which the mysteries bear to one another and to the last end of man."(83)

The study of sacred theology, which sometimes is hard and arduous, though fruitful, thus disposes our minds for the light of contcmplation and of life, which is, as it were, an introduction and a beginning of eternal life in us.

Index Top


74. Summa theol., IIa IIae, q. 1, a.2 ad 2um.

75. Com. in epist. ad Hebr., 10: 25.

76. Ps. 92: 4.

77. Denz., no. 804.

78. 1 Cor 4:7.

79. Summa theol., Ia, q.20, a.3.

80 Denz., no. 940.

81. Heb. 7: 25..

82. Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.188 , a.6.

83. Denz., no. 1796.


"A man should keep himself down, and not busy himself in mirabilibus super se."

St Philip Neri

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"God speaks to us without ceasing by his good inspirations."

The Cure D'Ars

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"The Lord has always revealed to mortals the treasures of his wisdom and his spirit, but now that the face of evil bares itself more and more, so does the Lord bare his treasures more."

St John of the Cross, OCD - Doctor of the Church

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