When I was considering the religious life, I always thought that it would be a particularly good way to give my life to God. But reading in the novitiate what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about the religious life in his Summa Theologiae really helped me to see why that is the case. I thought it would be fitting, then, for us to take a brief but multi-post adventure into the thought of the Angelic Doctor.
When delving into a small part of a larger work, it is always good to look first at the bigger picture in order to make more sense of our reading. It also helps us to see the author's deeper motivation. Why is he writing this? How does this part fit into his project? From where is this part coming and to where is it going?
In this post we will cover the “big picture” of the Summa and find out how the religious life fits into it.
After devoting the first question of the Prima Pars (First Part) to investigating the nature and extent of sacred doctrine, St. Thomas says the following by way of introduction to the rest of the Summa: "Because the chief aim of sacred doctrine is to teach the knowledge of God, not only as He is in Himself, but also as He is the beginning of things and their last end, and especially of rational creatures, as is clear from what has been already said, therefore, in our endeavor to expound this science, we shall treat: (1) Of God; (2) Of the rational creature's advance towards God; (3) Of Christ, Who as man, is our way to God."
For the sake of completeness, this is how St. Thomas introduces the Prima Pars: "In treating of God there will be a threefold division: For we shall consider (1) Whatever concerns the Divine Essence; (2) Whatever concerns the distinctions of Persons; (3) Whatever concerns the procession of creatures from Him." So, we have (1) God as One (Essence), then (2) God as Three (Persons), and finally (3) creation's procession from God. I must say that, in my years of theological study here at the Dominican House of Studies, I have rather enjoyed my study of the Prima Pars - I would highly recommend it - but this is all we have time to say about it for now.
In introducing the Secunda Pars, St. Thomas says this: "Since, as Damascene states, man is said to be made to God's image, in so far as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement: now that we have treated of the exemplar, i.e., God, and of those things which came forth from the power of God in accordance with His will; it remains for us to treat of His image, i.e., man, inasmuch as he too is the principle of his actions, as having free-will and control of his actions."
In the Secunda Pars, then, St. Thomas will focus on man, who, because he is in God's image insofar as he shares in the faculties of intellect and will, is also (i.e., along with God) the principle of his actions. The religious life is treated by St. Thomas as something that assists in the realization of God's image in us, something by which man as a rational creature advances toward God.
The answer to that question and more will be found in the next installment, in which we will take the grand tour through the first five questions of the Prima Secundae as well as the other 291 questions of the Secunda Pars that precede St. Thomas’s discussion of the religious life. Then we will be ready to settle down for the main course: the meat and potatoes of the religious life according to the Angelic Doctor.
See also: St. Thomas recommends Dominican life - Part II