Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas. By Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, 2014.
Subtitled 358 Ways Your Mind Can Help You Become A Saint from the Summa Theologiae, Practical Theology is a sustained attack on the widespread attitude that faith and reason are polar opposites. St. Thomas Aquinas is one of the great theologians of all time, but it is easy for contemporary readers to get lost in his work. St. Thomas’s writing style contrasts significantly with today’s prose. The average contemporary reader prefers writing that can be read easily and without excessive strain, and even dedicated students of theology may find it difficult to read one of Aquinas’s books from cover to cover as they would a novel.
Kreeft wrote this book as a tribute and a guide to an author he deeply respects. In his introduction, Kreeft writes:
“In a lifetime of browsing through Aquinas, my amazement has continually increased not only at his theoretical, philosophical brilliance and sanity but equally at his personal, practical wisdom, his “existential bite.” Yet this second dimension of St. Thomas has usually been eclipsed by the other. I wrote this book to help bring that sun out from its eclipse. Since I already wrote an annotated anthology of St. Thomas’ purely rational, philosophical wisdom, Summa of the Summa, extracting it from its larger theological context of faith and divine revelation. I here try to redress the balance with an easily digestible sample of his much larger distinctively religious wisdom.
Here are 358 pieces of wisdom from St. Thomas’ masterpiece the Summa, which are literally more valuable than all the kingdoms of this world because they will help you to attain “the one thing needful,” the summum bonum or “greatest good,” the ultimate end and purpose and meaning of life, which has many names but which is the same reality. Three of its names are “being a saint,” “beatitude” (supreme happiness) and “union with God.” That was my principle for choosing which passages to use: do they help you to attain your ultimate end, i.e. sanctity, happiness, union with God?
St. Thomas would have agreed with Leon Bloy, who often wrote that in the end there is only one tragedy in life: not to have been a saint.
This is the same thing as attaining true happiness. St. Thomas, like Aristotle, meant by “happiness” not merely “subjective contentment” but “real perfection,” attaining the end or “final cause” or purpose of your very existence.”
The purpose of this book is to show just why St. Thomas is relevant to today’s world. All too often, the leading theologians of centuries past are dismissed as inaccessible, or of use only to the medieval era. Kreeft makes a point of illustrating how the moral lessons in Aquinas’s work are not just useful to life in the twenty-first century, they are vital to living a just and virtuous life.
“The ultimate reason we must become holy is that that is the only way to become real. For becoming holy is becoming what reality ultimately is, i.e., what God, the ultimate reality and the touchstone for all reality, is: true, good, and beautiful; real, loving, and joyful. “You must be holy because I the Lord your God am holy” was His ultimate explanation of His law to His chosen people, who were His collective prophet to the world.
Attaining this end depends on the will– the will to attain it, the will’s choice to believe God, to hope in God, and above all, to love God and that which God is (truth, goodness, beauty).
But the will depends on the mind. Each truth about God known by the mind is a new motive for loving Him with the will. It also works the other way around: the more you love any person (human or divine), the more you want to know him (or Him) better, and the more you do. And this always causes deep joy.”
Each of the three hundred fifty-eight subjects in this book is about a page long, with very few being slightly shorter and a small handful being a bit longer. Each starts with a short introduction to the subject matter, such as “Religion,” “How to Interpret the Bible,” “The “Problem of Evil,” “God and Evil,” “The Greatest Sin,” “Is Sin Due to Ignorance?,” “Passion and Responsibility,” “Why We Need “Organized Religion,”” “Grace and Free Will,” “The Fear of God,” “Anger,” “Why Christ Had to Die on the Cross,” “Why Socrates was the Greatest Philosopher,” “Three Meanings of the Eucharist,” “Denying Communion to Public Sinners,” “Excommunication,” “The Resurrection of the Body,” “Damnation,” “Limbo: Reasons for Its Existence,” “The Amount of Time You Spend in Purgatory,” and “What St. Thomas Didn’t Say,” plus a few hundred more topics.
Each topic follows the same basic format. The subject being studied is numbered and listed at the top of the page. Kreeft writes a brief introduction to the topic, and then a short excerpt from Aquinas’s work is printed in boldface. Immediately afterwards, Kreeft rephrases and summarizes Aquinas’s main points, all in an attempt to explain it to a contemporary audience. Sometimes a joke or a fable is referenced in order to make the moral more accessible to the modern reader.
“This is St. Thomas’ book, not mine. I am only one hungry, homeless bum calling to my friends: “Look! Free steak dinners over there!” He supplies the steak, I supply only the sauces. Thus his words are in boldface type, mine are not. My comments that follow each quotation do not mean to add to what St. Thomas says but only (1) explain it, (2) apply it, and (3) festoon it, like a Christmas tree. Or, better, they unwrap the Christmas presents St. Thomas gives us. They are not scholarly theological commentaries but more like what the Jews call midrash: spiritual commentaries: practical, personal, existential, “livable” thoughts. I have formatted these readings as answers to questions that real people actually ask their spiritual directors.”
Kreeft is not doing his own work justice. Kreeft is performing a public service by making Aquinas accessible to today’s readers. He is working as a kind of translator and annotator, taking Aquinas’s wise words from past centuries and reiterating and rewording them so that readers can see the value of Aquinas’s arguments and understand how they apply to their everyday lives. Aquinas can be daunting to many readers, and Kreeft is not dumbing Aquinas down, he is developing ways to help today’s readers connect to a challenging but brilliant man’s work.
Practical Theology is an outstanding educational work and a terrific way of making Aquinas’s work accessible to the contemporary reader. The book should be read carefully and reflectively. A dedicated reader might want to devote just a few minutes a day to this book, studying one topic every day, taking time to savor the ideas expressed inside the page of text and thinking thoroughly about how one is actually living out one’s religious faith and pondering how to improve and do better in the future. At the rate of just one subject a day, a reader could complete the book in just under a year, beginning on New Year’s Day and finishing around Christmas. Or one could sit down and read the book from cover to cover. The only wrong way to read a book like Practical Theology is to never pick it up at all.