Purity and Intelligible Light

Today being the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas on the new calendar, I have been thinking about the peculiar clarity that marks his theological work. The clarity seems to come partly from a sort of purity: a complete concentration on the object without any personal tint, like pure water that gives a clear reflection. Some find this “impersonal” character of St. Thomas’s writings boring, but I find a peculiar beauty in it. Perhaps it is not quite right to call it “impersonal,” I think St. Thomas’s judgement is not based merely on “detached” reasoning, but also on a deeply personal connaturality with the divine mysteries. Recall his own account of connaturality:

Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learnt the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality. (IIaIIae, Q 45, A2, c)

It is notable that St. Thomas gives the example of a chaste man as one who can judge from connaturality. Chastity, in the sense of the virtue of purity seems to have had a particular importance to his own life. As Michael Waldstein (my father) argues:

St.Thomas seems to have had a particular love for temperance, and within temperance for purity, as a virtue of compelling beauty. If St. Francis had a preferential love for poverty, St.Thomas had one for purity.And so he advances the thesis that honestas is part of temperance in the sense of attaching particularly to this one virtue. To see St.Thomas’s complete understanding of purity, one must also consider what he says about the religious vow of chastity, as an aspect of the holocaust of love which defines religious life. “Religious life . . . is a kind of whole burnt offering (holocaust) by which someone totally offers himself and all things that are his to God.” Clearly, here we are in contact with the heart of St. Thomas’s own sanctity translated into thought. (p. 429)

I think their is a real connection between the purity of St. Thomas’s heart with regard to sensual pleasure, and the purity of his thought. To a person formed by moral virtue the sensible world is clear reflection of the glory of the Creator, but to the person drawn by disordered passion toward the sensible good this clarity is darkened. And that darkening is particularly evident in disordered love of the most intense pleasure, which nature has (very wisely) given to the act which brings forth new life. As St. Thomas says in his treatment of the daughters of lust:

When the lower powers are strongly moved towards their objects, the result is that the higher powers are hindered and disordered in their acts. Now the effect of the vice of lust is that the lower appetite, namely the concupiscible, is most vehemently intent on its object, to wit, the object of pleasure, on account of the vehemence of the pleasure. Consequently the higher powers, namely the reason and the will, are most grievously disordered by lust. (IIaIIae, Q 153, A 5, c)

One can see the effect of St. Thomas’s purity more clearly by contrasting him with another theologian: Peter Abelard. In The Story of My Misfortunes, Abelard notes that great theologians have been especially strong in chastity, but that he began to lose this virtue:

But prosperity always puffs up the foolish and worldly comfort enervates the soul, rendering it an easy prey to carnal temptations. Thus I who by this time had come to regard myself as the only philosopher remaining in the whole world, and had ceased to fear any further disturbance of my peace, began to loosen the rein on my desires, although hitherto I had always lived in the utmost continence. And the greater progress I made in my lecturing on philosophy or theology, the more I departed alike from the practice of the philosophers and the spirit of the divines in the uncleanness of my life. For it is well known, methinks, that philosophers, and still more those who have devoted their lives to arousing the love of sacred study, have been strong above all else in the beauty of chastity. Thus did it come to pass that while I was utterly absorbed in pride and sensuality, divine grace, the cure for both diseases, was forced upon me, even though I, forsooth would fain have shunned it. First was I punished for my sensuality, and then for my pride. For my sensuality I lost those things whereby I practiced it… (c. V)

He then goes on to describe his affair with Heloise, and then describes its effects on his intellectual life:

In measure as this passionate rapture absorbed me more and more, I devoted ever less time to philosophy and to the work of the school. Indeed it became loathsome to me to go to the school or to linger there; the labour, moreover, was very burdensome, since my nights were vigils of love and my days of study. My lecturing became utterly careless and lukewarm; I did nothing because of inspiration, but everything merely as a matter of habit. I had become nothing more than a reciter of my former discoveries… (c. VI)

Now if one compares the superficiality and clever sophism of Abelard’s Scito Teipsum with the luminous profundity of St. Thomas, it is hard not to think that part of the cause lies in the one lacking purity and the other possessing it.

3 thoughts on “Purity and Intelligible Light

  1. Exactly: “On the other hand, beauty is in the moral virtues by participation, in so far as they participate in the order of reason; and especially is it in temperance, which restrains the concupiscences which especially darken the light of reason. >>>>Hence it is that the virtue of chastity most of all makes man apt for contemplation<<<, since venereal pleasures most of all weigh the mind down to sensible objects, as Augustine says (Soliloq. i, 10)." ST II-II q. 180, a. 2 ad 3.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This has always been a favorite text of mine and why I find it particularly fitting that the Dominicans have the Angelic Warfare Confraternity since it is also a work ordered to contemplation.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on the theological beard and commented:
    At the beginning of “Glory of the Lord: Vol. 3”, Hans Urs von Balthasar takes issue with St. Thomas being impersonal. At least that is how I took his comment. It didn’t strike me as being quite right though I couldn’t quite put my finger on way. This post from Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist. is a good response to von Balthasar.


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