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St. Thomas Aquinas warns us not to make this mistake in the spiritual life


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Nicholas Senz - published on 10/25/19

Is this causing you to stop short of reaching God Himself?

A great fact of the moral life is that no one chooses to do wrong for its own sake. Whenever we sin, we do it because we have convinced ourselves that our choice is actually good—that ours is a special circumstance, that the end justifies the means, that we deserve what we’re after, that this feeling is worth it. Whatever we pursue, we do it because we think it good.

Another aspect of this truth is that sometimes we choose lesser goods over greater goods. Here we aren’t choosing something that’s outright evil, but rather favoring something inferior, or treating it like a superior. We fall into this error when we value creation over the Creator, letting our desires settle on the goods of this world rather than on the good God who gave them to us.

We can even make this mistake in matters of faith! We take parts of our religion or tradition and focus on them, holding them up before our eyes and obscuring God who should be our all in all.

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St. Thomas Aquinas points this out when he talks about the relationship between our knowledge of God and our love of God. Now, on the one hand, the medievals all affirmed that knowledge leads to love. The two should feed into each other in a spiral of growth in holiness: knowledge of God increases our love of Him, and our love spurs on our desire to know Him more.

But, says the saintly scholar (or is he a scholarly saint?), it’s all too easy for us to end up settling upon our knowledge of God rather than God Himself. Because we come to know God, not directly, but through the mediation of our senses and our intellect, we can end up being drawn “sometimes for the love of the thing seen, sometimes for love of the very knowledge one acquires by observation.” (ST II-II, q. 180, a.1, c.)

Drawn by a desire for union with the divine and seeking greater knowledge as a means to that end, we stop short of God Himself. Instead, we develop a love of the study of God, or of godly things, rather than a love of God in and for Himself.

In our own age, largely marked more by image than scholarly pursuit, we might say this translates to a love for God’s tokens — memes and quotes on social media, or even spiritual statues to adorn our homes, or jewelry to adorn our bodies — than love for God himself and a true spiritual life.

This tendency is exemplified by an old joke. A theologian dies, and finds himself standing before St. Peter. St. Peter gives the theologian a choice: to his right are the pearly gates of heaven, and inside the theologian will experience the Beatific Vision, seeing God face to face and having every desire in his being perfectly and eternally fulfilled. On his left is a lecture hall, and inside the theologian will find an academic conference on the Beatific Vision, complete with keynote address, two rebuttals, and a panel discussion to close.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the theologian chooses the lecture hall.


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We find this tendency in many facets of our lives. We’d rather watch a football game on TV then get outside and toss the pigskin. We’d rather re-watch every episode of The Great British Baking Show than try our own hands at a Victoria sandwich. We’d rather read an inspirational quote from a saint about the rosary than actually pick up our own beads and pray.

We must resist the temptation to settle for less. We must follow God’s call to enter into communion with Him all the way until we find the Lord Himself. If we become so enamored of the map we sit down to study it, we’ll never reach our destination, nor will we be much help in assisting others to it. By all means, read, study, and grow in the knowledge and wisdom of holy things. Buy books by the saints and read commentaries of Scripture. But don’t stop there. Finish the race.


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