Gazing on the Truth
By Sister Thomas More Stepnowski, O.P., Ph.D.
“Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere” to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of contemplation, is the ideal at the heart of the Dominican Order.1 Contemplation in Dominican spirituality is neither reserved to an esoteric realm for the intelligentsia nor to a state solely reserved for clergy and religious, but it is a generously bestowed gift from God that, in turn, is to be shared with humanity. Reverend Gerald Vann, O.P., an English friar and well-known author on the spiritual life, maintained that contemplation is the “vocation of everyman,” which implies that a response to this vocation includes offering to others.2
St. Thomas broadly defines contemplation as “the simple act of gazing on the truth” (ST II-II, 180, iii, ad 1). The personal response to the truth may be expressed in various forms, whether in the perception of the elegance of the mathematical equation, the appreciation of a beautiful statue, or the recognition of a generous action. These examples are laudable and a person may see traces of God in the object, but the “gazing on the truth” is performed by reason or ordinary means. As St. Thomas describes, “man reaches the truth” by hearing and reading, and by applying himself, that is, “by his personal study” (ST II-II, 180, iii, ad 4). Often study is equated with reading and comprehension, perhaps a routine of “drills and skills” to demonstrate an intellectual competency.
“Often study is equated with reading and comprehension, perhaps a routine of ‘drills and skills’ to demonstrate an intellectual competency.”
Study, St. Thomas acknowledges, “regards knowledge in the first place” and requires some level of intellectual skill and habits which he sums up as “any other things the working of which requires to be directed by knowledge” (ST II-II, 166, i). With our modern experience of what study is or ought to be, St. Thomas jostles our expectation that study should be classified as an intellectual virtue; rather surprisingly, he situates study among the moral virtues, specifically temperance, the cardinal virtue which moderates desires. The placement of study among the moral virtues emphasizes that the desire for knowledge is rooted in virtue that beckons moderation and discipline so that the desire for knowledge neither veers into intellectual pride nor devolves into insatiable curiosity. A narrow vision
“. . . A broader vision allows study to flourish as an interior disposition, cultivating the mind and heart for knowledge.”
encases study into the “drills and skills” workouts, but a broader vision allows study to flourish as an interior disposition, cultivating the mind and heart for knowledge. A studious person responds to learning with magnanimity and generosity, rather than harboring a pusillanimous and possessive attitude that stakes out an intellectual area that is “my specialty.”
While the terms study and intellectual formation may appear in contemporary education, contemplation is rarely acknowledged, or it is disregarded because it cannot be numerically measured. Vann, an educator imbued in Thomism, undauntedly imparts a stunning expectation for educators in an address to the Society for Education in Art, that “our first duty then must be to make contemplatives: to help the young see the real world, to see the real world in itself, which implies seeing the world in God and God
“. . . ‘our first duty then must be to make contemplatives: to help the young see the real world, to see the real world in itself, which implies seeing the world in God and God in the world.’ ” -Gerald Vann, O.P.
in the world.”3 Vann voices an appeal for natural contemplation and supplies a broad guide to educators in order to help the young students develop the capacity of exterior and interior vision, which is the contemplative gaze of “the real world.” This lofty standard is established by maintaining the educator’s active role in promoting, indeed, forming, the students’ capacity for contemplation, as well as a receptivity of the right order between creation and the Creator. The ability to see this relationship with God exceeds the capacity of natural contemplation, and this vision of the transcendent and the eternal is the purview of supernatural contemplation.
This is Part 1 of 2. The article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Aquinas Magazine.
Sister Thomas More Stepnowski, O.P., Ph.D. is Provost and Vice President of Academics at Aquinas College. A contributor to The Catechetical Review, The Downside Review, The Cardinal Newman Society, and Church Life Journal, she has earned degrees from University of Dallas, Belmont University, Providence College, and Maryvale Institute.