There can be a tendency to view holiness by our business. If we are busy learning, doing, serving, etc. then we are are just like Jesus. But, is this true? Or is this simply a “can do” attitude, a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” focus that is then imported onto the Christian faith? Meditation, or the act of contemplatively approaching God, was a hallmark of early Christianity. Thomas Aquinas deals with the relationship between the contemplative and active life at length in his Summa Theologica. Below I will highlight a few of his insights and then explore application for us today.
Is the Contemplative Life Better? (ST II-II.182.1)
While we might assert the superiority of the active life, Thomas gives several reasons for the worthiness of the contemplative life. Actually, he offers nine reasons why the contemplative life is superior. A few of them stick out more than others, but many use the example of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Thomas says that the contemplative life is associated with the intellect and the use of it in contemplation distinguishes us from animals. Thomas also says that the contemplative life is more self-sufficient. That it doesn’t need anything outside itself, and that it can be done in varying degrees and with more regularity than the active life.
Doesn’t The Active Life Give More Merit? (ST II-II.182.2)
Next, Thomas asks if the Active life gives more merit. This might not be the way that we would put it as protestants. Perhaps we would say, “what pleases God more” or “what brings him more honor or glory?” It is helpful to look at an answer outside our present context to give us perspective.
Thomas writes, “Wherefore that which pertains more directly to the love of God is generically more meritorious than that which pertains directly to the love of our neighbour for God’s sake. Now the contemplative life pertains directly and immediately to the love of God…” Thomas is quick to draw our attention to the object of each way of living. The contemplative life is directly focused on God, whereas the active life is concentrated on our neighbor for God. The more direct, for Thomas, the more merit.
Is There Conflict between the Active Life and Contemplative Life? (ST II-II-182.3)
Thomas addresses a question that is exceptionally pressing for our current situation. Is the active life a hinder to the contemplative life? He answers it in two ways. The first answer is yes. If someone is so busy doing things, they will not have time to stop and reflect. This is a tragedy and is an example of the active life overtaking the contemplative life. On the other side, the active life may serve as a proper outlet for the contemplative life. The contemplative life overflows into a life of service and actively seeking the good of our neighbor. This, Thomas says, also has the added benefit of not being stuck in our thoughts that may go astray. It rightfully channels and safeguards the contemplative life.
What does Thomas Aquinas have to do with us and Corona Virus?
Even if we do not agree with all of Thomas’ conclusions, we can benefit from being challenged out of our 21st-century perspective. Thomas helps us see the benefit of slowing down and reflecting on God. We are quick, even in the midst of this tragedy, to find ways of filling up our time and creating longer todo lists. Our first response often is, what can I do? How can I still be active?
Maybe “Don’t waste your quarantine,” at times, means that we slow down and meditate on God’s truth. What if slowing down is what we need right now. It might look like slowing your intake. For example: don’t listen to ninety sermons, listen to one or two well, and prayerfully reflect upon it and its implications throughout the week. Maybe deep thinking and reflection will allow us to benefit others when this is over.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).