Hardly a day goes by here at the Dominican House of Studies in which the name of St. Thomas Aquinas is not invoked. Most of these occasions involve grappling with his philosophical and theological writings that have been pored over by generations of Dominicans and Catholics in general. This past summer, though, in a talk by Fr. Paul Murray, O.P., entitled “Thomas Aquinas: Talking to God,” we were able to focus on a related but less well-known category of his writings: his prayers. In his talk, Fr. Murray both presented an argument for the authenticity of St. Thomas’s authorship and elucidated their connection to the wider Dominican tradition in which St. Thomas lived.
All four of the prayers Fr. Murray references show both a beautiful poetic style and a deep theological insight into human nature and what exactly it is we ought to pray for. As I reflected upon and prayed these prayers of St. Thomas, one of them, entitled “Prayer for the Attainment of Heaven,” struck me in particular.
The theme of heaven, of course, is fairly common in our Catholic prayer life. For example, the closing prayer at Evening Prayer today asks God to “lead us on through night’s darkness to the dawning of eternal life.” While all of the prayers of the Church do not explicitly ask God to let us get to heaven, this intention is rarely far from the surface.
Thomas’s prayer, however, seems more audacious. He does not simply ask to avoid eternal punishment, to reach the gates of heaven, or to taste eternal life. Acknowledging that God is the source and sustainer of our entire being, and that all we have is God’s gift, he begins to enumerate the specific things he hopes to attain in heaven.
For those of us who, despite all our best efforts, can’t picture eternal life without fluffy clouds, angels’ wings, and harps, Thomas’s petitions might be as shocking as they are inspiring. First and foremost, he asks for that knowledge and love of God that is the beatific vision, but, springing from this, no aspect of the human person is left untouched. God’s graciousness is invoked to perfect our soul and our body and to restore the harmony between them that He intended from the beginning. Further, while still focused on God Himself, he alludes to the fullness of the new creation and the joy of dwelling with all the saints and angels in God’s company.
I doubt St. Thomas intended this prayer as a sort of daydream or escape from the daily struggles and difficulties that we all face as we seek to serve God on this side of eternity. Rather, knowing that any human action that doesn’t keep sight of its goal is bound to fail—and, furthermore, that without God’s help we cannot even begin to hope to make our way towards Him—this “Prayer for the Attainment of Heaven” entrusts our entire lives to God by asking Him to achieve in us what He has promised: the fullness of beatitude so beautifully described by St. Thomas.
Prayer for the Attainment of Heaven
O God of all consolation, you who see in us nothing but your own gifts, I entreat you to give me, at the close of this life, knowledge of the First Truth and enjoyment of your divine majesty.
Most generous Rewarder, give to my body also the beauty of lightsomeness, responsiveness of flesh to spirit, a quick readiness and delicacy, and the gift of unconquerable strength.
And add to these an overflow of riches, a spate of delights, a confluence of all good things, so that I may rejoice in your consolation above me, in a place of lowliness below me, in glorification of body and soul within me, in delight of friends and angels all around me.
Most merciful Father, being with you may my mind attain the enlightenment of wisdom, my desire, the fulfillment of its longing, my courage the praise of triumph.
For where you are is avoidance of all danger, plentitude of dwelling places, harmony of wills.
Where you are is the pleasantness of spring, the radiance of summer, the fecundity of autumn, and the repast of winter.
Give, Lord God, life without death, joy without sorrow, that place where reigns sovereign freedom, free security, secure tranquility, delightful happiness, happy eternity, eternal blessedness, the vision of truth and praise, O God.
(Translation from Aquinas at Prayer: The Bible, Mysticism and Poetry by Fr. Paul Murray, O.P.)
Image: Fra Angelico, Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven