We study to see truth, and Truth Himself declared to us, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). Only when our heart, our conscience, and our will are pure, free from the distractions of temptation and the stains of sin, can our intellects gaze clearly upon truth. Prudence is the virtue that guides the moral virtues of temperance, fortitude, and justice, but it also depends on them. It is through the exercise of virtues such as self-control and courage that we can discipline our minds to focus on what is truly important and then act to achieve it. Moral virtue strengthens and sharpens our powers of understanding so that they may better “penetrate into the heart of things.” We will not achieve the heights of intellectual virtue, of knowing the true in the manner of St. Thomas, without at the same time climbing and growing in the moral virtue of striving to seek only what is truly good.
St. Thomas was well aware of how temptations toward sexual impurity and other bodily sins can draw our hearts and minds away from the things that matter most. In writing about the “daughters” of the vice of acedia (or spiritual sloth) he declared, echoing the philosopher Aristotle, that “those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures have recourse to pleasures of the body.”
Indeed, when Thomas as a young man had dedicated his life to preaching and teaching Christ’s Gospel as a member of the new, humble Dominican Order, his biological brothers were so outraged that they captured him on the road to Paris and took him back to the family’s castle. There, his brothers explicitly endeavored to remove his mind from spiritual things through a powerful temptation to bodily pleasure. They introduced a beautiful young courtesan into his room, whereupon Thomas brandished a log from the fireplace and chased her out the door, making a sign of the cross on the door with the firebrand when he slammed it shut behind her! Pious legend reports that angels then came to his aid and gave him a girdle of chastity, whereupon he was never again tempted by sensual bodily pleasures, as he immersed himself totally in the joys of the intellect and the spirit.
…St. Thomas suggests that we turn our attention to the “universals” that only we humans can grasp through our God-given intellects. … St. Thomas was especially adept at practicing temperance because of his focus on the very highest of universals, the divine things of God.
…Regardless of the nature or intensity of our temptations, we also have access to the grace of God, the ultimate remedy for the bodily yearnings that pull us away from contemplation and spiritual joys.
Excerpt by Kevin Vost, Psy.D., from his latest book How to Think Like Aquinas: The Sure Way to Perfect Your Mental Powers (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2018), from Chapter Two, “The Power of Pure Prayer,” pp. 23-26.
KEVIN VOST, PSY.D. has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College (Nashville), the University of Illinois at Springfield, MacMurray College, and Lincoln Land Community College. He is author of over a dozen books, has appeared on hundreds of Catholic radio and TV broadcasts, and travels internationally giving talks on the subjects of his work.