Aquinas: prayer, reason, and desire
1.) Thomas describes prayer as rational. What modern would dare say this? Today one may easily get the impression that a choice has to be made: either adopt a romantic critique of the limits of reason, in order to make room for a more passionate, beautiful, fully embodied understanding of human existence, including spirituality; or embrace rationality as universally necessary and sufficient, but with the result that things like prayer and devotion are ignored or treated with great suspicion. Given the fault lines of our culture, it seems reasonable to ask, ”What was Aquinas thinking?” But to him, the connection probably seemed obvious: “prayer (oratio) is spoken reason (oris ratio).” Moreover, when we pray, we are not just feeling a certain way but rather asking that something (namely, our lives, our world) be set in order, and it is our reason which enables us to apprehend such an order (ST II-II, 83.1.c). I think Aquinas has a point. Listen to people pray. The words are not mere feelings exteriorized but rather articulate visions of the way things could be, should be, in a reasonable universe. Prayers are the mind making sense out of an apparently senseless world.
2.) Aquinas speaks of prayer as the “interpreter of desire” (83.1.c and 83.9.c). If prayer is rational, it is also erotic, desirous, full of longing. Prayer translates our restless depths into rational discourse. The key, however, is that, as Augustine says, “it is lawful to pray for what it is lawful to desire,” and for nothing more (83.6.c). Prayer, then, ought to interpret desires which are properly ordered not only to our own good but also to the good of others, for ”this is essential to the love which we owe to our neighbor” (83.7.c). Although this may include certain necessary temporal goods (ibid.), it ultimately amounts to willing that all may fully enjoy the glory of God (83.9.c). The desire which prayer speaks is necessarily, therefore, equivalent to love.
Let us not, then, be too quick to accuse Aquinas of being a rationalist when it comes to prayer, for, in a sense, he is also a romantic. And yet, he may also provide an important corrective to the erotic excesses of romantic spiritualities which are not reasonably ordered toward the good of humanity and the praise which is due to God alone.