Charismatic Thomism and Jubilant Embodiment

Aquinas’s understanding of the human body is still often characterized and dismissed as denigrating toward the flesh and as overly beholden to what may be called an “ethic of control.” As one recent critic has recently phrased it: “the body [for Aquinas] exists passively as a dead instrument.”[1] At first glance, there is much in favor of this reading. Aquinas defends a “hierarchical” account of the soul’s relation to the body. Indeed, he at times compares the body to a servant insofar as it obeys the soul’s higher faculties (reason and will) without its own agency. Similarly, he writes about the need for the sensual appetite—“seated” in the body—to surrender (obidere) to reason and for reason to direct (dirigere) and command (imperare) the sensual appetite (body). The ideal here by all means appears to be a hierarchical subordination of the body to the soul.

Although Aquinas’s language does raise concerns for those seeking a more “body positive” theology, I want to suggest that these kinds of critiques are slightly misplaced. When we turn our attention to his treatment of the body within the context of prayer and praise, what emerges is a soul-body dynamic that is much richer and, indeed, somewhat unexpected. Here we find descriptions of a body not so much under the command of reason as it is a body that breaks forth into ecstatic bodily expressions usually associated with a loss of control, including weeping, groaning, sighing, and wordless praise. Such expressions break forth precisely when human speech—the external sign most “proper” to us as rational animals—fails us as an expressive medium. In such moments, there is a very real sense in which the individual is undone as a rational subject in “possession” of his or her body as a quasi-instrument.

This coming-undone and breaking forth of ecstatic bodily praise flows from the intense desire for the eschatological “things of glory.” The things of glory do not include the soul’s final liberation from the body but rather the latter’s resurrection and glorification. We are undone by the desire for the flesh’s ultimate glory, a desire that is inexpressible and which is ultimately worked in us by the Spirit who inhabits our bodies. This, in brief, is what I call jubilant embodiment. It is a vision of human embodiment quite at odds with that ascribed to Aquinas in the critiques noted above. Indeed, the vision of jubilant embodiment sketched here can at times border on the charismatic. As I suggest, it turns our attention away from the Aquinas of the Summa(s) toward Aquinas as commentator on the Psalms.

When writing about prayer and praise, Aquinas tends to characterize the soul-body relationship in terms of an interior-exterior dynamic. The body is an “exterior” site of “signs” (signa). External bodily acts signify interior reverence, and what is interior is “soul” or “mind” (reason and will). There is a relation of subordination between exterior and interior. The mind is “prior” insofar as it is the source of the external sign/expression. In prayer we “hand over our minds to God,” and the mind is superior to all “external things,” including the body.[2]

Since it is crucial for the account of jubilant embodiment being developed here, let me develop this interior-exterior dynamic a bit more before moving forward. In what might seem strange to us, Aquinas feels compelled to address the question as to whether or not it is licit to pray with spoken words when praying in private. Prayer is primarily in the mind (interior). Why, then, do we need spoken words? Three reasons are offered: first, through the voice we stir up interior devotion so as to raise the mind to God, and this, in turn, stirs up the soul’s affections; second, as embodied creatures, we owe to God worship in both mind and body, and so to pray vocally is to render this two-fold debt; the third and final reason is particularly enticing for our purposes here: “we have recourse to vocal prayer due to an excess of feeling [ex vehementi affectione] that overflows from the soul into the body [redundantia ab anima in corpus].”[3] As a clarification, he simply quotes from Psalm 15: “My heart rejoiced and my tongue exalted.”

We will return to the Psalms below as well as this odd notion of overflow from soul to body. But before doing so, I need to draw further attention to something important in Aquinas’s first reason noted above. While the interior has a priority over the exterior, expressive acts of the body in prayer are not merely the terminus of a linear movement from the interior to the exterior. Expressive bodily acts also establish a kind of feedback cycle such that they stir up the mind’s devotion, which in turn rouses the affections (affectus). We have here a vision of the whole person—mind, affect, body—resonating together in an act of embodied expressive prayer.

We find this same dynamic operative in Aquinas’s comments on adoration in ST II-II, q84, a2. As creatures constituted by soul and body, we adore God in a twofold manner: through spiritual adoration, which consists of an “internal devotion of the mind” and through bodily adoration, which consists in exterior bodily acts of humility (e.g., genuflection and prostration). The interior devotion of the mind is the “principle part” of adoration, while the expressive bodily signs are secondary. However, the bodily acts feed back into the interior insofar as they incite our affections to submit to God. It is connatural for us to incite our affections through exterior acts of the body just as it is connatural for our minds to approach God by sensible signs.

The interior-exterior dynamic is also present in Aquinas’s treatment of praise (laus) in ST II-II, q91. The primacy of the interior once again raises the question as to whether or not the praise of the mouth (laus oris) is necessary. And once again Aquinas references a Psalm, this time in the sed contra: “It is written (Psalm 62:6), ‘My mouth shall praise Thee with joyful lips.’” The praise uttered from joyful lips is an outward praise (exterior laus) that expresses the interior praise of the mind and/or heart (laus mentis/cordis). Exterior praise is not for God’s sake but for ours. The mind needs the expressive body in order to ascend to God in prayer. Expressive bodily acts feed back into the interior, thereby stirring up the soul (mind and affect) toward God.

The body (exterior) so far remains in a quasi-instrumental relation to the mind (interior). When necessary, we put it to use as a kind of instrument in order to stir up the mind and affections toward God. But there are times when the relation between interior and exterior is quite different. As indicated above, Aquinas sometimes describes a relation of overflow (redundantia) between soul and body in moments of excess feeling or desire. Here the bodily expression is not so much under the instrumental control of the mind (interior). The interior overflow breaks forth into expressive acts usually associated with a loss of control, namely, weeping, groaning, sighing, and ecstatic praise. Indeed, such loss of control occurs in moments when the spoken word—the exterior sign most “proper” to us as rational animals—no longer suffices as a means of expression.

We cannot understand such claims without taking note of both the eschatological and pneumatological context of prayer and praise and their relation to desire. Aquinas at one point defines prayer as “an interpretation of desire before God.”[4] The importance of the Lord’s Prayer lies in the way that it gives shape to the affective life of the Christian. We begin with the words “Our Father” precisely in order to indicate the final goal toward which our desire aims and in light of which it is licit to petition in prayer for certain temporal things. By uttering “Our Father,” we place ourselves within an eschatological horizon. “Our Father” recalls to mind that in prayer we approach a God who has given a specific promise to God’s children, namely, the things of glory, the central act of which is the resurrection of the body. The soul’s ultimate desire is for resurrected flesh.

Strictly speaking, we are not the authors of this desire. The Holy Spirit who inhabits us prompts these desires in us during prayer such that petition (petere) in prayer gives way to pleading (postulare) described as a “certain unfolding of desires” concerning the “good things of heaven.”[5] We petition for things needed in this life, but we plead for the good things of heaven. Included in the good things of heaven is the vivification of our bodies (i.e., resurrection): “We have been told that our mortal bodies will be made alive [vivificabuntur] through the Holy Spirit.”[6] Indeed, the Holy Spirit within us pleads for us (Rom 8:26). We thereby groan for what is “unutterable” or “unspeakable” [inenarrabilibus].”[7] We have no words to express our desires for the things of heaven provoked in us by the Holy Spirit. Precisely here, when the spoken word no longer suffices as an expressive medium, we respond with wordless expressions, “with pain and groans” (cum dolore et gementibus).[8]

Pleading is the work of the Holy Spirit who inhabits us and who stirs up our desire for resurrected flesh. In such moments, the soul’s “higher powers” are strongly moved, resulting in an overflowing (redundantia) from the higher powers into the soul’s lower powers “seated” in bodily organs. The overflow carries with it an expressive demand. What follows is not so much the mind’s “command” of the body as expressive instrument as it is a loss of control and a spontaneous breaking forth (prorumpere) into “weeping and sighing and cries of jubilation [jubilos] and thoughtless expressions [voces inconsiderate]”[9] Words give way to cries of jubilation and thoughtless expressions.

With this reference to jubilation, we can finally turn to Aquinas’s Commentaries on the Psalms where he weaves the above themes together. We have already seen the “presence” of the Psalms in his comments on prayer and praise. Indeed, his response in the Summa to the question “ought prayer be vocal?” is prefaced in the sed contra with a quote from Psalm 141:2 “With my voice I cried to the Lord, with my voice I entreated the Lord.” We have also seen Aquinas link this notion of overflow (redundantia) from soul to body to the Psalmist’s rejoicing and exalting. Let us now see how Aquinas connects all of this within his Commentaries on the Psalms to jubilation and to the other themes developed above.

Commenting on Psalm 33 (Vulgate 32) and its emphasis on rejoicing, Aquinas draws a distinction between rejoicing over the benefits of grace received (de bonis gloriae susceptis) and the benefits of grace hoped for (de bonis gloriae expectatis). The latter are the things of glory, of which the resurrection of the body is the central “act.” Words cannot adequately express our desire for the things of glory.[10] Instead, the taste here-and-now of the expected benefits of grace ushers in jubilation (jubilus), an “inexpressible gladness” for what exceeds comprehension.

Although inexpressible, this gladness cannot be kept silent. There is an expressive demand here, one that Aquinas elsewhere describes in terms of a breaking forth that, as suggested above, has its source in an overflow (redundantia) from the soul into the body: “outwardly he [the psalmist] breaks forth [prorumpit] with outward joy into the praise of his voice.”[11] Unsurprisingly given what we have seen thus far, Aquinas immediately follows this claim with a reference to the resurrection of the flesh as the first among the blessings of grace that the Psalmist hopes for. When praise breaks forth in response to our inexpressible desire for resurrected flesh, the expressive medium is no longer the word, the primary expressive sign of reason’s control over the body. Rather, as indicated in the passage above from the Sentences, what breaks forth is weeping, sighing, and cries of jubilation and thoughtless expressions.

In this charismatic jubilant praise concerning the things of glory we are undone as “subjects” in possession of an instrumental hold over the body. The body’s expressive acts are no longer the mere terminus of “top down” commands from the mind (reason and will). On the contrary, they originate from a condition of “overflowing” within the soul’s powers that subsequently breaks forth into weeping, groaning, sighing, and ecstatic and wordless praising most vividly represented in Psalms. We lose control as “rational” subjects in control of the body and whose distinctive mode of expression is the spoken (or sung) word. Indeed, this undoing is ultimately the doing of the Holy Spirit who inhabits us, who pleads for us, and who provokes within us the desire for the things of glory. We are not our own (1 Cor 6:19)!

Such is the vision of (momentary) jubilant embodiment. It might be objected that this embodied jubilation is only temporary and that Aquinas very clearly idealizes an “ethic of control” whereby soul and body are in a relation of submission and control. Furthermore, will the resurrection of the body not usher in a perfected subordination of body to soul and body? This is of course true, and I do not intend to dispute it. But I do offer this account of jubilant embodiment as a lens through which to interpret the ideal of a “subordination” of the body to soul and of the soul to God. What the experience of perfected “subordination” will be like is perhaps most concretely presented to us in the ecstatic and charismatic bodily praise exhibited in the Psalms.

[1] Katie W. Grimes, Christ Divided: Antiblackness as Corporate Vice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 97.

[2] ST II-II, q83, a3, ad3.

[3] ST II-II, q83, a12.

[4] ST II-II, q83, a9.

[5] Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences, Bk 4, d. 15, q.4, a3.

[6] Aquinas, Commentary on Romans, Ch. 8, Lect. 5.

[7] Romans, Ch 8, L5.

[8] Romans, Ch 8, L5. See also Commentary on the Sentences Bk 4, d.15, q4., a7:  “As Gregory says, ‘To pray is to utter groans in a state of compunction,’ either because of one’s sins or because of one’s delay in reaching heaven.”

[9] Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences, Bk 4, d. 15, q4, a2.

[10] “Est autem jubilus laetitia ineffabilis, quae verbis exprimi non potest; sed voce datur intelligi gaudiorum latitudo immense. Illa autem quae non possunt exprimi, sunt bona gloriae” [Commentary on Psalm 33 (Vulgate)]. Elsewhere: “Iubilus est ineffabile gaudium, quod nec taceri potest, sed non potest exprimi, quia excedit comprehensionem” [Commentary on Psalm 47 (Vulgate 46)].

[11] Commentary on Psalm 16 (Vulgate 16): “cum exteriori gaudio prorumpit in laudem vocis”


Featured Image: El Greco, Saint Dominic in Prayer, c. 16th c; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Dylan Belton

Dylan Belton received his PhD in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a Mendel Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University. His current research focuses on theological anthropology and human embodiment in dialogue with both evolutionary and social-cultural anthropology.

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