“We need this book now because now, more than ever, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and figures like John of Saint Thomas,” Father Cajetan Cuddy, O.P., writes in his introduction to a new English edition of The Gifts of the Holy Spirit by John of St. Thomas, published by Cluny Media.
“All of those who stand unafraid of modern complexities and desire wise guidance in their pursuit of the truth should read this book,” he writes. Father Cuddy, a Dominican priest currently studying at the University of Fribourg, talks about truth, the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom of a theologian for times such as these.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You begin your introduction by declaring, “For us, truth has ceased to exist. We have despaired of ever knowing reality.” Are things really that bad?
Father Cuddy: In a word, yes. Things really are that bad. But this “yes” requires qualification. Truth is the created intellect’s correspondence to reality. Human beings always exist in reality. Hence, the innate human desire to know the truth about reality is not something one can remove from human nature. There will never come a time when human persons will be satisfied with lies or falsehoods. Reality is as necessary as it is unavoidable.
In an age of marvelous technological advancement, however, it can be easy to forget that some parts of reality are immune to essential modification. Human ingenuity can change certain aspects of reality, certainly — for example: the color of a house, the model of a car, the methods of medical aid and assistance to human life. Nonetheless, some things cannot be eradicated from reality — the fact that two plus two equals four and not five, the law of non-contradiction, the intrinsic meaning of human sexuality. And so on.
Unfortunately, the contemporary mind tends to blur the real distinction between the changeable and the unchangeable elements of reality. The modern penchant for progress has led many to believe that all of reality is subject to human alteration or reversal. Although this mentality is false, it does lead to a form of despair, skepticism, and sadness. We despair of knowing the truth because we are skeptical about the essence of reality — all we observe is flux. And this skepticism results in sadness, because human persons can only find happiness when they discover real truth and real love. If reality is not really real, then our search for real truth and real love is a fool’s errand.
Fortunately, even if truth has ceased to exist “for us,” it has not ceased to exist in reality or for God.
Lopez: You also write that we live at a time of “certain debilitating uncertainties.” Should we acknowledge that more often? Is that what Pope Francis tries to model?
Father Cuddy: Perhaps a principal insight behind the pontificate of Pope Francis is his grasp of the contingencies and variables that make up human existence in our modern period. Life is complicated. Moreover, the Holy Father has exemplified the Christian certainty that the grace, mercy, and truth of God can bring order to all forms of existential uncertainty. This may be one of the reasons why Pope Francis is so attractive to the modern (even non-Christian) person. He has reminded the world that no part of human existence exceeds the reach of God’s healing influence. This is certain: God is certain.
During a period of great uncertainty, this message truly comes as good news.
Lopez: You write that the gifts of the Holy Spirit “actualize the wise love of God in our lives.” What does that look like?
Father Cuddy: When modern Christians hear mention of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” they frequently think of certain charismatic gifts (such as speaking in tongues, the gift of healing, prophecy, etc.). The gifts of the Holy Spirit, however, are much more foundational to the Christian life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Not all Christians receive charismatic gifts. But all Christians receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit: understanding, wisdom, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord.
The Catechism explains that these seven gifts are “permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.” Additionally, the gifts “complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them.” They are spiritual habits in the soul that enable the Christian person to receive the guidance of Holy Spirit with docility and promptness — much like sails dispose a ship to receive the movements of the wind. The order of God’s wisdom exceeds that of human wisdom. And there are moments in the Christian life when human reflection (even under the influence of faith) is insufficient. The gifts of the Holy Spirit actualize the wise love of God in our lives because there are occasions when only his wisdom suffices.
Lopez: Who exactly is John of St. Thomas, and how can he help? If he’s so important — another St. Thomas Aquinas even! — why isn’t he more well-known?
Father Cuddy: John of St. Thomas (1589–1644) was a Dominican priest, philosopher, and theologian. Like his patron, St. Thomas Aquinas, John of St. Thomas believed that the light of human reason and the light of divine faith do not experience any tension or contradiction between them. God stands as the principle of reason and of faith. Reason and faith are both gifts from God to human creatures. John of St. Thomas wished to take full advantage of both of these gifts in his thought and contemplation. Although he was a genius of the highest order, John of St. Thomas was not an ivory-tower intellectual. Indeed, the Spanish king Philip IV sought him out as a regular confessor and personal advisor. Mystery surrounds his death (historians have suggested that John of St. Thomas was the victim of poison), but he left behind voluminous writings on philosophy, theology, and the spiritual life.
He is not well-known today for several reasons. Like all of the great intellectuals of his period, John of St. Thomas wrote most of his books in Latin. The majority of his writings remain untranslated. Additionally, the majority of his works are quite technical in nature. As is often the case with thinkers of rare genius, his thought demands careful study from all who wish to understand and appreciate it. Thankfully, however, his work continues to attract the interest of contemporary philosophers and theologians. New translations of his writings also continue to appear in English.
Lopez: What’s the best wisdom he offers today?
Father Cuddy: John of St. Thomas offers us an example of a Catholic intellectual who brings the classical intellectual tradition into contact with contemporary questions. John of St. Thomas did not believe that the philosophical and theological value of Aquinas’s teaching expired in the 13th century.
As a Dominican friar, St. Thomas Aquinas was consecrated to the truth, and the truth never suffers extinction. Thus, his teaching about the truth remains perennially valuable. Although Aquinas did not consider all possible questions in his writings — no single human person could — he did leave behind a model of intellectual engagement. This is his legacy. And John of St. Thomas exemplifies how Aquinas’s legacy has continued to serve the intellectual needs of the Church throughout the centuries.
Lopez: Why was his book on the gifts of the Holy Spirit so important to get back into print?
Father Cuddy: Interest in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and in the Thomist commentatorial tradition continues to grow. And like John Capreolus (1380–1444), Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534), and Domingo Bañez (1528–1604) before him, John of St. Thomas will forever stand as one of the greatest proponents of Aquinas’s intellectual legacy. His The Gifts of the Holy Spirit remains a classic text of the Thomist tradition.
Because it has been out of print for so long, many students of theology have found it difficult to obtain a copy of this book. Its scarcity was particularly unfortunate because, for many years, it was one of the few texts from John of St. Thomas to appear in published English translation. I am pleased that this classic work of theology and spirituality is back in print as other new translations of John of St. Thomas and his fellow Thomists continue to be published.
Lopez: Is “mysticism” really a “hard matter,” as the book’s original foreword declared?
Father Cuddy: Mysticism remains a hard matter. For example, our contemporary culture attempts to isolate human “spirituality” from other parts of human existence. We frequently hear people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This phrase reflects a mindset that is open to the existence of God (or to some other higher power), but which is generally closed to organized or structured forms of religious observance. Upon first glance, the “spiritual but not religious” mentality appears quite compelling. God is obviously spiritual. The human soul is also spiritual. And the physicality of certain religious obligations and ceremonies can appear somewhat artificial when compared to the dynamics of one’s spirituality.
However, the “spiritual but not religious” division is, ultimately, an illusion. It is not actually possible for a human person to be truly spiritual without also being rather religious. Why? Because each human person is composed of both a soul and a body. Our spirituality is always conjoined to our physicality — and to our religious practices. The human person is a body-soul unity. And God is the author of both the body and the soul. Moreover, he wishes to redeem the whole human person — body and soul.
John of St. Thomas reminds us of the holistic reality of Christian salvation. God guides the entire human person to salvation — soul and body, belief and action. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are gifts for the whole of one’s life. And this book, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit, serves as something like a guidebook for a spirituality which is true — even in the 21st century.