St Thomas Aquinas on Christian Joy and a Life Free of Anxiety, by Fr Marcelo Navarro, IVE

This past Sunday, the 27th in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, presents us with a second reading taken from Saint Paul to the Philippians (4: 6- 9):

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.

Saint Thomas Aquinas divides his commentary to this letter in an introduction, the news and instructions for this community, the path to salvation by following the example of the Apostle Paul, thanksgiving for the generosity of the Philippians, and a conclusion.

Many teachings can be drawn from Phil 4: 6 – 9. I will introduce briefly some of them.1

  1. We should not worry about anything, have no anxiety, because “the Lord is near” (preceding verse, 5). It is true that when there is need we should be diligent to obtain what is needed, and that is advisable and is opposed to negligence. Sometimes we may experience anguish with lack of hope, and the fear of not obtaining what we seek, but this is not allowed by the Lord: do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear” (cf. Mt 6: 25). We should not despair as the Lord will provide what is necessary. If we are preoccupied we should make recourse to the Lord in prayer: “Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you” (1 Pt 5: 7). We see how St. Thomas guides us to “rest” in the text of the Scriptures, which is a mode of prayer (remember lectio divina).

  1. After saying that the Lord is near, he speaks of prayer, and reminds us of the four necessary elements of all prayer. They are:

  • Prayer implies the ascend of the mind to God. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal; nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds…” (Sir 35: 21)

  • It must be accompanied with confidence in what we are asking, based on the mercy of God: “When we present our petition before you, we rely not on our just deeds, but on your great mercy.” (Dan 9: 18)

  • Petition is a request to the grace and sanctity of God: “The poor implore” (Prov 18: 23).

  • And prayer should be done with thanksgiving, because he who is ungrateful on the gifts received becomes unworthy of future gifts: “In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Tes 5: 18). And therefore, there is a need of presenting our request in prayer: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Cf. Mt 7: 7).

Therefore, we find those elements in all the prayers of the Church: first, we invoke God; second, we recall the divine benefits; third, we request these benefits; and fourth, we present this petition “through Christ our Lord”.

  1. We make [our] requests known to God” to be approved by him, so they can become worthy and holy: “Let my prayer be incense before you” (Ps 141: 2); not to obtain the favour of people (cf. Mt 6: 6); and we do so through those who are near to God, as the angels [or saints] who can intercede for us (cf. Rev 8: 4).

  1. “Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Aquinas follows here the teaching of St. Augustine on peace. This peace will guard our hearts, that is, our sentiments: “With all vigilance guard your heart, for in it are the sources of life” (Prov 4: 23), and this in Christ Jesus because through his love our sentiments are saved from evil, and through faith our intelligence persevere in truth.

  1. Then Paul exhorts the Philippians to action, to do what is good. He considers four elements. They are:
  1. The object of good actions: regarding knowledge or truth (whatever is true), or regarding the will (good). Regarding the will, we need to remember that three things belong to the necessity of virtue: that things be upright in themselves (whatever is honorable); that virtue be ordered to the neighbour (whatever is just), or to God (whatever is pure -or holy-). Two are the objects attached to necessity: that it may lead to friendship (whatever is lovely), and that may keep one’s own good reputation (gracious).

  2. The motive to act is double: the impulse of interior habits, and discipline or exterior instruction (or education). Regarding the first, what is virtuous (see verse 8, however the word virtuous is missing in this translation, I thin k it is replaced by excellence); and regarding the second, anything worthy of praise, that is a discipline worth of praise: [in the steps of Christ: “learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11: 29)].

  3. Good actions are double: interior (think about these things), and exterior (Keep on doing what you have learned and received…), see also Is 1: 16.

  4. And the fruit of a good action is God (Then the God of peace will be with you). And 2 Cor 13: 11: “live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.”2

First, we need not to get lost in these distinctions. Then, the enlightening teaching of Aquinas becomes more transparent. See how respectful he is of the texts of the Scriptures, and how knowledgeable of the divine text. We learned about God’s providence, about prayer, and about virtue by following the example of St. Paul; all in just a few well-explained verses of the Scripture. May the Lord inspire us to put this teaching into practice. God bless you.

1 S. TOMMASO D’AQUINO, Commento al Corpus Paulinum (Expositio et lectura super epistolas Pauli Apostoli). Vol. 4, Edizioni Studio Domenicano, Bologna, Italy, 2008. My translation.

2 The Latin list of virtues does not quite align with the English version of the NAB, but I have tried to keep the order preserving the main ideas.

Fr. Marcelo J. Navarro Muñoz, is a priest with IVE – the Institute of the Incarnate Word

“The reality … is that never like today, man by having denied God and by not knowing how to pray any more, “feels” the vacuum and “lives” the horror of nothingness.” (Fr. Cornelio Fabro)



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