As I hinted to before, I have a thing for Dominican spirituality. The mantra of the Dominicans is “To contemplate, and to give to others the fruit of that contemplation,” which is heard often around the various groups of Dominicans. From studying and praying to the pulpit and the classroom, Dominicans are constantly being formed and assisting in the formation of others. A deeper look at the original context of that quote gives some interesting insight to this part-contemplative, part-active religious order.
Let’s start with the original quote: it is “better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” If you expand the quote a bit to the surrounding sentences, you will find another familiar quote you might not have realized went together with this one: “even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” Sound familiar? This sentence happens to be in the main body of article 6 of question 188 of the secunda secundae of the one and only Summa Theologica by Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The Dominican “slogan” obviously has a lot more to it than just a nice-sounding saying, for it is rooted in a theological work. The specific question Aquinas was addressing when he came up with this principle was “whether a religious order that is devoted to the contemplative life is more excellent than one that is given to the active life?”
Like all the other articles of the Summa, the question is set up in “objections, answer, and response” format. This particular question is interesting because Aquinas answers that a mixed order is the most excellent instead of choosing between one or the other. However, Aquinas begins by listing objections from the side of the active life being the most excellent, and responds with “on the contrary, our Lord said that the “best part” was Mary’s, by whom the contemplative life is signified.” Now, because the eventual answer would be a mixed order, it seems like Aquinas could have started with arguments for contemplative spiritualities in the objections and then countered with an answer for active spiritualities. But he chose to have the response point to the “best part” that is contemplation, and this is significant. Dominican spirituality is not really a “mixed spirituality”; it is a active spirituality which flows from contemplation as its source. Without the wellspring of contemplation, Dominican spirituality wouldn’t make any sense. It would be a spirituality that tried to do too much and lacked a focus. But since it acknowledges that the “best part” is the contemplation embodied by Mary at the feet of Jesus, it can succeed in teaching and preaching.
It is better to enlighten than just to shine, but you can only shine in the first place if you have light. Whenever you have a principle that follows the “Catholic And,” there is always going to be a reason for the inclusiveness.