Spiritual Direction From the Angelic Doctor

Book Pick: Practical Theology


Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas

By Peter Kreeft

Ignatius Press, 2014

366 pages, $21.95

To order: ignatius.com

(800) 651-1531


Editor’s Note: Listen to Practical Theology's author, Peter Kreeft, on this week's Register Radio.


St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologiae for “beginners” in the study of theology, but his daunting opus scares off many readers. 

Dominican Walter Farrell did a superb job putting its ideas into modern language more than 70 years ago, but today’s adult Catholics need their own companion to the Summa.

Peter Kreeft’s Practical Theology can help fill that need.

Kreeft, who teaches philosophy at Boston College, culls 358 topics from the Summa, ranging from what we can know about God, what is good and what can (and can’t) make one happy to the role of the virtues, sin and sacraments in our lives. 

Kreeft spends about a page per topic, combining an extract of Thomas’ with his own explanation of the subject in modern English. 

Kreeft is not interested in a dry and abstruse survey of theology. His selections are designed to give you meat for your spiritual life:

“The ultimate reason for studying theology is the same as the ultimate reason for your existence. It is ‘salvation,’ that is, it is heaven, happiness, holiness (three words for the same thing. I have found more personal spiritual nourishment, more motivation to be holy, in the Summa than in most other ‘spiritual writers.’ St. Thomas is the all-time master of the head, but he begins and ends in the heart. He enables your philosophy and your prayer to be one.”

The author manages to make his points in easy-to-read, well-flowing prose, in which felicitous turns of phrase abound. He always brings St. Thomas’ 13th-century abstractness into 21st-century concreteness. 

Consider his comments on Thomas’ teaching that there are three kinds of goods: virtuous, useful and pleasant. Kreeft concludes:

“So if a thing is not virtuous, useful or pleasant, it’s not really good. So fagetaboutit!  Simplify your life by throwing out all the things that you don’t need, all that’s not virtuous, useful or pleasant. Do you really need to buy that expensive sneaker or super cellphone or to read that book that’s on the bestseller list or go to that dull meeting? Is it your moral duty? Does it give you happiness or even pleasure? If the answer to all three questions is no, then dump it! A house without a garbage can becomes cluttered and smelly. That same is true of a life! Our lives need a ‘Thoreau’ simplification.”

Kreeft basically follows the structure of the Summa, and as an overall exposure to Aquinas’s masterpiece, the book is well done. 

In a world in which rational thought, especially  in matters religious, is often abandoned in favor of some gauzy “spirituality,” Thomas (and Kreeft) show that rigorous thinking is not antithetical neither to religion nor spirituality — indeed, it makes you really wonder what great treasures have been obscured by the retreat from rigorous thinking.

This book will not just give you practical spiritual advice, but will shape a comprehensive Catholic view and understanding of God, man and the world. 

Reading just one topic a day for the next year can truly be transforming, and can you think of a better companion through the days of 2015 than the Angelic Doctor?

You’ll understand your own faith better as well as be able to better explain it to others. 

John M. Grondelski writes from Shanghai, China.