Thomas Aquinas, lifestyle coach – sound recommendation from a 13th century saint


WHAT would a 13th century master of theology and philosophy say about cures for sadness? Something distant and abstract? Not if that master is Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

His proposals for “remedies for pain and grief” are remarkably concrete. They are interwoven with a practical wisdom that will endure 750 years later.

Right now there is great grief: the desolation of grief, the fear of financial insecurity, and the less acute but widespread shadow of isolation. Spring may be here and vaccines provide new grounds for hope, but many people are feeling downcast.

This is a good time, therefore, to turn to Aquina’s discussion of responses to grief in his monumental theological overview Summa Theologiae.

When faced with sadness, Aquinas’ first suggestion is obvious enough: look for things that make you happy. What kind of things? Find out what is causing the sadness and deal with it at the root as we quench thirst with water, or respond to cold by seeking warmth.

But things are often not as simple as Aquin knew. Sadness can come from something that is difficult to address, even impossible to undo. In mourning a loss, the corresponding joy is simply no longer available: that is the source of the sadness.

Or consider isolation. It’s less devastating, but it’s almost ubiquitous today and something that we can’t just conjure away during lockdown. With all sorts of sadness, not least in the moment, we cannot restore the corresponding joy just by exerting ourselves more.

Aquinas encourages us to look for things that make us happy and takes on this aspect. While we prefer to respond to a particular sadness by turning to the corresponding joy, it may not be possible to do so.

In this case, he writes, any pleasure can possibly help alleviate the suffering. We should move on to what we can do: gardening, listening to favorite music, or sharing a meal with a friend via video (even if we’d prefer to share it in person).

As the first suggestion that comes to us from 1271, every happiness can serve as a cure for unhappiness. At least in an emergency, any joy can help in grief. Even so, Aquinas tells us with remarkable directness that crying when we are sad can help, as “tears and moans naturally relieve grief”.

Failure to fight tears is twice as useful. First, if we silence something hurtful, it hurts us even more, not least because our thoughts tend to circle around it again and again. So don’t hide it inside.

Second, we feel better when we allow an honest match between our feelings and our behavior to the outside world. between our mood and our way of presenting ourselves to the world. Being open about how we feel can bring relief. Maintaining the appearance only adds to the burden. Let your expression be honest: “Tears and sighs are appropriate for someone in pain or grief.”

Aquina’s third suggestion in the face of sadness or pain is to seek the company and compassion of friends. This suggestion will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his characteristically warm writing about friendship. In fact, he will later even point out friendship as our best image for the love between God and man.

In our passage Aquinas follows two paths in relation to friendship. Grief, he says first of all, is like a weight, and like a weight, it can be relieved when shared.

Calling sadness a burden is somehow more than just a metaphor: when we turn to friends, we encounter “something like our experience of carrying physical burdens”. When we entrust ourselves to others and receive their support, “it seems that others are carrying the burden, striving, so to speak, to reduce their weight.”

As a second point of view, Aquinas writes something particularly touching (the better of his two points about friendship, he thinks). When our friends comfort us, we see that we are loved by them, and that is a source of joy even in miserable circumstances.

So so far, we’ve seen the value of thinking expansively, rather than closely, about what might act as counter-happiness in grief, as a suggestion not to bottle our feelings, and as an encouragement to seek the company and compassion of friends.

Nevertheless, Aquinas only becomes more abstract religious or philosophical at his fourth point. When he is sad, he writes, it is helpful to reflect on true and wise insights. Even in sadness we find solace in truth and, more broadly, in goodness, justice, beauty, and the thought of God.

Finally, Aquinas reveals his profound Christian humanism and reminds us of the value of a hot bath and a good night’s sleep. There is no abstraction or dry intellectualism in its discussion. As with the best of modern science, he views sadness, pain, or depression as a physical matter.

If we address them, we would do well to pay attention to the body and its processes: “Whatever restores physical nature to its due state of vital movement, is against grief and alleviates it.”

All of these suggestions deal with symptoms. This can be a rewarding exercise, especially when we are faced with a suffering that we cannot address at its root. However, Aquinas doesn’t want us to avoid delving into the root when we can. He wasn’t a quietist.

Indeed, he celebrated human agency and praised virtues such as justice and courage. The stress of financial hardship, for example, requires more than just telling people to cheer themselves up or seek the company of friends (although both may have their place). Such difficulties require short-term financial support and then job creation efforts: paying attention to the root, not just the symptoms.

MANY theologians would not think of bringing up responses to depression even with nearly two million words (the length of the summa). For Aquin this makes perfect sense.

For him, theology means thinking about God and all things related to God. It is therefore worthwhile to understand everything and anything (“all things”) as well as possible. That is an important part of thinking about these things in relation to God as best we can.

Practical, worldly, and physical concerns were important to Aquinas as an early Dominican friar. His command had been established a generation earlier to refute and convert the Cathars, a Gnostic sect – widespread at the time, especially in the Pyrenees – that elevated the mind at the expense of vilifying the body.

In contrast, a certain earthiness follows in early Dominican theology (and it still characterizes much of the best Dominican theology today).

This view found unsurpassed expression in the scriptures of Aquinas, a thinker who was as great in heart as he had imagined (and indeed in the midst of all accounts). And there is no better example of this than his remedies for sadness.

Canon Andrew Davison is Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Science at Cambridge University and Fellow of Theology and Dean of the Chapel at Corpus Christi College.