Aquinas and Rilke on Our Inner and Outer Work

We are meditating on both our inner and outer work.  Outer work without an inner grounding and source can easily degenerate into more ego and rapaciousness, into capitalism unchecked and unmoored.  And inner work that ignores outer work can be solipsistic and self-serving no matter how lofty the language it wraps itself in.

Thomas Aquinas. Stained glass window in the Franciscan Monastery in Washington DC. Photo by Lawrence OP on Flickr.

Thomas Aquinas recognizes the value of inner and outer work when he says that “work is of two kinds—exterior and interior.”  He tells us that “the interior act of the intellect is to consider truth.”

Truth reveals itself to us in times of awe and wonder which are moments of revelation and through all our chakras.  Truth is not a head thing, in fact for Aquinas both truth and justice are “the proper objects of the heart.” We learn truth from our feet and our hearts, from our genitals and our guts, from our skin and our ears, as well as from our heads. 

What Aquinas calls our “interior” work is the work of the via positiva and via negativa—paying attention to the inner truth of what we experience whether in times of light or times of darkness. 

Artist at work on new sculpture. Photo by The Digital Marketing Collaboration on Unsplash

The non-action of the via positiva and via negativa are precursors to our outer work of tikkun or healing the world.  And creativity is the threshold to this outer work.  And “The Holy Spirit moves the heart to work.”   

Rilke also celebrates the Via Creativa as essential to both our inner and outer work when he writes: 

Practicing morning yoga. Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash.

Work of the eyes is done, now

go and do heart-work

on all the images imprisoned within you; for you

overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.

Learn, inner man, to look on your inner woman…

Rilke is talking of work in this passage, a new kind of work that awaits us and is demanded of us. This is the “heart-work” of releasing all the imprisoned images within us, images that, because we were repressing them we never really knew.

Two participants at Geneva Pride with one wearing the Trans Pride flag showing pride in the diversity of genders beyond the false gender binary. Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash.

The images of the machine era so dominant in the modern era were not those of mutuality but of control and dualism. Within the inner man, Rilke counsels us, there can be found an inner woman (and within the inner woman, an inner man) and no doubt thousands of other surprises as well. In our deepest selves even sexual stereotypes are rearranged.

When we pay attention to our inner worlds we are undergoing our work for the future. Paying attention to our inner worlds means to honor our grief and our joy, our via negativa and our via positiva experiences. “Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us,” Rilke observes.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work, pp. 120, 123, 117f.

Banner Image: Colleagues using devices at a co-work space. Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you feel the call today, personally and collectively, to go more deeply into heart work?  How are you following that call?  Do the mystics assist you along the way?  Does your outer work profit from that deeper inner work where values are aroused and assert themselves?

Recommended Reading

Natural Grace: Dialogues on Creation, Darkness, and the Soul in Spirituality and Science 
by Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake

Natural Grace, a 208 page inspired dialogue between theologian Matthew Fox and scientist Rupert Sheldrake, unites wisdom and knowledge from unconventional angles. Considering themselves heretics in their own fields, Matthew and Rupert engage the conversation from postmodern and post-postmodern perspectives, deconstructing both religion and science—while setting the foundation for a new emerging worldview. Having outgrown the paradigms in which they were raised, both Fox and Sheldrake see it as part of their life missions to share the natural synthesis of spirituality and science rooted in a paradigm of evolutionary cosmology.

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