In the course of his writings, Thomas discusses several topics that are important for the understanding of religious life and of Dominican life in particular. His two major treatises on religious life, Contra Impugnantes and De Perfectione, were composed in the context of fierce controversies, but even so, Thomas does far more than engage in topical polemic. He develops a view of religious life in the light of a fundamental understanding of what the virtue of religion means and what can properly be meant by the idea of perfection. Religion means essentially offering service and worship to God, and perfection means the perfection of charity, both love of God and love of neighbor. All the various structures and practices of religious life must therefore be related to the service of God and to the human pursuit of perfect charity.
The texts I have selected for inclusion here illustrate Thomas' views on obedience, study and poverty, and finally I have included a fine piece of Dominican one-upmanship, showing that the best form of religious life is one devoted to teaching and preaching. Most of these texts speak for themselves and do not need much introduction.
In his encyclical of 1261, more or less contemporary with the three texts I have included from St. Thomas, Humbert of Romans complains about a loss of generosity in the practice of obedience in the Order. "Will you not do what is commanded with a willing spirit," he asks, "without formal precepts and heavy penalties having to be invoked—which are contrary to the tradition of the Order?" The friars should not insist strictly on the limits of what they are obliged to by their profession, they should follow "the obedience of charity" and throw themselves into every good work "in accordance with that charity which knows no limits. Whatever concerns God's glory and honor, whatever concerns the salvation of souls, you should do it with all diligence, not only what is commanded, not only what is recommended, but whatever even a single hand can do...." 1