Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Life and Spirituality of St Thomas Aquinas - Secunda Pars

However, he had been made a Preacher General at the 1259 Chapter, so he left Paris and returned to the Roman Province in Italy, where he spent a decade. During this period he spent quite a lot of time travelling, as he was a member of the Provincial Chapter. Tocco, Thomas’ oldest biographer says that he preferred contemplation and enjoyed travelling very little and only obeyed because, by the humility it inspires, obedience is the mother of all virtues. However, Torrell says “We can easily imagine the reasons for his repugnance: in addition to his corpulence, which could scarcely have facilitated things, the time passed in these comings and goings must have seemed lost from his other activities in writing and teaching…” including of course the desire to finish the Summa contra Gentiles. However, these journeys are not without significance for Thomas’ weltanshaung, for he describes humanity as viatores, travellers, on their way to their heavenly homeland. In his lifetime, Thomas travelled at least 9000 miles (15,000km) on foot!

St Thomas was assigned to Orvieto certainly by 1261 and became conventual lector there. In this period he had time to turn his attention to “the widest variety of his writings”, including his masterly commentary on the book of Job. Nichols says these writings (opuscula) were “most commonly produced in response to requests from correspondents near and far, whether eminent or virtual nobodies”! The pope Urban IV took up residence in Orvieto in October 1262 and made full use of Thomas’ talents. I have already mentioned the Catena aurea but chief among Thomas’ work for the Church is his Office and Mass for the newly-instituted feast of Corpus Christi, including several hymns and a sequence.

Although many of us think of St Thomas and the Summa Theologiae as his great masterpiece, his work for Corpus Christi is arguably his greatest legacy. As Tugwell notes: “it is fitting that a theologian whose piety was so dominated by the Eucharist should have been the author for the liturgy for such a feast.” Indeed, “it seems that Thomas implied that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was somehow the focal point and motivation of all his theology.” Clearly then, this is a highpoint! Singled out for comment is the sequence Lauda Sion which is “remarkable not only for its poetry, but also for its theological content; the individual stanzas can easily be aligned with the Eucharistic teaching of Thomas found in the third part of his Summa theologiae” (Weisheipl, 181). The significance of Thomas’ poetry and hymns is that we see an affective and creative side to him.

Tugwell and others point to Thomas’ great love for the Eucharist as a way to explain his silence after 6 December 1273. Although some people think he had a stroke or even a nervous breakdown, Tugwell suggests: “It looks as if Thomas had at last simply been overwhelmed by the Mass, to which he had so long been devoted and in which he had been so easily and deeply absorbed.” This suggests a mystical experience and so Hinnebusch writes: “Before every major occupation, whether debating, teaching, writing, or dictating, [Thomas] had recourse to prayer. His ardent love for God revealed itself in his fervent prayer before the Crucifix, in his intense love for the Sacrament of the Altar. His mystical intuition of divine things and his burning desire for union with God carried him at times into ecstasy. His mystical experiences reached such intensity towards the end of his life that all he had written seemed to him ‘so much straw’.” Such a realization, Tugwell suggests may be due to some ‘revelation’ he had, perhaps a glimpse of the Beatific Vision (suggests Richard Conrad, OP) that eclipsed all else and his love for Christ “became momentarily so intense that it crippled him, leaving him a stranger in the world.” Or one can take up Weisheipl’s view, as Torrell does, that Thomas experienced “an extreme physical and nervous fatigue, coupled with mystical experiences that marked his last year.”

But returning to Thomas’s time in Orvieto: he spent five years there and then in September 1265, he was asked to move to Rome and set up a studium in Santa Sabina itself. He was given full authority over an unknown number of students sent to him from all over the Province of Rome to study under him. Leonard Boyle OP calls this “unique experiment” a studium personale, “a school organized as a forum in which a particular individual could share his expertise” (Mulchahey, 279). The fact that it did not survive Thomas’ departure from Rome is thus not surprising! Initially Thomas tried to re-use his commentary on the Sentences but this did not seem sufficient to him so he abandoned that by the end of 1266. Interestingly, a manuscript discovered in Lincoln College in Oxford in the 1970s is believed to be notes (taken by a student) from the first year of Thomas’ lectures in Rome as they are a “more incisively argued” version of his commentary written in Paris.

In his second and third years in Rome, Thomas began the great enterprise of writing the Summa theologiae and Mulchahey has worked out a sort of syllabus for Thomas’ Roman students that can be drawn from the prima pars. Certainly, by the time he left Santa Sabina to take up his second Regency in Paris in the summer of 1268, Thomas is thought to have finished the prima pars, which was already in circulation in Italy before he left for France. The bulk of the Prima secundae and the Secunda secundae were completed in Paris and the tertia pars in Naples, until 1273 when he stopped writing; thus he spent 7 years working on this text, a mark of its importance to him.

Amazingly, while at Rome, Thomas also had time to finish his Catena aurea, write disputatae and a Compendium theologiae, a simple and brief, unified exposition of Christian doctrine, written for his secretary Reginald, at his own request. As a mark of his spirituality, Thomas notes that he writes this small book in homage to the Lord who made Himself small in his kenosis. Moreover, St Thomas says here that salvation consists in three things: “To know the truth, which is entirely contained in the articles of the Creed; to pursue a just end, which the Lord taught us in the petitions of the Pater and finally, to observe justice which is summed up in the single commandment of charity.

In 1268, Thomas was called back to Paris to combat the rising tide of students in the faculty of Arts who were following the Muslim philosopher Averroes’ interpretations of Aristotle with a disregard for their incompatibility with the Christian faith. Averroes (1126-1198) held that when Aristotle calls the intellect separate he means that there is a universal mind existing outside of us and which we all share. This view can still be found today: for example in the scientist, Erwin Schrödinger (d.1961), who clearly believed that we all have one consciousness. This clearly undermines the belief of Christians in the immortality of the individual soul and in free will because, if one’s mind is not really one’s own but an external one thinking in oneself, then one is not responsible for one’s own actions and so all meaning of reward or punishment in the next life for what one does in this life is removed (cf Selman, 17). Moreover, Paris was descending into more acrimony between secular clergy and mendicants in the university.

St Thomas addressed these contentious issues but he also carried on his daily work of teaching Scriptures and theology. Noteworthy is the manner in which Thomas deals with his opponents; indicative of his humility and search for Truth. Radcliffe notes Thomas’ respect for his opponents and suggests that like him, we too should strive to understand our opponents’ position and what they are trying to say before we begin any refutation or reply. By avoiding a caricature of our opponents’ position we show true respect for what they are saying and a careful attention to the Truth that is to be found. Radcliffe suggests that this is the model of the Summa.

Hence, between 1269-1272, St Thomas worked on the Summa theologiae and also wrote his commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and John, the disputed questions on Evil and his massive commentaries on the Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, using a new translation from the Greek by a Flemish Dominican. Thomas’ commentaries on Aristotle, which he engaged upon in Paris are interesting from a spiritual point of view because he “feels himself authorized to substitute for Aristotle in order to ‘extend’ him and make him say some things that he would not have been able to think.” Thomas “wanted to lead to its fruition the intuition that he thought had been Aristotle’s” and so bring him to the Truth in Christ that the pagan philosophers so longed for but sadly never saw. Torrell sees in this yet another mark of Aquinas’ “intellectual charity”.

Apart from these major works during his second Parisian stint, there are a host of smaller works on all sorts of issues; it is surely right for Tugwell to say that “Today, Thomas would probably be considered a workaholic”! What were his days like? He celebrated Mass daily early in the morning and then attended a second Mass said by another priest. He then immediately started lecturing and then began writing and dictating to several secretaries. After that, he ate, returned to his room and “attended to divine things” before having a short rest and then he wrote again. It is known that he generally only went to Compline in the priory although he attended more Offices when he was travelling and hence not teaching. What is amazing is that he sustained this pace of work for 25 years!

In 1272, he was summoned by his Province to Naples to organize a studium generale there. It was over a decade since he’d returned to his home convent and familiar faces greeted him, including Fra John of S. Giuliano who had inspired him to join the Order. In a beautiful way, his life had come full circle. It is believed that he taught a course on the letters of St Paul, in particular Romans. Of course, he also wrote his Summa theologiae reaching the summit of the work, on the Mass and then having moved on to the sacrament of penance, he stopped.

After the St Nicholas’ day event, Thomas becomes a “sick and rather helpless man”. He went to visit his sister but he appeared to be in a dazed condition and hardly spoke a word so he returned to Naples. In January 1274, St Thomas was summoned to Lyons for the General Council but on the way there, he was so absorbed in his thoughts – something quite normal for this friar – that he struck his head on a tree branch. This must have eventually developed into a blood clot in the brain that killed him. However, he carried on his journey, even wrote a commentary on St Gregory for the monks at Montecassino upon the abbot’s request; they had been waiting for him. Thus, even though his body was weakening, his intellectual faculties were still intact.

In late February, he stopped in the castle of Maenza, where his niece Francesca lived. It was there he fell ill and lost his appetite although at one point he asked for some fresh herring, a dish he enjoyed in Paris. Several days later, they tried to continue onwards to Rome but had to stop at the abbey of Fossanova. Thomas made this final journey on horseback, a sure sign of his weakness as Dominicans were forbidden to travel on horseback. On March 4 or 5, he received the viaticum and said: “I receive you, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive you, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, laboured; I have preached you, I have taught you; never have I said anything against you, and if I have done so, it is through ignorance and I do not grow stubborn in my error; if I have taught ill on this sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave now this life.” This final statement of faith is an indication of his deeply ecclesial spirituality, his humility and his love for Christ in the Eucharist.

He died on Wednesday 7 March 1274. I have not the time to dwell on the growth of his cult, the battle over his orthodoxy and the development of Thomism. Perhaps all this is already well known to us. It remains to say that he was canonized in 1323 and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius V in 1567.

The Person & His Appearance

I am intrigued by Thomas Aquinas the man… what did he look like? The witnesses are in agreement: “he was large and heavy and had a bald forehead.” Tocco says “he was large in body, tall and straight in stature… blond as the colour of wheat” and “his hair was thin.” Robust and strong would be other ways to describe him. About his character, Tugwell notes that “he was habitually silent”, perhaps lost in thought. Unlike Albert who observed the world around him and wondered about nature as he travelled, St Thomas was known to put up his hood and travel, lost in his thoughts. There is a story of him having dinner with king Louis of France when suddenly he exclaimed out loud that he’d solved some heretical proposition. Tugwell also suggests that “He seems to have had no small talk and perhaps he was rather devoid of humour.” However Torrell disagrees and notes contemporary accounts of Thomas’ “happy countenance, sweet and affable… he inspired joy in all those who looked upon him” as well as his ability to joke. Given the above we can understand better why he was nicknamed the ‘Dumb Ox’ – for his taciturn silence and his robust physique.

As for his affective life, it is a temptation to see him as a disinterested or reserved intellectual but that would be a mistake. We have the example of him joining in joyful communal celebrations to commemorate Reginald’s recovery from illness. His relations with his family and especially his sisters come across as affectionate, even emotional in a typically south Italian manner. Like Dominic and Jordan he was also known to be lost in tears as he said Mass and even during Compline, clear signs of his emotional expressiveness. As to his friends, we know he had a close friendship with Reginald and others. Indeed, Aquinas made friendship the key notion in his treatise on charity and indeed our relationship with God. Thus he says: “Charity is friendship between man and God, or the love with which man clings to God as to his friend.” This concept of divine friendship is quite unique I believe and it is difficult to think that the man who spoke in this way had nothing but a literary knowledge of affection and friendship.

Contemplation and Love

Clearly his greatest love was for God and I have already indicated his love for the Eucharist. However, it is evident too that he had a love for Christ Crucified. There is a story that Thomas prayed before the Crucifix in the posture of uplifted hands, reminiscent of Dominic’s 9 Ways and the Lord asks him: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas, what is your reward?” to which he replied: “Nothing other than Thee, Lord”. This legend indicates two things, which are repeated often. (1) That Thomas frequently prayed before an image of the Lord Crucified (2) And that indeed, he prayed often. In a sermon he said: “Are you seeking an example of humility? Look to the Crucified One.” I have already mentioned St Thomas’ humility but I wish to stress again his prayerfulness, which is understandable when we learn that he saw sacra doctrina as coming from God, the divine Teacher. Indeed, he said he learnt everything in prayer rather than from books. As Tugwell says: “That he habitually resorted to prayer in response to everything that confronted him is also scarcely in doubt. It was well-known that he referred his intellectual difficulties to God in this way. If prayer is the most important activity of the contemplative life, as Thomas says, it is because understanding is always God’s gift.” I can add here just a brief note on Thomas’ theology of God and the role of contemplation. To come to know God, contemplation and prayer is the key, for God is unknowable unless he reveals himself. Thus, in the end, we pass beyond reason, which only enquires, to contemplation that simply beholds Him as He is. For Thomas, contemplation is the greatest joy in this life because it brings us closer to the One whom we love, to Truth and Wisdom.

God reveals himself in contemplation because this is a true sign of friendship, that someone reveals the secret of his heart to his friend. As such, Thomas’ is a affective understanding of contemplation. As such, he also holds that “in things beneath us, knowledge is more important than love but in things above us where our knowledge must remain imperfect, love counts for more than knowledge… it is not the understanding by itself but love that gives us the sight of God.” But this must be balanced by the need for holy preaching and teaching which sanctifies the intellect, not only of the preacher but also of the student. Thus Thomas says: “The ultimate salvation of man is that he may be perfected in his intellectual aspect by the contemplation of the First Truth”, ie God.

Perhaps by way of summary, we can look to Richard Woods OP who says: “God is not so much an object to be thought or even thought about, much less discussed endlessly, as a Presence to be sought. The art of such seeking is contemplative action and its end is mystical union, both in this life and hereafter.

There is clearly so much more we can learn from this great and holy friar!

May our brother, the saintly Fra' Tommaso d'Aquino, O.P. pray for us.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Life and Spirituality of St Thomas Aquinas - Prima Pars

The following is a presentation I gave on the Feast of St Nicholas last year. It is an Introduction to the life and spirituality of St Thomas Aquinas. I share it with you here in honour of his Feast which fell on Saturday:

* * * * *

On the Feast of St Nicholas in 1273, St Thomas was celebrating Mass (a practice which, unusually for that time, he did daily) in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples. His biographers say that in the course of celebrating this Mass he underwent an astonishing transformation (mutatione): “After that Mass, he never wrote further or even dictated anything, and he even got rid of his writing material”, leaving uncompleted the third part of his Summa Theologiae. When he was asked by Reginald of Piperno, his socius, why he was doing no more, St Thomas simply said: “I cannot do anymore. Everything I have written seems as straw in comparison to what I have seen.”

This incident which we will examine later is called by some ‘the silence of St Thomas’ and it marks a turning-point in the eventful life of the friar who has been exalted by popes as the ‘Angelic Doctor’ and the ‘Common Doctor of the Church’, a title that was already accorded him in the 14th century. As Guy Bedouelle, OP says: “His philosophy is taken for granted as perennial, and his theology merits the same tribute.” Moreover, he alone is singled out in our Constitutions (art. 82) as “the best teacher and model” for the study characteristic of a Dominican. More recently in Fides et Ratio (1998), Pope John Paul II said, “the Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology” and “In him, the Church's Magisterium has seen and recognized the passion for truth”(art. 44). As such, he is probably the best known Dominican, although for me – and I suspect many others – he was so much in a class of his own, that I was quite unaware that he was a Dominican – he was just the Thomas Aquinas! However, as we shall see, St Thomas’ approach was profoundly Dominican and steeped in his religious life. As Richard Woods OP says: “Thomas’ scholarly work was inseparable and indeed rooted in his personal spirituality, itself grounded in his Dominican identity” and it has been said by many that his “theology overflows into the spiritual life or, if one wishes, into mysticism.”

My aim is to merely introduce some of these ideas and St Thomas’ spiritual insights. If I’m only a catalyst in causing you to discover for yourselves our brother, Thomas’ writings, I will be entirely satisfied and grateful!


Bedouelle is right to say that “with the possible exception of St Augustine and Shakespeare, there is no other writer whose work has been commented on, compared to other thinkers and subjected to criticism more than that of St Thomas Aquinas.” Indeed, after a falling off after Vatican II, the last decade or so has happily seen a revival of interest in St Thomas and his theology. Quite apart from these, there is the massive corpus of writings by St Thomas himself.

But there are clearly some books which I have found more helpful than others. I have had recourse to some of his writings, particularly the famous Summa Theologiae. Chief among the books written about St Thomas is the excellent two-volume 'Saint Thomas Aquinas' by Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP. I believe this is currently the best monograph available, very readable and interesting and it supersedes the earlier work by James A. Weishepl, OP. I have used both extensively.

I have also referred to Simon Tugwell OP’s ‘Albert & Thomas’, Hinnebusch OP’s ‘The History of the Dominican Order’, ‘Mysticism & Prophecy’ by Richard Woods OP, ‘Aspects of Aquinas’ by Francis Selman, ‘Discovering Aquinas’ by Nichols OP and ‘In the image of St Dominic’ by Guy Bedouelle OP, among others!

Finally, classic writers on Aquinas whom I have found helpful are Marie-Dominique Chenu, OP and the Thomist scholar, Josef Pieper.

Biography with Spiritual characteristics

Tommaso d’Aquino was born in 1225, possibly on April 16. He was born in the family castle of Roccasecca, located in what was then the county of Aquino and almost midway between Rome and Naples. His father, Landolfo was descended from the counts of Aquino (and may have been a knight) and had at least four sons and five daughters with Theodora; Thomas was the youngest. It was customary for “upper-class families to present their younger boys as oblates to monasteries.” Thus Thomas studied with the Benedictines (accompanied by his nurse) from 1231 at the ancient abbey of Montecassino and indeed, his family had hopes that he would later be made abbot, a position of some power and influence. But in 1239, he left the monastery (due to hostilities between the pope and Emperor Frederik II around the area of Montecassino) and was transferred by his family to Naples, for safety. At the university in Naples, he was taught by Peter of Ireland who introduced Thomas to the philosophy of Aristotle, which was becoming current in Europe as the whole corpus of Aristotle was being translated into Latin from Arabic texts. He was also taught the works of Averroes and Tugwell says that "It was no doubt partly because of his early studies in Naples that Thomas had a much sharper awareness of than Albert [the Great] did of the differences between Aristotelianism and Platonism."

In Naples too, Thomas became acquainted with the Dominicans whose priory was opened in 1231. Interestingly, there were only two friars in the house in 1239 because the emperor had expelled all (other) mendicants from his realm! One Fra John of San Giuliano inspired Thomas to take the habit of the Order of Preachers in April 1244. Why did Thomas choose this new Order? Clues to his spirituality may be found in this choice. Torrell suggests a “desire to live a life of poverty”, an aversion to ecclesiastical preferment (he rejected the abbacy of Montecassino and later refused the archbishopric of Naples and a cardinal’s hat), an inclination towards study and “according to the theory he developed later, if it is good to contemplate divine things, it is even better to contemplate and transmit them to others” (IIa IIae 188, 6; cf IIIa, 40, 1 ad 2; 2). However, he always had a “deep esteem” for the Benedictine ideal and he had a habit of regularly reading Cassian’s Conferences throughout his life.

Nevertheless, Thomas’ rejection of Montecassino clearly annoyed his ambitious parents and his mother raced to Naples to stop him from joining the Order but the wily friars of Naples (who had to deal with a similar problem in 1235) had sent him to Rome. She raced there but again she’d missed him; he was on the way to Paris with the Master General, John the Teuton. She sent a courier to her sons who were fighting in the emperor’s army in the north of Rome. So, Thomas’ brothers intercepted him near Orvieto and placed him under “house arrest” in Roccasecca for over a year. Notably he was allowed visitors and Fra John came from Naples with a new habit for him! During this time he prayed, read the entire Bible and began to study the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He even convinced his sister Marotta to become a religious .

When it became clear that he could not be convinced otherwise, he was allowed to return to the Dominicans. It is important to state that this incident did not rupture Thomas’ bonds with his family. Torrell notes that Thomas frequently stayed at family castles in the course of his later travels and even came to his family’s financial aid – with papal permission!

So Thomas went to Rome and then in the summer of 1245, he journeyed to Paris with the Master General and spent three academic years there at the priory of Saint-Jacques. It is likely that the first of these was his novitiate year followed by two years of study with St Albert the Great and possibly in the Arts Faculty of the University where he did studied some Aristotle and pseudo-Dionysius. We have in fact transcripts of some of Albert’s lectures from this period written in Thomas’ own hand.

In June 1248, the General Chapter created a studium generale in Cologne and Albert was transferred there to teach, taking Thomas with him. Thomas spent four years in Cologne with St Albert the Great and it was likely that he was ordained in there. Torrell says that in this time, “Thomas was deeply impregnated with Albert’s thought”. Indeed, Thomas seems to have been an assistant to Albert, helping him compile some of his notes and may have done some teaching of his own. Weishepl suggests that during this period, Thomas wrote his earliest work, a Biblical commentary on Isaiah and gave cursory lectures on the Scriptures. It is worth looking at the key ideas in this text, Super Isaiam because there are ideas characteristic of his spirituality.

The young friar expounds that the Word of God is “a light for the intelligence. But affectivity also finds a place there [for] to meditate on the Word is joy. It also inflames the heart. Theological emotion – the charity that supernaturalizes our power of loving – is necessary in theology… In fact his whole anthropology appears in this sequence: intelligence, affectivity, heart.” Moreover, the "rumination on the Word does not find its end in itself. That Word is destined by God for His People." For Thomas, the attentive listening to the Word is a privileged way of acquiring the love of God, because the story of the favours God has done for us is eminently suited to awaken in us that love. Therefore, in a later commentary on the Creed, St Thomas enumerates five attitudes that we should have toward the Word of God: (1) We must listen willingly to it; (2) We must next believe in it; (3) We must also meditate on it constantly; (4) We must further communicate it to others by exhortation, preaching and enkindling and (5) We must complete it by being realizers of the Word and not forgetful hearers. And St Thomas concludes that these five attitudes were found in Our Lady. Thomas’ place as a Biblical exegete has been eclipsed by his theological works but it is noteworthy that in 1262/63 he was believed to have been requested by Pope Urban IV to write a running commentary on the 4 Gospels. This was so popular among preachers that in the 15th century it was called the ‘Catena aurea’, Golden Chain. As such Mulchahey says that “the Catena aurea still occupied a place apart because Thomas had decided to produce a synthetic reading of the Gospels based solely upon Patristic sources. In fact, some of the Greek material Thomas incorporated into the Catena thereby became available to a wide audience in the West for the first time. Thomas [also] used, most notably the acts of the first five ecumenical councils of the Church.”

In 1252, Albert recommended Thomas to the Master General to become a bachelor in Paris and to teach the Sentences. Paris then was a less peaceful place than Cologne, suffering from student riots in the 1230s and opposition to the mendicant orders and a general distrust of Aristotle. Despite having to contend with these forces and struggle to be incepted as a Magister in Sacra Pagina, Master of the Sacred Page, in 1256, Thomas persisted and at his inaugural lecture preached on the vocation of the theologian. In his words: “The minds of teachers… are watered by the things that are above in the wisdom of God, and by their ministry the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of students.” There is fundamental aspect of Aquinas’ thought in this: that all wisdom comes from God and is mediated through prayer. As such, he quotes James 1:5, “If people lack wisdom, they should beg for it from God and it will be given them.” Underlying all this is a profound humility, the one quality most spoken of with regard to Thomas’ sanctity. Indeed, Thomas’ use of the term sacra doctrina (divine teaching) is not mere piety. It points to the fact that “Only God is the Teacher in this sacra doctrina, just as only He is the [One who is] Taught.

From 1252 to 1256, he wrote his Commentary on the Sentences and it is interesting to see in his choice of citations the influences on his teaching. There are more than 2000 citations from Aristotle, a third of these from the Nicomachean Ethics, followed by the Metaphysics, Physics and De Anima. St Augustine has under 1000 citations, then 500 for pseudo-Dionysius, 280 for Gregory the Great, 240 for John Damascene.

At this time (c.1256) he also wrote his Contra Impugnantes, a defense of the mendicants, which was clearly needed in Paris then. Tugwell summarises this work: “It is not merely legitimate, Thomas argues, it is highly appropriate that there should be religious devoted to study, teaching and preaching (with the hearing of confessions an important pastoral adjunct of preaching). Poverty, in the rigorous sense of mendicancy, is not merely permissible, it is the crowing glory of religious life. Manual labour, by contrast, is not an essential feature of religious life…” As such, Thomas sees study (and the Dominican life) as a vital contribution to the life of the Church because it saves souls, a spiritual act of mercy.

Unsurprisingly then in 1259 Thomas was present with Albert at the General Chapter at Valenciennes where they were appointed to a commission to suggest ways of promoting study in the Order. Thomas certainly saw study as important in the Order and especially to teach, as Dominican academics. As Tugwell notes: “[Thomas’] claim that teachers of theology, by teaching the preachers, do more than the preachers themselves do… is of a piece with Hubert [of Romans’] readiness to give far more dispensations to teachers than to preachers, on the grounds that teachers make the preachers, but preachers can always be replaced!” From 1256-1259 he wrote his first major set of disputationes, De veritate. Before he left Paris in 1259, Thomas began the Summa contra Gentiles, a defense of the reasonableness of the Christian faith and one that was part of his search for wisdom, another key to Thomas’ spirituality. Rather than being written for any specific group of infidels, it was written to have “a universal apostolic bearing”, useful for all times.

He addressed many questions of the day too in his Quodlibets and lectures in Paris and he often wrote in response to a need in the Church. Indeed, he composed 26 out of 90 works “on request”, whether from friends, or the pope, or the Master General. “Despite heavy teaching and writing responsibilities, Thomas never neglected these demands of intellectual charity, and in this lies one of the elements of his sanctity. For anyone seeking the means he adopted, the secret is not to be found in austerities or in special devotions, exterior to his intellectual life, but in the very concrete exercise of his intellect” (Torrell, 49-50).

During this time in Paris, he also preached, even though few of his sermons survive. Moreover, Mulchahey notes that even his Lenten sermons preached in 1273 was reworked and circulated by his brethren as a theological work and not a sermon. Nonetheless, we do have evidence of his sermons and “compared with a number of his contemporaries, Thomas distinguishes himself by his simplicity and sobriety, the absence of scholastic subtleties and technical terms… For an intellectual, Thomas’ preaching appears astonishingly concrete, supported by daily experience, concerned with social and economic justice… As to the content, his sermons repeat many themes favoured by the preachers of every time: the meaning of God, devotion to the Virgin, prayer, humility (Thomas loved the theme of the vetula [old woman] who knows more about God than a proud intellectual), but also… in the first place, concern for the essential, charity… Then, imitation of Christ… Finally, he strongly emphasizes the place of the Holy Spirit as a source of Christian liberty, the bond of ecclesial communion, the origin of our prayers, the realizer of petitions in the Pater” (Torrell, 73-74). Noteworthy is the sobriety of Thomas’ style and language. As Pieper explains: “He avoids unusual and ostentatious phraseology… the firm rejection and avoidance of everything that might conceal, obscure, or distort reality.” This indicates his commitment to communicating the Truth as simply as possible and also his humility. It is also something we could emulate in our communication of the Faith today!

To be continued: Thomas in Orvieto & Rome: the Corpus Christi Office

Sunday, January 29, 2006

World Leprosy Day

NB: The Aquinas posts have been delayed until tomorrow...

Today is the 53rd World Leprosy Day. For many of us who live in the developed world, in prosperous societies, leprosy may be no more than a Biblical affliction. Properly called Hansen's disease, the tragedy of leprosy is that, with medical care and adequate sanitation, it is curable and preventable. Yet it still persists and I have even witnessed young people who are dying because of open wounds and infections caused by leprosy; it is a heart-rending sight...

Almost two years ago, I was privileged to spend a week in a leprosarium called Tala, outside Metro Manila in the Philippines. Few people can visit this place, the oldest lepers' refuge in Asia, and not be moved. I was then a guest of the Dominican Brothers of St Martin de Porres ('Martinians Brothers', on left) and visited the leprosarium with them on several occasions. I spoke to the patients, held them and comforted them, joined them in song and prayer and listened to their stories. I also accompanied the Martinian Brothers to the out-patient clinic (below right) where they attended to the putrid wounds of the lepers every day. It was a very humbling sight and although at times I wanted to turn my face away, I made myself look, mindful that in them was Christ the Suffering Servant who was so disfigured that we shielded our faces from Him.

The Martinian Brothers are devoted to caring for leper patients and the terminally ill. Inspired by St Martin de Porres, they humbly strive to be used by God in the most dreadful of situations, to bring his balm of love to the wounded of society. For what many lepers feel more deeply than their physical wounds is the stigma of the disease; even rehabilitated patients who are no longer infectious are shunned by society, unable to find jobs. As such, they have found a home in Tala and here they have families and a community. Here too the Dominicans have congregated to share God's love with them. Apart from the Martinians, there is a large school offering free education for primary through to tertiary-level to all patients and their children (below). The school, Holy Rosary College, was founded in 1951 by Fr Anthony Leo Hofstee, O.P. and it is currently run by Dominican Sisters. The school is in need of funding and donations and last year I was honoured to assist a fellow Dominican Volunteer, Desiree Hwang in her efforts to raise funds for the Holy Rosary Foundation.

I admit that when I initially was asked to meet the patients I had some anxiety due to my ignorance about Hansen's disease. However, I did some research on the internet about leprosy and learnt more about it, I prayed for the grace to reach out to the people I met and then I went out and listened to them. Since them, I have returned to Tala several times and, as I listen to the stories of the people who live there, each trip is a revelation of the depths of love, tenacity and the strength of the human person; God's grace truly is evident in Tala.

The Holy Father, in his Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, has reminded us that charity is intrinsic to the Church and Christian life: let us put his words into practise. Today on World Leprosy Day, I ask you to open your hearts, let us dispel ignorance and do be scandalized that this disease, so easily avoided, still exists in the poorest nations; and then let's tell others about it. Let's pray for the patients and their families and carers and let's do something practical - help an organization that caters to the patients of Hansen's disease. If you want to find out more about Tala and the Dominican projects I have mentioned here or if you'd like to help them in some way, please email me:

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Doctor Thomas repletus gratia!

"Adsunt Doctoris caelici Thomae festa solemnia: Devotione supplici laudes promat Ecclesia."

'This is Saint Thomas' festal day, celestial Doctor of the King: Let Mother Church, in prayerful lay, devoutly all his praises sing.'

The medieval rhymed Invitatory of Matins above, translated into metrical form, rightly calls us to sing the praises of St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor whose Feast we celebrate today. As such, I offer below, the Office Hymn 'Thomas insignis genere' by William of Ada, a fourteenth-century French Dominican who was present at Thomas' canonization in 1323. It has been translated into a metrical form so that it may be sung to any Long Meter tune:

"The scion of a noble race,
Born of a line that well may boast,
Saint Thomas, early led by grace,
Enrolled amid the Preacher-host.

He bore a likeness to the sun
Whose splendour scatters clouds of night,
For more than others he has won
From pagan mist clear rays of light.

The depths of wisdom's sea profound
He searched, and treasures rich revealed:
While rapt above all human bound,
He does unveil things long concealed.

The Father, Son and Holy Ghost
By all the world be duly praised:
God grant that to the angel-host,
By Thomas' merit, we be raised."

In celebration of this great saint and Dominican, over the next three days I shall post a hagiography and brief introduction to the spiritual wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Celebrating Mozart

Ever since my boyhood when I first watched the movie 'Amadeus', I have been entranced by the music and genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Indeed, it was my discovery of Mozart's music that began my life-long passion for classical music and having meandered along musical paths from Gregorian chant to Philip Glass, I still find myself returning to Mozart, my first musical love. And I am not alone in this fascination with Mozart; most people noted when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to the See of Peter that he was a keen musician (and lover of cats) and delighted in Mozart.

As this Holy Father said in the book-length interview published in 1997 in English as 'Salt of the Earth': "Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence." Indeed, a fascination with Mozart unites a variety of theologians - not that I would count myself a part of their constellation! Mozart is admired by Kierkegaard, Hans Kung, Von Balthasar and Karl Barth, to name a few.

Barth, the classical Swiss-Reformed dogmatician was such an ardent lover of Mozart's music that he said that "if I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine and Thomas, Luther...". Even more interestingly, Barth said in a letter that "it may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure." This is a wonderful image and it was matched by the mystic Adrienne von Speyr who had such an influence on Balthasar. She had a vision of Mozart in which she told Balthasar that, "There is a dialogue between Mozart and the good Lord which is like the purest prayer, and this whole dialogue is made up of music alone."

This reminds me again of the play and movie, 'Amadeus' wherein Salieri is amazed by Mozart's music which he thinks is so perfect that it is as if God spoke through it but he is appalled that such a bawdy buffoon should be the Lord's instrument. It is widely agreed that the caricature of Mozart in 'Amadeus' is an inaccurate dramatization and yet we are rightly amazed and ought to be humbled that the Lord deigns to use any of us, mere sinful creatures, as instruments of His grace and moreover allows us, by acts of art and creativity, to share in His divine creativity. But of course we should recognize that in Mozart there is a special talent which he was given by God and used so fruitfully to invoke the beauty of He who is Beauty. As the Theologian of Beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar said of Mozart's music, it is an "inexplicable miracle of beauty."

As I write this I am listening to the ineffably beautiful 'Et incarnatus est' movement from Mozart's Mass in C minor (K427) which is among my favourite from the Mozartian oeuvre. Who can fail to see in such sublime music the prayer of Wolfgang Amadeus in which he rejoices in the incarnation of the Lord and enters into a dialogue of the soul with the Eternal Word, who is clothed in Beauty?

Some people think of Mozart as somewhat saccharine, lacking in the angst of later musical styles, perhaps even juvenile in comparison to the more mature Beethoven or Mahler. But it is essentially this joy and beauty in Mozart that Balthasar considers as revelatory of the Trinitarian life. Having expounded on the interplay between rhythm, harmony and melody as a musical analogy of the Trinitarian relationship, Balthasar writes that in Mozart "the sharp corners of earthly (or all too earthly) realism are everywhere toned down by the knowledge that all things are reconciled and saved." As such, he also says that, "Mozart serves by making audible the triumphal hymn of a prelapsarian and resurrected creation, in which suffering and guilt are not presented as faint memory, as past, but as conquered, absolved, fixed present."

As such, the musician Mark Freer, writing in 'Communio (Spring 2005)' notes: "To enter into this heavenly concert [of Mozartian music] is a real contemplation, as we are caught up in the divine joy. It is not an exaggeration to speak of a mystical ecstasy." And in this state of contemplation as we truly listen to and savour the music of Mozart, we too can be caught up in God's joy and catch a glimpse of heaven.

To quote from Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical, 'Deus Caritas Est': "Contact with the visible manifestations of God's love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved" (para. 17). Taken in our current context, which I hope His Holiness will forgive me for doing, we can perhaps adduce that contact with audible manifestations of God's love can also arouse in us a feeling of joy, confidence in Christ's victory over evil, and an experience of God's love, as Mozart so clearly does for popes, theologians and lay Christians down the centuries.

As we remember the genius of Mozart today, on his 250th birthday, let us revel again in his music and in so doing, render to God a prayer, seek Him out and offer intercession for the eternal repose of the soul of our brother in Christ, Wolfgang Amadeus.

Revised on eve of 27 Jan 2006

Thursday, January 26, 2006

O Fathers of our Ancient Faith

St Timothy and St Titus are named in the Scriptures as co-workers with St Paul, who calls them "beloved and faithful child in the Lord" and "loyal child in the faith we share". Letters believed to be from Paul are addressed to them in the Pastoral Epistles but little else is known about them apart from the sketchy biograhical details alluded to in the Scriptures. That is often the case with many of the early apostles and their disciples... not because they were not courageous and holy men but possibly because as good messengers of the Word, they were not important; what was vital, the only Biography that counted, was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tradition, coming from Eusebius, holds that Timothy was the first bishop of Ephesus, that town where St John and Our Lady is believed to have lived out their final days. According to later fourth or fifth-century accounts, Timothy was clubbed to death by worshippers of Dionysius when he opposed their idolatry during their festival of Katagogia. His relics were translated to Constantinople. Titus is believed to have ended his days in Crete and was their first bishop and indeed the letter to him from Paul instructs him to govern the Cretans with a firm hand! We don't know if such firmness may have led to his martyrdom and his manner of death is unknown. His body was buried in Crete but his head was taken by the marauding Venetians (again!) in 823 to Venice.

It is fitting that we honour these "fathers of our ancient faith" and join in festal song with the Office Hymn of Apostles, Aeterna Christi Munera, in acclaiming that, "Theirs was the steadfast faith of saints, the hope that never yields nor faints, the love of Christ in perfect glow, that lay the prince of this world low."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

God Is Love

It's old news by now (!) but it still ought to be said:

Read the First Encyclical Letter of
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Deus Caritas Est

Now Online at the Vatican Website. Click HERE.

The Promise of Mission

St Paul is one of a select few saints who have more than one feast in the universal calendar and today we recall his Conversion on the road to Damascus. On 29 June the Church then rejoices in the martyrdom of St Paul and St Peter, that act of final self-giving and sacrifice which crowns and completes their total witness to Christ; the completion of their Mission. But before that, we mark the initial stage of that road to martyrdom: the Call of the 'Apostle to the Gentiles' and his response to this Call of Jesus Christ. In the extract below, Hans Urs von Balthasar distinguishes between the Call of Paul - and indeed this applies to any individual Christian - and his being commissioned and sent out on Mission by the Holy Spirit. As these two events are separated in time, it is fitting too that the Church marks them with two distinct feasts.

This chronological separation is a useful reminder to those who, flush with the zeal of a convert, would rush God and, with little or insufficient discernment and prayer, embark on a Mission that may not actually carry the chrism of the Holy Spirit; this is a mistake all too easy to make and (perhaps all too often) is made. It is not unusual for converts to the Faith, or indeed any cause, to be convinced that God has called them to this or that. Such zeal and passion is admirable and even enviable but - like the hot-headedness of youth - it can be misdirected or misplaced. Rather, as I have learnt and am still trying to learn, God may well call us at a certain moment in time and then He leaves us in that state of Being Called to allow that Call to mature into a Mission, when He will then send us out with the grace of His fructifying and empowering Spirit.

It takes patience, prudence, wisdom and discernment (and sometimes, just the grace of the passage of time) to await that moment of Being Sent and perhaps, sometimes, we are not very good at waiting for the Lord; we rush Him or presume to know His will before it is revealed to us, and consequently we do not bear lasting fruit for Him... So it is with religious and priestly formation - those years spent in the seminary or as a novice are necessary, a kind of 'breathing space' between the Call and Being Sent, for the Spirit to come. Let us learn from St Paul, from the Church's Liturgy and from Von Balthasar:

"On the road to Damascus, Paul encountered the call of God in unmistakable fashion, but the call contained only the promise of his later mission, not the mission itself. Struck by the personal call of the Lord, Paul asked: 'Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?' (Acts 9:6), only to be referred to the Church: 'Arise and go into the city, and it will be told thee what thou must do' (Acts 9:7). Between Paul's "yes" to the call of God and his "yes" to his mission there stretched a long road, marked by his efforts to reflect on what he had experienced, to identify himself with the Church's tradition (Acts 9:26), to gain the Church's approval of his mission (Gal 2:2) - a road of stillness and recollection: '... Without going up to Jerusalem to those who were appointed before me, I retired into Arabia, and again returned to Damascus... [for] three years' (Gal 1:17-18). The hour of mission did not sound for him until, in the church at Antioch where the prophets and teachers 'were ministering to the Lord and fasting', the Holy Spirit spoke, saying: 'Set apart for me Saul and Barnabas unto the work to which I have called them' (Acts 13:1-2). Only then did Paul's mission to the Gentiles become a mission both from God and from the Church. The meeting at Damascus was a meeting with the Son of God, corresponding to the association of the other apostles with the Lord: 'And last of all, as by one born out of due time, he was seen also by me' (1 Cor 15:8). But the mission at Antioch was an investiture by the Holy Spirit, by whom alone all missions are conferred. It should be noted here that even the Lord, whose election to mission and whose "yes" to that mission were from all eternity, was entrusted with his mission only when he designated historical moment of his earthly existence had arrived: not at the age of twelve when he demonstrated that his election was known to him, but at his baptism in the Jordan when the Spirit of the Father descended upon him so that, from then on, he might pursure his mission 'full of the Holy Spirit' (Lk 4:1). Only after his Passion and Resurrection, when the Holy Spirit had begun to go forth from him ('... If I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you' [Jn 16:7]), do the apostles receive their definitive mission: 'As the Father has sent me, I also send you... Receive the Holy Spirit...' (Jn 20:21-22). In the future, every mission, every installation in a particular state or way of life within the Church will be the work of this same Spirit (cf 1 Cor 12:4-11; 2 Tim 1:6-14)."

'The Christian State of Life', pp405-406.

The image above is from a Book of Gospels and Epistle Readings (1864).

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

This Blest Sacrament of Unity

A wonderful hymn - one of my favourites - with great words and often married to an excellent tune by Orlando Gibbons. I share it with you as a final reflection for this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity:

"O thou, who at thy Eucharist didst pray
that all thy Church might be for ever one,
grant us at every Eucharist to say
with longing heart and soul, "thy will be done."
O may we all one Bread, one Body be,
through this blest Sacrament of unity.

For all thy Church, O Lord, we intercede;
make thou our sad divisions soon to cease;
draw us the nearer each to each, we plead,
by drawing all to thee, O Prince of Peace;
thus may we all one Bread, one Body be,
through this blest Sacrament of unity.

We pray thee too for wanderers from thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
back to the faith which saints believed of old,
back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
soon may we all one Bread, one Body be,
through this blest Sacrament of unity.

So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease,
may we be one with all thy Church above,
one with thy saints in one unbroken peace,
one with thy saints in one unbounded love;
more blessèd still, in peace and love to be
one with the Trinity in Unity."

words by William Harry Turton (1881)

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Need for Christian Unity

Just over fifty years ago, an English Dominican and leading ecumenist, fr Henry St John, OP published a book called 'Essays in Christian Unity', a collection of essays on ecumenism, which was then a rather unheard of movement in the Catholic Church. Reading his essays today, they retain an amazing freshness and immediacy and his insights are still relevant to us, reminding us that ecumenism is still a necessary concern for all Christians and especially for Catholics. His reflection, an extract from which follows, is particularly pertinent because he points out that Christian division and squabbling hinders the mission of the Church which is to bring Christ's salvation to all people, to those who do not yet know him. As such, Cardinal Basil Hume would write in 'To be a Pilgrim' that Christian disunity was a scandal, a stumbling block to faith in the Gospel! Fra' Henry St John offers some food for thought on just this matter in a clear and prophetic way that is just as vital today as it was when he wrote it in 1954:

"Let us try to see with an impartial eye what Christianity looks like to the outsider, to the ordinary man who has been brought up with practically no knowledge of its principles and way of life, who has only very occasionally been inside a place of worship, and has the haziest idea of what it is all about. Yet there are times when he feels vaguely uncomfortable. The world is becoming a more and more insecure place to live in, and the things he is compelled to do every day seem to him, when he can look at them in a detached frame of mind, increasingly meaningless. He appears to himself, when he thinks seriously about the purpose of life, as he does sometimes, to be a helpless unit caught up into and entangled in a vast system which makes little or no sense whichever way you look at it. Being almost overwhelmed at times by the thought of this apparent purposelessness, of toiling to make money for other people at a job which interests him little of not at all for its own sake, of marrying and bringing up children to live in the same way and for the same object; it is natural that he should sometimes turn to religion for consolation and perhaps explanation.

He turns to the Christian religion because it is easily accessible to him; it surrounds him, in fact, on every side, and he knows it at least in name. But he does not as a rule read books about it; still less does he consult one of its authorized teachers. He studies it in his own locality, sampling perhaps its places of worship, reading the cheap literature he finds displayed at the church or chapel door, and viewing with a critical and appraising eye the people whom he knows who profess it. As a rule, unless he is very fortunate, he comes away from his brief and perhaps not very intense effort to understand Christianity, with the conviction that it is considerably more complex, and makes if possible less sense, than the riddle of life itself. He may get the impression, from things he hears and reads in the course of his researches, that Christ was a very great teacher, who had a message for the world of his time, but he is quite sure that those who claim to represent him in the world of today have bungled his message and do not themselves know what he really taught. Its expounders talk a jargon of which he can make neither head nor tail, and the greater part of their energies seem to him to be occupied with the task of proving that every other form of Christianity but their own particular brand is wrong and therefore useless.

Today, moreover, there exists a small but growing body of men and women who have a clear-cut and logical view of life... They are professed materialists and their view of life is, in its essentials, the anti-thesis of the Christian view of life, and those of them who follow out their principles to a logical conclusion are strongly opposed to Christianity. Their opposition is made easier because Christians supply them with plenty of excellent ammunition by their seemingly endless divisions and disputes, and by their apparent preoccupation with these domestic squabbles to the exclusion of what the ordinary man regards as the really important things of life. Can we blame him for giving up the attempt to understand Christianity and beginning to listen to what its enemies have to say with such point and pungency, and can we be surprised if he comes to the conclusion that religion, at least in any organized form, is a hindrance rather than a help to the solution of the problems of human life? Even Catholics, careless perhaps of the duty of keeping their treasure intact in dangerous surroundings, or ill-instructed in the fundamentals of the spiritual life, can all too easily find that the discord around them and the agnosticism it results in are echoed in their own lives.

In face of this situation it is imperative that the divisions of Christendom should be brought to an end, that Christianity should speak to the world with a clear and united voice. What chance is there of this ever happening? Humanly speaking, it seems to be a very long way off indeed. But in this matter we have no right to speak only humanly. If Christendom is ever again united into a single body professing one faith, it will be because God himself wills it and brings it about. But though the work of reuniting Christendom is essentially a work that only God can do, we can hinder or promote the work of God by our human ideas and actions. The seed of reunion will only germinate and fructify by the power of the Holy Ghost. We can hinder its growth by leaving the ground unprepared; we can promote it by diligent spade-work. But if we are to take our part in doing this necessary spade-work, we must first be filled with a consuming desire for reunion. Our hearts must burn with charity and zeal for this end; we must be profoundly grieved by the thought that so many who profess the name of Christ are estranged and divided from each other...

We are, as Catholics, rightly conscious of our unique position in Christendom, and secure in our own divinely constituted unity and faith, but we are apt to forget that what is clear to us from within is by no means so obvious to the outsider. We pray dutifully for the conversion of our country and the world; we do not always recognize that the chief thing that hinders the conversion of our country and the world is the confusion in Christianity of which we appear to be but a part...

Catholics, when they speak of reunion mean not the joining together of the sundered parts of a divided Church, but the healing of those schisms by which millions of human souls have been cut off in the past and are still cut off from full participation in the visible unity of Christ's Mystical Body. But though it is axiomatic for us that the visible Church can never be divided and must always remain one, yet the Church may lose, and has lost, large portions of her visible membership, to the very great detriment not of its essential unity, nor of its essential life, which are divinely created and guaranteed, but of the fullness, completeness and richness of that unity and life...

For numberless ordinary people today Christianity is put out of court, not because they have examined its claims and found it wanting, but because in an age which has a vague longing for religion, yet is made supine by disintegrating elements of its civilization, Christianity as a whole does not speak its message in clear and decided tones so that all can hear and understand. And not until Christianity can speak again in the hearing of the world as it did in the Apostles' time, with a single, clear and certain voice, not until Christianity and the Catholic Church are again one and the same thing, will the conversion of the world really begin.

This, then, is the situation with which we are faced today. On the one hand a world growing more and more chaotic for lack of any stable guiding principle, a world crying out in sore need for the truth; and on the other hand, the Church, proclaiming the truth unwaveringly, in clear and insistent tones, but in tones that often remain unheard because its voice is drowned by those other voices, each claiming its own particular version of the way of salvation. There can be no doubt that the most urgent need of today, in face of the tremendous problem which the world must set itself to solve, is the reunion of Christendom, in order that the truth which Christ came to bring, and which alone can solve those problems, may be proclaimed in such a way that all may hear it because Christendom speaks with a united voice...

The stage is set for a life and death struggle, a greater struggle perhaps than has ever taken place in history since the struggle between paganism and Christianity in the first four centuries of the Church's life. This spiritual struggle has already begun; it is a struggle for supremacy between those who regard this life as an ultimate, and those who look to eternal life; the struggle between Christ and pagan humanism for the soul of the civilized world. If Christians, then, are to play their part in the struggle as it develops and grows in intensity, how urgent the need is that they be united, that they should bear a united testimony to the Truth as it is in Christ Jesus, that they should show to the world a concrete and visible realization that there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism...

Truth is always involved in a concrete situation; it has behind it a history and a tradition; it carries with it an atmosphere and it is held and viewed accordinly. In the contemporary world a Catholic's belief in the Church is held and lived and thought about in surroundings of opposition; among people who disbelieve in it, and are either indifferent to it or attack it and oppose to it a different doctrine. The consequence of this is that though Catholics hold the whole doctrine concerning the Church, as it is taught by the Church, they tend to emphasize disproportionately certain aspects of it; just those aspects that are denied by those amongst whom they live. For instance, we as Catholics hold the Church to be Christ's Mystical Body, and that our supernatural life in the Church through grace is life in Christ; Christ living in us, and we in him; that the Church is in consequence the fellowship of the redeemed in which all those who are baptized are incorporated. This doctrine is the fundamental basis of our belief in the Church; the primary thing we believe about it. From this doctrine flows that of the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope, which is the divinely constituted safeguard of life in Christ within the Church. But so heavily has the doctrine of the Pope's supremacy and infallibility been emphasized by the exigencies of controversy that it has come to be regarded by outsiders, and sometimes, I fear, by Catholics too, as almost the sole constituent of the Church's doctrine about herself.
The result is that the Church is often regarded merely as a juridical institution in which the keeping of certain laws has become substituted for a deep spiritual sense of life in Christ, an institution in which holding the Faith is unconsciously regarded as more important than living it. It is clear that here we have a defective presentation that gives rise to a false apprehension of the Faith on the part of non-Catholics; the more so that many of them themselves have a very strong evangelical and Pauline sense of the Christian life as being life in Christ...

The ecumenical spirit, then, may be described as a spirit of friendliness, sympathy and mutual understanding; a spirit which lays aside the psychology of war and rejects all controversy of the win-a-victory type, and which without surrendering one iota of principle attempts to enter into the minds of those who differ from us, trying to understand by careful and patient probing what the real extent of those difference is, and what caused them to arise. Those who are actuated by this spirit, and who adopt this method of approach to the differences which divide Christians, are as a rule profoundly convinced that the ultimate work of bringing about the unity of Christendom is not the work of men, but of God. The work of men is to prepare the ground, upon which the grace of God may work. This can be done by a firm determination to get outside our normal surroundings and to make contacts of sympathy and understanding with those whose
environment and tradition are very different from our own. The barriers of mutual suspicion and prejudice which divide us must be cleared away, and these can only be broken down by the more complete understanding that comes from personal contacts. To approach the differences which divide Christians in this spirit and by this method is to create a psychological atmosphere in which the Truth can emerge and be seen as truth."

The icon above is 'The Mother of God Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit' by W.H. McNichols, SJ. She stands as the image of Mother Church, who will bring forth Christ the Eternal Word more eloquently, when She is overshadowed by the One Spirit who Unites us.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Keeping Sight of the Unity of the Body

All this week, we have been looking at various reflections and views on Christian unity. Below is a short article by fr Herbert McCabe, OP, who was described as "one of the outstanding Catholic intellectuals of the post-war years" and who was arguably the finest preacher and most original thinker in the English Dominican Province in recent years. Fr Herbert died in 2001 but was a prolific writer. This article, 'Christian Unity' is from the book 'God, Christ and Us', a compilation of previously unpublished homilies and talks. Like all his work, it is clear, succinct and offers food for thought, contemplation and prayer:

"What does it mean to pray for Christian unity? This is really quite a hard question to answer. If we ask ourselves what Christian unity is or would be, we find ourselves entering deeper and deeper into a mystery. For to seek the unity of Christians is to seek to be united in one Spirit. In the end, the unity of Christians goes beyond what can be expressed by agreement in the words of doctrine. It goes beyond even our shared sacramental life. It has to do with the vision and enjoyment of God himself. As we seek unity amongst ourselves, we are seeking the unity of the Trinity: for this Jesus prayed to his Father 'that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one' (John 17:22-3). The unity that is not simply a matter of negotiations and reformulations, but is the gift of God, is the gift of God's own self. It is the unity of the Kingdom. And it is not to be given in full before the Kingdom.

In the meantime, what we really have to be concerned with is not so much Christian unity as Christian disunity. And here we have another kind of difficulty. If we ask what, in the end, Christian unity is about, we find ourselves confronted and surrounded by mystery. If we ask what Christian disunity is, we find ourselves confrinted by complexity. There are just so many different kinds of disunity, so many different ways in which Christians have discovered they are separated from each other.

All that the ecumenical movement can do is to seek out and analyse those nearest to hand, and those that seem most likely to be curable, and to try to heal them. We cannot have any grandiose plan for bringing about the unity of all Christians. That would be like having a plan for the total and complete health of all the human race. All we can hope to do is cure some of the wounds and diseases that are close to us.

Notice that the disunity we come across is not the same as diversity. Nor is it is same as sin. But it is connected with both. Then again, Christian divisions do not arise from weakness, from people failing in commitment to Christ. They arise from people striving to be faithful to the gospel while being so concerned with their own kind of striving that they become blind to the strivings of others. Christians discover, to their surprise, that they are separated. They wake up one morning to find that it has happened. It is certainly not something they seek. It comes from a kind of neglect of community.

As St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:18-21, diversity is something necessary and healthy in the Church... Paul here is thinking first of all of different factions, followers of Apollos, or Cephas, or whoever - for the Corinthians were plainly a quarrelsome lot.

There are, and there have to be, many different ways of expressing the gospel, the good news that transcends any possible account of it. There are, and there have to be, different theologies - as there is, for example, a theology of St Luke, and another of St John, which grew up in different churches. Different churches, too, can and should develop different customs, diverse forms of worship. And all these contribute to the one body, to the diversity, the catholicity of the Church.

Divisions happen in the Church when good people discover that they have been so intensely concerned with their own theology, their own interpretation of the gospel, that they have lost sight of the unity of the body. Or, as is much more common, they discover that others have lost sight of the unity of the body. Diversity in the Church is an excellent and necessary thing. But, like many excellent and necessary things, it presents dangers too. It can give rise to a separateness - to the point where Christians feel that others have drifted away from communion, have excommunicated themselves, have preferred their own way to the whole body.

When that happens some churches try to abolish diversity altogether. And others become complaisant about separateness. Hence the monolithic, exclusive and uncatholic character of the Catholic Church in the last few centuries. Hence, too, the strange multiplicity of Protestant churches. The answer does not lie in imposing uniformity or in accepting division. And, unless we find the answer, we move from diversity, which is good, through division, which is not good. We move, in fact, to sin. At this point, the disunity of the Church becomes the sin of the Church. The real sin of disunity does not lie in what happened in the past. It lies in what is not happening in the present: in our failure to heal divisions. It is not that our fathers have sinned and we, in our superior charity, must do their repenting for them. On the contrary, our fathers were, for the most part, very good men, passionately concerned for the purity of the gospel. But they were limited, as human beings are. And maybe they were a little careless at first. They were taken unawares by the disasters and divisions that followed. What we have to repent of is not the sins of our fathers but our own failure to deal with the mess. The sin of the Church is not the divisions of the past, but the failures of the present. It is the perpetuation of divisions of, say, the sixteenth century - divisions which, though springing from important arguments of great and good people intensely concerned for the truth of the gospel, are now quarrels of little, mean people concerned mostly for the status of their own groups.

There are real and important arguments for the Church of today which are not at all the same as the arguments of the sixteenth century. Today there are great and good Christians who find they must disagree about, say, the meaning of the Church of the poor - about what it means to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim liberation to captives and those who are oppressed (cf Isaiah 61:1-2). So in thinking about Christian unity we need not just a determination to heal the wounds of the past but a warning about new wounds in the future. We need to be warned lest the real disagreements of good people should lead, not by malice, but by folly and recklessness, to new division, to another denial of the one Spirit in which we were baptized.

If we are to face that task of maintaining the unity of the Church now and in the future, we must clear up the irrelevant divisions of the past. And we do that not by forgetting them or ignoring them, but by going back to the Reformation, not simply to repeat the old disputes but to recapture in charity the passion for the truth of the gospel that people then had on both sides. For this passion can take us now not into division again, but toward the one Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit of love."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Healing our Divisions

In his latest book, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP (right, with others of the Dominican family) writes that "Christianity is gravely wounded in its ability to witness to the future unity of humanity, both because of divisions between Christians and divisions within the Churches." He then attempts to map out the characteristics that divide Catholics and proposes a way of reconciliation and fruitful co-operation. It is true that the lamentable disagreements within the Catholic Church has weakened her witness to unity in Christ.

Such divisiveness is surely of the Evil One. Pope Benedict XVI said a few years ago, when he was still Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that far too much energy and resources were being expended by the Church with regard to her internal conflicts and structures. As such, little energy was left for the all important work of evangelization and the salvation of souls. There is much truth in this observation. I believe that we must beware of too much ecclesiastical navel-gazing and always remember that the Church exists in order to be a sacrament of salvation, a living sign of the Triune God Who is a Divine Community of diverse Persons in Unity. In the Trinity is our model of a community of love.

Therefore, this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity does not only apply to inter-ecclesial communion but also intra-Ecclesial unity. As such, the following extract from Radcliffe examines what is necessary for Catholics - and also, by extension, all Christians - if we are to achieve greater communion and unity, to be reconciled in Christ so as to witness more effectively to the world; a riven and divided world in desperate need of the Gospel message of peace, unity, salvation and love. It is long, but please do keep reading! And so, Radcliffe writes:

"How are we to heal the wounds of Christ's body? How are we to learn to breathe again with the rhythm of the Eucharist, gathering people into community to share the Bread, and reaching out for the fullness of the Kingdom? In his sermon at the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, Rowan Williams reminded us that the Church is a sanctuary. He said:

'A sanctuary. But remember the two meanings of the word sanctuary in common use. A sanctuary, yes; a temple for God; but a sanctuary - a place of refuge, a place of asylum, to use a very current word. A place where those who need a home and have none may find it. So that
to be built by God into a sanctuary, a living temple, is not to be built into some closed space. It is to be built into a temple whose doors are open, where God is to be found and God's peace makes a difference. In all these respects, what deep conversion is required of us? How readily we turn to anxious striving, as if Christ had not died and been raised. How awkwardly we sit with one another to pray together and worship together. How easy it is for us to close our doors. But, we are called to be a kingdom of priests, and to be built as a holy temple so that the world may be invited, may see, may be transfigured.'

The Archbishop insists that the rebuilding of this home requires a deep conversion. I would like to explore in this chapter how this conversion must touch how we speak to each other within in the Church so as to heal division. Words can give life or death, hurt or heal.

In the beginning was God's Word, and that Word became flesh among us. At the heart of any Christian spirituality is our use of words. God entrusted Adam with naming the animals. This was a sharing in God's divine act of creation, speaking words that bring things to be...

Let us begin with the words that we do not speak, the silences that hurt the Church. Why do we say so little to each other? This silence has marked our words from the beginning. When God comes looking for Adam and Eve after their sin, they hide because they do not wish to talk. We have seen the silence of the women at the tomb. The silence within the Church was, it has been argued, intensified after the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century.

It is impossible for us to imagine the sheer brutal horror of that war, in which Christians turned on each other with an unprecedented bloodthirstiness. One bitter fruit of that rending of the Body of Christ was a deeper silence. There were things that could no longer be discussed, either between Christian churches or within the churches. There was a new dogmatism. There was less discussion than in the medieval Church, in which one could argue for virtually any crazy proposition...

So the great wounding of Christendom in the seventeenth century introduced a weakening of debate within the Church. We had to toe the party line, to stick to precise formulations of dogmatic positions in the face of the enemy. Anyone who raised questions or entertained doubts was subverting the common cause... And there was just the same sort of dogmatism to be found in the Protestant churches as well.

It was not especially Catholic. It was just the beginning of modernity. We still have not left behind that silence. In 'Called to be Catholic', the founding declaration of 'The Catholic Common Ground Project', we are warned that 'across the whole spectrum of views within the church, proposals are subject to ideological litmus tests. Ideas, journals, and leaders are pressed to align themselves with pre-existing camps, and are viewed warily when they depart from those expectations.' The destruction of the common home of Christianity in Europe brought us centuries ago into a sort of politics of identity, which is why one must not project too cosy an image of the pre-Vatican Church, and this has intensified. One must say the right thing to belong. 'Is she sound?' Communion Catholics may ask. 'Is he open?' Kingdom Catholics ask in turn. 'Is he one of us?'...

The Second Vatican Council attempted to break this silence... But the Council left lots of things unsaid, or at least unresolved. Maybe that was necessary and unavoidable if the Council was ever to end. But we have since been haunted by what the Council did not say. The silence deepened in 1968, in response to 'Humanae Vitae'... It is important to see that this silence is not just a Catholic or a Christian problem... everywhere there are pressures to build communities of the like-minded. One form of this is the rise of political correctness...

Of course some things should not be said... Not everything can be said. But surely the Church must become a place of scandalous freedom in which we dare to float ideas, test hypotheses, affirm an awkward and unpopular truth, and tell the Emperor that he has no clothes on, or hear that we have none on ourselves. We can never draw near to the mystery unless we have the playful freedom of the children of God, to experiment and make mistakes, and grope after the truth. Time and again, we have seen that Christians should be the ones who go on asking questions when others stop.

How them are we to speak? What might be a spirituality of speaking and listening? It is the ascesis and delight of encountering those who think differently from ourselves, who feel differently, who inhabit different worlds. We each owe our existence to the encounter of difference. Each of us is the fruit of the meeting of a man and a woman... Difference is the source of fertility and new life.

One of the ways in which modernity tends to be sterile is that it fears difference and takes shelter in the same... Differences are far more painful to endure if they are found in people who are close, to whom one belongs. One tolerates odd views by strangers which would be intolereable in a sibling. One theologian, of the Communion tendency, confessed that he could only cope with the views of 'liberals' by pretending that they were not his fellow Catholics...

When we must deal with opponents then the typical model of modernity is that of the law court. When we cannot agree then the law must decide. Language is adversarial. Only one side wins. Often in the Church we too fall back on the adversarial, which is the rejection of a fruitful encounter. This happens on both sides... The later books of Hans Kung, a founding member of 'Concilium', often give the impression of being deaf to other positions, describing the views of 'the other side' in terms that render them absurd. This is a way of avoiding a serious engagement with other views. But many people on the other wing of the Church work in just the same way, scrutinizinng people's opinions for error, out to get people of unsound views, and to convict them of heresy. This is what John Allen calls 'Taliban Catholicism'. Cardinal Yves Congar wrote that the first condition of Church reform was caritas, 'that selfless, unsentimental love that wills only the good of the other'. This is not just a matter of the heart but of the head. It is using one's intelligence to understand those who are different. It is speaking and listening in ways that create communion.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language'. How is the other person using this word? It takes time and attention to discover this. I must see its role in his or her life. If it is used in ways that surprise me, then I must try to understand what is going on, what he is doing with the word... When we speak about what is most profound in our hearts, then we speak from somewhere.

We speak out of the 'gaudium et spes', the victories and defeats, that have shaped our lives and minds. We are each the inhabitant of a mental home, some bounded and shaped place, with its maps and signposts. This give us identity. But each such home offers its own access to God, its window on eternity... One might say the same thing about a good spirituality too. Particularity is the starting point on one's journey to the infinite and the universal...

This attention to the other demands that I accept that he or she may hold firm to truths which do not sit easily with what I believe. Their convictions are different. Remember the words of Bishop Christopher Butler to the [Second Vatican] Council, 'Ne timeamus quod veritas veritati noceat', 'Let us not fear that truth can endanger truth.' No encounter can be fertile unless I dare to entertain, at least for a while, convictions which appear to be incompatible... When I dare to entertain two truths that seem to be incompatible, then I am forced to look for the larger horizon in which they may be reconciled. This means that I must be drawn beyond loyalty to any party with its manifesto, by a more fundamental loyalty, which is to the truth. For it is the truth that will set me free. It is in the truth that liberates that Kingdom and Communion Catholics can meet...

This is not to say that one can believe what one wants, because God is so broad-minded that the truth does not matter. I cannot imagine God saying, 'Oh, so you think my son married Mary Magdalene, do you? That's fine by me. Da Vinci Code or the Summa Theologica? It's all the same to me.' The spaciousness of God is more exciting than mere indifference. The good shepherd leads his sheep out of the tight and tiny boxes in which we lock ourselves into his spacious pastures. We must trust the voice of the shepherd who liberates us from narrow ideologies and small vocabularies. We must find ways of speaking which reach for the spaciousness of God's word.

How different can two believers be for the encounter to be fertile? Of course ultimately we must share orthodoxy, but this is not to narrow the scope of the conversation; it is to enter the broad terrain of the mystery, in which we are liberated from the tightness of ideology. It is a serious misuse of language to use the word 'orthodox' to mean conservative, or even worse, rigid. Orthodoxy does not lie in the unvarying and thoughtless repetition of received formulas. As Karl Rahner pointed out, that can be a form of heresy. Orthodoxy is speaking about our faith in ways that keep open the pilgrimage towards the mystery. Often it is hard to know immediately whether a new statement of belief is a new way of stating our faith or our betrayal. It takes time for us to tell... It is a failure of courage to rush into condemnation... Even if someone says something which is clearly unorthodox, my first reaction must be to see what truth they are trying to say rather than immediately condemn their error. They may be struggling to say something true, even if they are putting it in a way that is untrue... Noel O'Donoghue once described heresy as 'trapped light'. One must find a way to let out the light that is there.

All this demands patience... At this stage one may be tempted to think this all sounds very lovely, but will anything happen? To heal the polarization of the Church we need more than a spirituality; we need action. I would briefly suggest that we need two things: places in which such conversations can take place, and leadership... We need lots more institutions, which open up spaces and places in which we may talk freely to those who are different and be fertile... Leadership is the task of every baptized Christian. That it might be in some exclusive sense the task of bishops seems to be a strange and very modern idea. Many of the great reformers of the Church like St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine of Siena and Dorothy Day were not bishops. They were not even ordained. They were lay people and often women. Benedict, whose name the present Pope has taken, was almost certainly not ordained.

The only understanding of Christian leadership that I find in accordance with the gospel is the obligation on each of us to dare to take the first step... We need a little creativity of Thomas, who wove together the seemingly opposed traditions of Augustine and Aristotle, to make a new and more spacious narrative."

May the Holy Spirit renew us, inspire us and give us courage to step out in faith, hope and love, seeking after his truth. Amen.