Friday, January 28, 2011

Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, O.P., Doctor of the Church

Ephesians 3:8-12 / John 17:11-19

Now, therefore, through the church, God's manifold wisdom is made known to the principalities and powers of heaven, in accord with his age-old purpose, carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.

How can angels learn about the things of God from human beings? True enough, according to the Church's lore on angels, they can in fact learn from one another, the higher and more exalted ones enlightening by the superior light of their intellect those who are below. However, the blessed angels enjoy the beatific vision, so surely they know all they desire to know, all that God will them to know about himself. What is more, if God were to bring them to a greater and deeper knowledge, how could this come about through human beings, who know indirectly and stepwise what the angels themselves know directly and intuitively? After all, even human beings taught by the Incarnate Word himself are not, in their humanity, closer to God in his divinity than are the angels.

St Thomas' solution to this puzzle is to attend to Paul's language in Ephesians. Paul, he notes, does not say that the angles, the principalities and powers of heaven, are taught by the Church, but that they learn through the Church. Just as we learn of the plan hidden in the mind of the architect by the emergence of the building he is having built, so too the angels learn the hidden counsels of God through the unfolding of his plan of redemption in the living out and building up of the Church.

Thomas' solution is, as one would expect, elegant and simple. It does, however, open up what has become something of a hotly disputed point about the nature of truth. Specifically, the question is this: What is the kind of truth in which Christ consecrated his disciples, and which the angels come to know through the Church? Even more precisely, is the truth in which the Church is consecrated the truth of things known (a cognitive reality) or the truth of a community authentically lived (a personal/existential reality)? Is it, in other words, the truth of gnosis or the truth of praxis?

Thomas' own life ironically gives witness to either answer, easily seen in two well-known events in his life. The first possibility, the cognitive focus of truth as known, can be seen in the story of Thomas' dinner with St Louis IX, King of France. Thomas, well-known to the holy king as both a saintly and a wise man, spent much of his meal in silence. Then, as though oblivious to his fellow guests or even of his host, exemplifying his abstractio mentis, his abstraction of mind from his immediate context, abruptly pounded on the table with his fist and cried out, "That is a decisive argument against the Manichees!" (To his credit, the most Christian king of France did not chide him, but rather called for pen and parchment so that Thomas could have his argument recorded and it would not be lost.) Truth here was truth as seen and contemplated, apart from consideration of the human context in which it came to mind.

Another story of Thomas, however, points in the opposite direction. It is said that, while he was a student in Cologne under the watch of St Albert the Great, Thomas kept his tongue, and because of this and his large size, was called by his fellow students the Dumb Ox. Thinking him a bit dim, his brothers called him to look out the window to see a flying cow. When the Angelic Doctor went to take a look, his brothers laughed at him, marvelling that he would be so credulous as to think a cow could fly. In response, Thomas noted that he would more readily believe that a cow could fly than that a Dominican would knowingly and willingly deceive his brother. Truth here is truth as personal and experienced, lived precisely by attending to the web of human relationships in which we find ourselves.

Thomas' own insight about truth, and indeed the very promise made by Jesus himself to the apostles in John's Gospel — Consecrate them by means of truth. Your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world; I consecrate myself for their sakes now, that they may be consecrated in truth. — is that this tension between truth as known and contemplated and truth a interpersonally lived and experienced disappears in the encounter with the Incarnate Word. Since Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, is Truth, this means that any speculative or contemplative encounter with truth is always already personal, and encounter with the Person of the Word. Likewise, any personal engagement with the whole Christ, in Head or in members, only makes sense, is only authentic, if it is open to a deeper vision of what is simply true of the other, even apart from our relating.

This is what it means to be consecrated in the truth. This is what it means to be sent even as Christ was sent. To be in the truth is to be so joined to Christ that in us the Truth that is his very Person will illumine even the powers of heaven. Thomas himself, while working on the Tertia pars of his great Summa theologiae, was seen to have been hovering in the air before the crucifix, weeping and praying. The image of Christ said to Thomas, "Well have you written about me, O Thomas. What reward do you seek?" May we, like him, be consecrated in the truth and answer with our patron and our brother, "Nothing but you, O Lord."

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