Wednesday, March 7, 2012

St Thomas Aquinas, Confessor and Doctor of the Church

Wisdom 7:7-14 / Matthew 5:13-19

In the dialogue Theætetus, Plato has the figure of Socrates relate to his interlocutor Theætetus a story about Thales, who may well have been the first philosopher. Socrates tells that Thales, so intent on looking at the sky, tumbled into a well. This led to the mockery of a servant girl, who noted that he was so intent on the things of heaven that he did not know what was going on around his own two feet. Socrates agrees, in some sense, with this portrayal of the philosopher, who in his search for wisdom is nonetheless unable to make his bed and cook a meal. Yet, for Socrates, what marks the philosopher off from other men is the fact that he, as opposed to the rest, is concerned with what is in fact productive of human happiness: contemplation of wisdom, the very life of the gods. While the rest of the world goes about busily from this to that, the philosopher's life is one of holy leisure, free by his pursuit either to move from topic to topic as seems right or to return again and again to the same question, even as people immersed in the world are tied to the clock, forced to move on to what the schedule of earthly affairs demands of them, and so never able to rise above what ultimately proves to be the misery of a life bound to the world. In this way, even Socrates' accusers who are calling him to trial for the corruption of youth are far less happy than Socrates, who will die by their judgment.

Quite a different vision of the pursuit of wisdom is found placed by the Scriptures into the mouth of Solomon, and by the Church on this feast into the mouth of Thomas Aquinas. Solomon states that he asked for wisdom, preferred her to all kingdoms and riches, beyond all earthly goods, and received not only wisdom, but all good things together with her, and innumerable riches through her hands. While he rejoiced in them all, at first he did not see, but would later come to realize, that these other riches were not gratuitous extras, rewards for having sought wisdom above all. Rather, they came precisely because he had wisdom, precisely because those who are wise become the friends of God. The Solomonic wise man, unlike the Greek philosopher, does not find himself silly before a foolish world, the butt of servants' jokes. Instead, his wisdom, not in spite of being directed to heaven, but because of it, gives him a better and truer estimation of how to live here and now, how to make best use of the riches of this world.

While some stories of the Angelic Doctor might suggest in Thomas a kind of Thalian simplicity and silliness, Thomas Aquinas is surely more Solomonic in his wisdom. Indeed, such was his view of the gift of wisdom that it provided not only for our speculative goals, but for our practical ones as well. Wisdom, for Thomas, is seeing things in light of the highest causes, indeed in light of the highest cause, God himself. More precisely, Thomas asserts that to be truly wise, to have not only the natural habit of wisdom but the gift of the Holy Spirit bearing the same name, is the result of love. It is from the love we receive from God, and in turn our kindled love for him, that we come to see him, ourselves, and the world, not in partial, broken, finite, and thus untrue ways, but the way God himself sees, and thus as they truly are. This is because, through love, we come to see things as our lover sees them, to want what our lover wants, to reject what our lover rejects. Thomas, who devoted his life to study, and had only the highest of praise for cultivating the life of the mind, nonetheless valued even more highly the intuitive and all the more probing wisdom of those who are holy, of those who even without formal study all the same know things aright, those who have become friends of God.

Our Lent can feel as though it has made us like Thales, pursuing what is right to the mockery of a misunderstanding and deluded world. Yet, our feast today assures us that the wisdom our Lenten practice affords us is of a Solomonic sort. Lenten fasts and observance do not direct us to the heavens at the expense of negotiating the things of the world. Rather, as Thomas reminds us, they are to kindle in us love, and openness to the love poured out on us by Jesus Christ through the sending of his Spirit into our hearts to dwell with us as Friend and Advocate. Love is our motive force in Lent, and Love is our guide. It is Love that will see us through to the end, and in that divine Love, we will know all things, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, not out of our own craft, but through having been made like to the very mind and heart of God.

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