Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Saint Thomas Aquinas - 28 January

The richness of Saint Thomas's thought can be gathered around four phrases, beautiful and poetic, which we find in his writings.

Providentiae particeps - the human being participates in providence. This gives us an idea of the depth there is in human freedom and in human action for Aquinas (and for the Catholic tradition generally). Among the creatures God has made is a creature created in God's image and likeness. This means a creature capable of knowledge and understanding, capable of conscious deliberation and choice, capable of initiating and creating new things. The human being is not just a passive recipient or object of God's government of the world, the human being participates in God's government of the world. History is unfolding in accordance with God's will but the human being through his actions shapes that history. The human being redeemed by grace is even more a participant in God's providence because then he is not only building the world but building the kingdom of God in the world. This idea of the human being as a participant in providence guides all of Aquinas's moral teaching, all that he has to say about the virtue of prudence, for example, and all that he has to say about natural law. It is in his consideration of natural law that this phrase is found: human beings are subject to natural law not in what they share with other animals (these would be laws of nature) but in what is distinctive about them, the characteristics listed above, intelligence, freedom and creativity. It is these that mean the human being is a participant in providence.

Aquam in vino - Aquinas is always spoken of as one who contributed significantly to thinking about faith and reason, the relationship between revelation, faith and theology on one hand, and science, reason and philosophy on the other hand. Unfortunately we live at a time when many assume that these two hands can only be fists towards each other, that they are opposed ways of seeing the world and of considering human life and affairs. Aquinas considers such arguments at length in many places in his writings. This phrase comes in his commentary on one of the works of the philosopher Boethius. The anxiety is one that comes from the side of believers: mixing revelation and theology with science and philosophy, will it not water down the faith, dilute it, take away its characteristic strength and impact. Is it not a bit like watering down your wine, this use of philosophy by theology? Au contraire, says Aquinas (though not in French), the use of philosophy by theology is not a dilution of theology, but rather a transformation of the water of philosophy into the wine of theology. The image comes, of course, from the account of the wedding at Cana and Thomas's use of it is imaginative and very helpful. He is not despising philosophy by talking about it as water - there are times when water is what you really need rather than wine. Aquinas says as much: sometimes the difficulties we encounter in thinking about what is true require of us, not an appeal to the authority of revelation or theology, but simply better philosophy. Philosophy has its own territory, its own purpose, its own contribution to the search for truth and wisdom. Theology needs it, but needs it precisely as philosophy. The water remains within the wine. Maybe there are better images for this integration of faith and reason but 'water into wine' is a good one to be getting on with.

Verbum spirans Amorem - this phrase comes in the first part of Summa theologiae, in the question about the missions of the persons of the Blessed Trinity. The Son and the Spirit are sent by the Father into creation. Creation comes about through their work. The history of salvation is their work. The sanctification and deification of human beings is their work. All of it - creation, salvation, deification - is of course the work of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we believe in historical events that made present in created time and space, and continue to make present in created time and space, the mystery of God's Trinitarian life. There are visible missions of the Son and the Spirit - the incarnation (enfleshment) of the Word and the visible signs in which the Spirit is 'seen' (the dove, the tongues of fire). There are also invisible missions of the Son and the Spirit, their being sent into human hearts, minds, souls - all that we call grace, the ways in which it heals and strengthens human beings, the ways in which the human heart is prepared for the indwelling of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the middle of his thinking about these questions in the Summa theologiae, Thomas comes out with this phrase, verbum spirans amorem. The Word of God and the Spirit of God can never be separated from each other. The Word that breathes on us is a word that breathes Love - the Word is the Son and the Love is the Spirit. The Word that makes his home in us, dwells in our minds, and knowledge, and understanding, and memory, is always a Word breathing love, and so dwelling also in our affections, in our passions, in our desires, in our will.

O Sacrum Convivium - the Magnificat antiphon for Vespers for the Feast of Corpus Christi has become well known, both as a prayer and as a text set to music by great composers. The sacred banquet is the Eucharist in which Christ is received, his passion renewed, the soul graced, and a pledge of future glory given to us. Aquinas works in all areas of philosophy and theology: moral philosophy and theology, faith and reason, systematic theology, biblical commentary and exegesis, and also sacramental theology, the practices of the Church through which the work of Christ and the Spirit continue to be available to the believer. The greatest of these sacramental signs is the Eucharist, which is why the Mass has such importance for the Catholic Christian. It is the summit and fount of all Christian life, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the event to which all other moments of our Christian life point and are drawn, the event from which all other aspects of our Christian life get their direction and their significance.

It is a short litany, then, for the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, the shortest possible Summa theologiae perhaps - the human being is providentiae particeps, our search for truth and wisdom must integrate aquam in vino, the One who has come to us is the Father's verbum sprians amorem, and we celebrate these mysteries and enter more deeply into them by our participation in the sacrum convivium.

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