28 January 2009

Homily for St Thomas Aquinas (repost)

To mark this feast day for St Thomas Aquinas, I am re-posting this homily from the 2008 Vespers Service celebrated at St Albert the Great Priory in Irving, TX.

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St Thomas Aquinas: Wis 7.7-10, 15-16 and Matt 23.8-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

The Book of Wisdom wisely teaches us: “…both we and our words are in [God’s] hands…” It is wise that the Book of Wisdom teach us this b/c as a book this book would not want—if a book could want—to be left in the hands of a fool to be read by foolish eyes and taught by foolish tongues. The wisdom imparted here also reminds the potential fool that he or she does not read, teach, write, or research alone. Prior to any desire for knowledge, any longing to know, is the primal hunger for God, our preferred state of perfected union. Our intellectual and academic pursuits are marked from the beginning with the presence of God, Wisdom: “…I chose to have [wisdom] rather than the light, because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.” So even before the light is shone in the darkness, wisdom abides and seduces us to the humility proper before our Father in heaven.

What is wisdom? Aquinas writes, “According to [Aristotle] (Metaph. i: 2), it belongs to wisdom to consider the highest cause. By means of that cause we are able to form a most certain judgment about other causes, and according thereto all things should be set in order…[and in the second article] Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry…”(ST II-II.45.1-2). Slightly more simply put, wisdom is that habit of mind that seeks to discover and study the final causes of all things and put these things in their proper order given their final cause. Wisdom is not some goofy, spooky secret that floats around waiting for the right moment to possess someone. Nor is wisdom to be found among the sticky tomes of Retail Gnosticism that haunt Borders and Barnes & Noble. These “wisdoms”—usually some form of esoteric paganism muscled-up with pseudo-scientific jargon—these wisdoms tend to provide the weak ego with a boost of faux confidence and leads the newly self-minted guru to exalt him or herself. But here’s what we know from the wisest teacher of them all: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

On receiving a gift, we say “thank you” to the giver, thus humbling ourselves before the giver as a sign of our dependence on him or her for that gift. We say grace over our food, giving thanks for our benefactors and our cook. Perhaps you woke up this morning and gave God thanks for one more day to serve Him. We are all here now offering the ultimate thanksgiving of the Mass. But do you thank God for your Reason, your ability to deliberate on moral problems, your sense of right and wrong given the limits of right reason, your ability to experience creation and deduce godly truths? Do you thank God daily for His wisdom? If not, I wonder who it is you call “Master”? I wonder what it is that moves you to think about anything at all. . .

To help his disciples maintain the humility necessary to grow in wisdom, Jesus tells them: “Do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.” He also says not to call anyone “father” or “Master” b/c they have one Father and Master. The essential point here is that there is a single source of Wisdom for us, just one origin for the understanding of all things made. This warning isn’t about titles or honorifics but about foolishly identifying someone created as the source of Creation. It is not difficult to see how quickly such folly grows into madness. And that madness into the exaltation of one who was created from dust. What is there in the human mind that precedes the wisdom of the mind’s Creator? Nothing. Thomas called it “straw.” Straw has its proper uses, for sure, and it is a good thing, but it is straw not enduring truth. Enduring truth starts for us when we come to understand that “…both we and our words are in [God’s] hand…”

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  1. Anonymous8:50 AM

    This is outstanding. Thank you for it!


  2. As Patrick says, "outstanding."

    I deeply appreciate your homily, Father, for many reasons and in many ways as with all of your homilies I have read so far. In this homily, incorporating the theme of gratitude, or thankfulness, with wisdom, is so very relevant. Gratitude always, may be the most difficult and also the highest form of wisdom.

    Regarding St. Thomas Aquinas, a friend wrote to me the following comment to one of my posts, a post about the value of writing. I had never before then, heard that he, Thomas, wanted to discard his writings - as so much straw. The comment, which encourages writing, said this.

    "Think about S. Thomas of Aquino. He wrote one of the most important thing to our beloved Church. And in despite of this he wants to throw away all he had written because he thought it was straw. So, if we're in union with our God, loving Him, loving others, and going always on to the path of Love, He can use our poor writings to help a lot of people and to who only Him knows." (Portuguese to English translation by Kenosis, administrator of In Aeternum Amor Dei! blog, or http://amor-dei.blogspot.com.)

    Do you know this story, Father?

  3. Aspiring,

    Yes, TA had a vision while writing the third part of the Summa and said that everything he had written was as straw compared to the truth he had seen.

    There are many interpretations of this statement, but basically he simply meant that his writings didn't capture the clarity or intensity of the truth revealed to him in the vision. I doubt he meant that his works were useless or false. Just "as straw" when compared to the vision.

  4. Your homily, its many parts and the whole of it, truly is outstanding.

    Thanks for the clarification above.

    Safe travel! to the states and back. (And uncomplicated.} Amen.