Homily of Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.
Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Jan. 31, 2017
There is a fourth century book by an unknown Syrian monk entitled the Book of Steps. It’s about the spiritual life of Christians and the sacred liturgy. The anonymous author speaks about there being three Churches: the heavenly Church of the angels and saints, the earthly Church of clergy and sacraments, and what he calls “the little Church of the heart.” The interior chapel of the soul where the Holy Spirit dwells by grace. Our heart itself can become a Cathedral where God dwells, and so we can enter even now into the Church of heaven, and live in communion with the blessed, even in the midst of the world. This is the communion of saints established by God. Heart speaks to heart, in the Holy Spirit.
But with St. Thomas Aquinas we might complement this perspective by speaking as well of the “little Church of the mind.” What does it mean to have our intellect consecrated to the truth, to seek the truth honestly and relentlessly, to perceive all things in the light of God, and to worship the God of truth, the truth of Christ?
Many people, including some of us who are professors, are tempted to pass through a university at times like we might pass through a European basilica or cathedral, as a mere spectator or a tourist, looking at the notable art, trying to assess the buildings, the fellow professors, the administration, and of course the politics. But perhaps ignoring the one who dwells in the Cathedral, who is silently waiting to be discovered. The university also is a kind of church of the mind, where we are invited to worship at the altar of truth. This is an altar before which we learn to live with our intellectual vulnerability in the face of realities we don’t fully comprehend, and subjects we do not master. And it’s a place where the idols or ideologies of the age pass away, and the simplistic myths of human beings crumble. We should stop to worship, then, at this altar of God’s truth at the heart of the university, so that we may become what we are called to be.
Aquinas helps us see what it means to live out this vocation. In the little chapel of his mind, which was really like a great cathedral of wisdom, he honored the Eternal Word, the Logos of God, who dwelt within him and enlightened him. He joined in communion with the saints and doctors of heaven by his contemplation, and enlightened the Church on earth through his profound teaching and preaching, his discrete, quiet sanctity and his marvelous humility. Aquinas was a mendicant for the truth, who allowed Jesus “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), to make him poor, so that he could live for the one thing necessary.
In the beginning the university was born from the Church. The earliest universities of Paris and Padua and Oxford, were of course a product of Catholicism, stemming from the cathedral schools of the late 12th century. They were universities because they sought a true universality of learning, in the light of the truly universal light of God. To bring all knowledge of reality together in a harmonious and unified way, under the light of divine revelation, without doing violence to any form of natural human learning. To show how all human knowledge is in some way an anticipation of the truth of the Gospel, something made more intelligible in the light of Most Holy Trinity. Such magnificent figures as Alexander of Hales, and St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, and many others, contributed to this project and made it real, by integrating the knowledge gained from the sciences, literary arts, and classical philosophy into a higher Christian understanding of reality, based on a sophisticated engagement with the scriptures and Catholic doctrine. And what’s more amazing is that they did all this while living lives of holiness and the love of God at the heart of the university: Catholic charity, that is to say genuinely Christian love for each human being, and especially for God, animating the Catholic search for the truth. That is our Catholic heritage that God wants to give each of us, if we seek to learn, with Christ and in Christ.
Aquinas grounds his sense of the universality of truth in his doctrine of being. Everything that exists is real and has intrinsic intelligibility. Created being is the expression of God’s wisdom. The universe is the outward glory and splendor of God’s creative mind. Therefore it is subject to study. The various sciences discover diverse facets of being, and reveal to us especially the being of man, who is both animal and personal, corporeal and spiritual. God is the hidden and incomprehensible giver of all being, the author of all that is created. And He is present at the heart of all things, distinct from them but closer to them than they are to themselves. Consequently, the person who tries to discover what is real in the world has nothing to fear from God or from divine revelation, since all things comes from God. Nor does the Church have anything to fear from all the natural learning accrued by man, since natural knowledge and supernatural knowledge are meant to exist in concord, mutual complementarity. And the God who is intimately present to all things, and hidden within them as their Author has also revealed himself by becoming human and manifesting his identity to us in time, by living among us, revealing his incomprehensible divine essence to us through our own human form. In life, in death, in resurrection from the dead. The Catholic intellectual seeks to understand then, the whole of reality: the unity of the world and the sciences of that world, in the light of the wisdom of Christ.
We live today in a culture that is often deeply divided, characterized by conflict, restlessness, profound discontent, and violence, be it spiritual or physical. In the Summa contra Gentiles, Aquinas asks a strikingly contemporary question: “Is there any violence in God?” To which gives a negative answer: No. Violence always stems from something alien to our nature, and therefore disruptive toward our natural good. God’s own divine nature is immutably good, wise, eternal, mysteriously infinite, characterized by a radiant and incomprehensible joy. Therefore there is no violence in the nature of God.
Nor was their violence in the person of St. Thomas, who spent his life contemplating God. Aquinas takes on hues of the divine in his own person. He is a gentle light; a quiet light. His teaching suggests a serene engagement with the truth, patient and careful.
He is also a person who teaches us to love. Aquinas was a devotee of the Holy Spirit which he characterizes like his sister St. Catherine of Siena, as “fire”, a burning ember pressed down upon the heart, that we might in turn burn radiantly with the fire of divine love, dwelling in us. A gentle light, a living flame of love. We should ask the Holy Sprit that this sublime interiority of Aquinas might also be our own: That we might be gentle in the truth, and fervently alive with the zeal of divine charity, qualities that are so needed in our own historical moment.
The Church today has need, no doubt as much as ever, of academic excellence, and of a vibrant intellectual life present at the heart of the Church, and for the sake of the larger culture of humanity as a whole. Beware of all temptations to anti-intellectualism, whether religious or profane. The life of the mind is meant to be the Cathedral of God, giving him praise through ardent zeal in the pursuit of the truth, not resignation or even worse, anti-intellectual resentment.
At the same time, we should see with our eyes open how often the intellectual project of the modern university stands captivated by the pursuit of uniquely temporal, practical ends: to use the learning of the sciences to transform the world, transform the political life of society, engage in economic industry. All good things, but also all what John Henry Newman called the servile arts, in contradistinction to the liberal arts, that seek the life of learning ultimately for the sake of the truth. There is more at stake in this dispute than a mere preservation of an aristocratic heritage. Contemplation of God is not first and foremost useful, at least in temporal and practical terms, except in order to make us happy. Nor is love. Love is not useful. Love impoverishes and makes us mendicants, who derive our good from another, from God, from friends, from the beloved, and above all, from Christ.
Today, then, the greatness of a university that wishes to retain academic excellence resides perhaps above all in its vocation to be Christian. The world has enough elite universities that offer everything except life orientation of an ultimate kind. What is most needed is something ever ancient, ever new: a university consecrated to the truth, a university that is Catholic. The Catholic University. What a beautiful vocation! And it is your vocation. On this day and everyday: St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.