Homily of Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P.
Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Jan. 25, 2018
Although I was given the name “Aquinas” when I entered the Dominican Order, I in fact share very little in common with St. Thomas, especially at the level of nature. I don’t have Aquinas’s intellect, his piety, or his taste for herring, the fish that he asked to eat on his deathbed. St. Thomas and I do not share a common homeland, a common language, or even a common century.
At the level of grace, however, there is much that St. Thomas and I share. We share baptism in the same faith, profession in the same order, and ordination to the same priesthood. And as providence would have it, we both received our first instruction in the sacred sciences from Benedictine monks—St. Thomas as a young oblate at Monte Cassino, and me as a college seminarian at St. Joseph Abbey in Louisiana. Like St. Thomas, I enjoyed the privilege of being introduced to philosophy and theology by men who live close to God and to the things of God.
The monk lives close to God through the ora—the prayer—of his life, which takes its preeminent form in the liturgy. The monk lives close to the things of God through the labora—the work—of his life, which is intellectual and not only physical. The monk interrogates the soil as his tills it. Through study and observation, the monk inquires about the causes and ends of the things before him. He poses the question “What?” to them. “What is this?” It’s a holy question. With it the monk probes the things that God has made, coaxing them to reveal their hidden, divinely given essences. This interrogation of things perfects the monk’s prayer, for through his questions the monk discovers the divine ideas inscribed in things, and thereby he absorbs the wisdom of the one who made them all. Besides being a holy question, “What?” is also a very practical one. Its monastic use has given the world many gifts: early medicine, Belgian beer, and the wines of Burgundy, as well as Gothic architecture, the scholastic method, and the science of genetics. Of course, monks aren’t the only ones to ask the question “What?” But given the graces of their vocation, monks are often good teachers of how to ask the question rightly.
As a young oblate at Monte Cassino, St. Thomas learned the lesson of Benedictine study. At just six or seven years old, the pupil Thomas applied the question “What?” not just to any reality but to the highest reality. He often asked his monk-teachers, “What is God?”
“What is God?”
To our ears today, that question might sound strange. We who subscribe to high notions of the person and personal dignity would think it more natural to ask: “Who is God?” “Who?” appears to us as a more fitting question to ask of persons than “What?” “Who is Jesus?” seems a more sensible question than “What is Jesus?”
To be sure, recent use of the question “Who?” in philosophy and theology—as it pertains both to man and to God—has born fruit in the Church, especially in the magisterial teachings of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis. But might we ask, prompted by the curious young Thomas, whether we ask the question “Who?” of persons to the neglect of asking the question “What?” of them? In other words, has personality eclipsed nature in our in our study of persons? For many of our contemporaries, it has. Regarding human nature, at least, many are convinced that personality enjoys a certain primacy over nature, so much so that whatever one asserts about his person has the power to define or redefine his nature.
St. Thomas would have something to say on the subject. Just recall his definition of the person, a definition that he adopted from Boethius. A person, Aquinas teaches, is “an individual substance of a rational nature.” To be sure, this definition doesn’t warm the heart, but it does enlighten the mind. The definition helps us to see right away how the question “What?” follows directly from the question “Who?” when we speak about persons. The reason is that there not a person who exists who is not a person of some kind: a human person, an angelic person, or even a divine person. All persons are persons of a particular nature. As a result, to ask the question “Who is Thomas Aquinas?” includes the question “What is man?” “Who is St. Michael?” includes the question “What is an angel?” “Who is Jesus?” includes two questions: “What is God?” and “What is man?” We cannot fully know who Thomas Aquinas is, who St. Michael is, who God is—who any person is—without also knowing what they are, what their nature is.
Again, many of our contemporaries believe that nature irrationally or unjustly places limits on persons. Persons, they think, must press beyond the limits of nature in order to be free, even to the point of redefining nature, if need be. Again, St. Thomas would remind us that, because every person is a person of a particular kind, nature does not limit personality but defines it, and in defining personality nature liberates the person to be not just who God has made him to be but also what God has made him to be: something specific, something defined, something ordered, with a perfection and happiness natural to him. Nature conveys to personality a particular kind of identity, oriented to a particular kind of happiness, which initiates the person into a particular kind of participation in God. Nature, therefore, is not the enemy of the person; it is God’s providence for the person’s happiness. Nature reveals the way in which God knows his creatures to be, and it establishes the path according to which God wisely and lovingly draws his creatures—even persons—to himself. To ask not just “Who?” but also “What?” someone is, then, is to ask how God knows and loves that person, and how God provides for him.
This is an important lesson for students and teachers—in elementary schools, high schools, and universities—who spend most of their time together asking the question “What?” St. Thomas remains a guide in the classroom, not only because he appreciates the value of the question “What?” but also because he mastered its use in connection to all of the modes of interrogation: St. Thomas understood the role that “What?” plays not only in asking “Who?” but also in asking “Where?” and “When?” and especially “Why?” and “How?”
St. Thomas possessed the habit of a curious spirit, a habit that he acquired as a son of St. Benedict, and which he perfected through the grace of St. Dominic. He incessantly asked “What?” of all things in order better to ask “Who?” is the source of them all? Today, we give thanks to God for the example and spiritual friendship of St. Thomas, and we ask the Common Doctor to pray for us, and to help us perfect our study of the world and of each other, all in pursuit of the highest wisdom, which teaches both who and what God is.