Some thoughts on the feast of Thomas Aquinas (a day late)

Collect of the day: Almighty God, you have enriched your Church with the singular learning and holiness of your servant Thomas Aquinas: Enighten us more and more, we pray, by the disciplined thinking and teaching of the Christian scholars, and deepen your devotion by the example of saintly lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings for the day:

Yesterday was the feast day for St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor of the church who lived and worked in the 13th Century.

Aquinas is often connected with the word “orthodoxy” as in he was all about doing theology the right way. The thing is, for much of his life, he was right on the edge of not doing theology the right way, at least in the eyes of the 13th century church. He wrote against “heretics,” but was often under investigation as one himself.

Aquinas had an interesting life. He came from a powerful family and was taken to the famous Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino just outside of Rome, founded by Benedict himself, with the expectation that he would become the abbot there when he grew up. Thomas had other ideas, however. He was academically inclined and went off to study in Naples where he discovered that he liked the Dominican Order better than the Benedictines. The Dominicans were famous for their preachers and for their academic tradition. His family found out and had him kidnapped and confined to the family castle for a couple of years.

Eventually they let him out and he went back to academic life among the Dominicans. He was an intellectual giant. During his time, the works of Aristotle became available and became quite popular. Many people embraced Aristotle as an alternative to Christianity, but Thomas set out to incorporate Aristotelian concepts into Christian theology. This was definitely controversial at the time, but he wanted to show that truth can come from many places, some of them surprising. If God is really the God of everything, then we need not be afraid of other faiths, or traditions, or cultures. 

Then, after this life of intense study, frequent lecturing, teaching and being part of high level disputations and an incredible output of serious theological writings, Thomas went through some kind of mysterious and traumatic experience while saying mass (he was a priest, too) and never wrote another word or taught another lecture. He said, “Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” He died a few months later.

Aquinas wanted to connect ideas with experience, to show how theology informed worship, morals, and spiritual practices in an age when that connection was often obscured because of the way theological studies were fragmented into different areas. He also wanted to connect reason and experience with tradition and doctrine. He was not an either/or kind of man - he was in the both/and camp often. Body and soul, heart and mind, tradition and revelation, experience and academics. None of these alone would be enough to even begin to help us understand God or the work of Christ, or to dictate our response to that work.

The church no longer finds Aquinas difficult to defend. After Vatican II, it was ok among the Roman Catholics to say that truth is found in many places and that we ought to be open to the insights we gain from other cultures or faiths or disciplines. The current Pope speaks this way himself. What we are looking for is the living God, whose Spirit moves through history and is still speaking today.

So, what does this all have to do with our Gospel reading about separating the fish and throwing out the bad?

Well, remember what Jesus said at the end of the reading. Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Wisdom is found in many places, both new and old. Tradition is important, wisdom is often of the ages. There are truths that have been handed down from way, way back that have only become more lustrous with the passage of time.

But there are truths to be found in new things, too, different realms, in places we might not think to look. Sure, we should read Aquinas, and Basil, and Gregory, and Augustine. And also we should read Anne Lamott and Nadia Bolz-Weber and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shane Claiborne. And that is all really ok. Wisdom is found where wisdom is found.

One of my grandmothers never had any use for anything old; the other treasured everything that was passed down and never thought much of the new. But wisdom is not limited to the past nor truth nor beauty nor any other sacred idea or action. Holiness can be found anywhere, even in other traditions and cultures; God can be found working everywhere.

That inclusiveness doesn’t mean that every old thing is wrong and every new thing is great. Discernment is necessary. Discernment is part of our daily journey ever closer into the heart of God. And so we scoop it all up, we are open to seeing the Spirit anywhere, and then we do the work of discernment using reason and experience in addition to tradition and scripture, to separate what is true, what could be true, what is beautiful and holy from that which is not. And our findings might surprise us. 

In the words of Sam Portaro, late of this parish, who wrote a lovely reflection for St Thomas Aquinas’ feast day in his book Brightest and Best:

“Jesus commends a wisdom attentive to all of life’s experience and discriminating in its judgment.  Wisdom, Jesus seems to say, will be gleaned fro the whole of life and in the midst of the swirling tides of time….[And so] it is time to set sail with the spirit of Thomas Aquinas, to toss the net far and wide, open to the wonder of this world, sweeping the vast ocean of life’s generous wealth of experiences.  It is time to go fishing, to get ourselves some wisdom.”


Ray Barnes said…
Beautifully thought out and expressed Penny.
You always give me something to think about and this is exceptional. Thanks so much.
Lovely heron by the way.
Thank you, Ray! I'm glad I gave you something to think about. Aquinas does that to people (including me!).