Monday, January 28, 2019
For this Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I am reposting a bit from a homily delivered for this occasion at Blackfriars (Oxford) by my late friend Fr. Herbert McCabe, O.P.:
St. Thomas’s life was spent in asking questions (nearly all his major works are divided up explicitly into questions), and this meant seeking to answer them. A man is a saint, though, not by what he does and achieves, but by his acceptance of failure. A saint is one who conforms to Christ, and what Jesus is about was not shown in his successes, his cures and miracles and brilliant parables and preaching, but in his failure, his defeat on the cross when he died deserted by his followers with all his life’s work in ruins.
Now whatever his many other virtues, the central sanctity of St. Thomas was a sanctity of mind, and it is shown not in the many questions he marvelously, excitingly answered, but in the one where he failed, the question he did not and could not answer and refused to pretend to answer. As Jesus saw that to refuse the defeat of the cross would be to betray his whole mission, all that he was sent for, so Thomas knew that to refuse to accept defeat about this one question would be to betray all that he had to do, his mission. And this question was the very one he started with, the one he asked as a child: What is God?
“What is God?” It was the intellectual sanctity of Thomas that he here accepted defeat. Unlike so many theologians before and since, he could in no way answer this most important of questions. Right through his life he accepted this crucifixion of the mind; his whole life was devoted to talking about God, to theology, and yet he was intensely conscious that he knew nothing, that God is the ultimate mystery, that we are peering into the dark. In Christ, he says, we are joined to God as to the utterly unknown. The most we can do is peer in the right direction; and all theology is about doing that. But we can never answer our basic question with any use of language, by any thought. We will understand what is God only when we have been taken even beyond language and thinking, and God brings us to share in his own self-understanding. Thomas was not making a new discovery when, at the end of his life, he said that all his writings seemed like straw. He had lived with this knowledge all the time he was writing.
This, then, is the heritage Thomas has left to his [Dominican] brethren and to the Church: first, that it is our job to ask questions, to immerse ourselves so far as we can in all the human possibilities of both truth and error; then we must be passionately concerned to get the answers right, our theology must be as true as it can be; and finally we must realize that theology is not God, as faith is not God, as hope is not God: God is love. We must recognize that the greatest and most perceptive theology is straw before the unfathomable mystery of God’s love for us which will finally gather us completely by the Holy Spirit into Christ, the Word God speaks of himself to himself. Then, only then, is our first question answered.
God Matters (1987), pp. 236-37.