Servants, Instruments of the Word

January 29, 2019

This homily was delivered at the January 28 Mass offered at St. Jude Chapel on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

By Rev. Allan White, O.P.

Some time ago I was in London on the top deck of a double decker bus. Anybody who has travelled on one will know that the most prized seat is right at the front where you have a panoramic view of all around. It is particularly popular with children. On this particular day a little boy was sitting there with his grandmother. Grandmothers are the cheapest form of childcare available these days. He was asking her lots of questions: what’s this, what’s that, why this, why that? She was answering extremely patiently and teaching him. As you know, we are at our intellectual peak in our earliest years. Babies, for example, are brains on legs absorbing and processing huge amounts of experience and making sense of it. It is all downhill for us after that. In his Commentary on John. St. Thomas talks about the place of questions in study and teaching. Students learn by asking questions. Teachers teach by using the same technique. The first part of my 7th Grade Religion class is taken up with questions as we review what we learned in the previous lesson. The questions are structured so that the students do not just rely on memory to repeat information but have to make connections. Learning means constructing a narrative so that they feel that they have discovered something for themselves. Every teacher derives great pleasure from the look on a student’s face when they suddenly discover something they had not realized before.

“God teaches us by his Word; Jesus Christ is the teacher (ST 3.1.2). How does he teach? He teaches his disciples by asking them questions.”

In Chapter 11 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. We can just as easily translate this as Jesus saying, ‘join my school…become my students’. St. Thomas tells us that the event of Jesus Christ is not only a salvific act, it is pedagogical. God teaches us by his Word; Jesus Christ is the teacher (ST 3.1.2). How does he teach? He teaches his disciples by asking them questions. Who do men say that I am? Who do you say that I am? He asks them questions so that they can come to understand better. How is St. Thomas’s Summa constructed? It is built around questions and answers. The questions are essential to the process of understanding.  

As St. Thomas says, we know per modum complexum. We learn by complicating things, making patterns, drawing conclusions, making sense. Only God is entirely simple. We talk about simple faith, but sometimes it can appear to be complicated. That is why we need teachers as mediators, making the sublime truths of ‘sacra doctrina’ accessible in order to promote simple faith not challenge it. As you know heresy is much simpler to grasp than orthodoxy.

St. Thomas Aquinas was always asking questions. According to his biography he started at an early age. He kept one particular question for his mother: ‘what is God?’ It is difficult to answer a child’s questions about God and the meaning of life. In my experience, 12-year-olds can ask very sophisticated questions. A mother told me the other day that her son, who is very bright, kept asking her questions about the faith that she found difficult to answer. I am sure St. Thomas’s mother felt the same. Why did he ask his mother? Because our mothers first taught the faith to many of us, we learned to pray at our mother’s knee, we learned something of the fidelity and loving kindness of God from our mother’s love. Love comes from truth, but it also leads us to knowledge of the truth. The essential mark of Dominican study is the mind in love.

“The essential mark of Dominican study is the mind in love.”

There is another reason we ask our mothers questions: it is because we trust our mother to tell us the truth. In his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed Aquinas reminds us that all knowledge begins in faith and in the Commentary on John he says ‘it is necessary that one believe something about the things he cannot know perfectly by himself.’ We cannot learn anything from anybody if we do not trust them. Our teachers have to prove themselves worthy of our trust not only in what they teach, but in how they live. You might say that it was through his mother that Thomas began his career as a theologian: truth and love.

St. Thomas asked frequently, ‘what is God?’ He spent the rest of his life trying to answer that question, and failing to answer it fully. Why, because there is always something more to learn. The means he used were other questions. His theological works are full of questions. For St. Thomas the question is for the sake of its answer and these answers are either true or false. In order to find the correct answer you must understand the question. You must use all of your intellectual integrity, your theological and philosophical imagination and your investigative sympathy to do justice to the question. A good theologian has to learn and to accept that he could be wrong, that in the end all of his arguments fail before the glorious mystery of God.

“We are only instruments of the word and not its masters.”

St. Thomas always starts with God. That is why he asked, ‘what is God?’ Every other question has meaning only in relation to this fundamental question. Yet, it was this question that in the end he could not answer. We are only instruments of the word and not its masters.

In the Contra Impugnantes, his work in defense of the Mendicant Orders written in Paris about the time he took up his charge as Master in Theology, St. Thomas described the work of teaching and preaching – for him they are more or less the same – as a spiritual work of mercy. It is an expression of the compassion of God. In Chapters 12 and 13 of his Libellus Blessed Jordan talks explicitly of the prayer of St Dominic. He says: God gave him (Dominic) a special grace towards sinners, the poor and the afflicted: he carried their distress in the most intimate sanctuary of his compassion and the tears he shed for them showed the intensity of the feelings that were deep within him.’ When he encountered the heretical innkeeper in Toulouse in 1205 Dominic was overcome with compassion and spent the whole night arguing the man back into faith. You do not spend the whole night in discussion simply repeating ‘you are wrong, you are wrong, you are wrong.’ Dominic’s special grace was to see and share in, or to carry, the sufferings of others. The ‘most intimate sanctuary of his compassion’ (sacrarium intimum) is an interesting phrase. In the spiritual vocabulary of his time it meant that place at the core of our being which is reserved for God alone. In these terms you could argue that Dominic was far from the summit of the classical contemplation because he makes space in this sanctuary for others apart from God. In reality Jordan is telling us that in allowing God entrance to the most intimate sanctuary of his heart, he also allowed all of those burdened with unhappiness and the disguised thirst for salvation to enter there, too.

“Dominic’s special grace was to see and share in, or to carry, the sufferings of others.”

God brought them with him, because he too carries them in his own heart. It was impossible to allow God entrance without allowing those whom God, in his infinite compassion, carries in his loving heart. In meeting this same God in prayer and adoration Dominic is given the special grace to meet all of those who in their misery are present in the heart of God. Through his contemplative engagement with the Word Dominic becomes a special instrument of the divine compassion and it is this ministry that he shares with the Order he founded. We are instruments of the divine compassion, not its arbiters or masters. Even Thomas had to learn this. At the end of his life William of Tocco tells us that Thomas was asked in (1268-1271) to give a magisterial reply to questions concerning the Eucharist which were agitating the schools in Paris at the time. When Thomas had written out his answers to these questions, he took the notebook, to the altar, placed it before Christ on the cross, and asked the Lord if what he had written was true.

 We are told that the figure of Christ descended from the Cross, stood on top of the notebook and said: “Well indeed have you written of the sacrament of my body, and well and truthfully have you replied to the question put to you.” These words are well-known. What is hardly ever quoted is the qualifier that follows: “Well indeed have you written of the sacrament of my body, and well and truthfully have you replied to the question put to you, to the extent that that question can be understood by a man in this life, and can be resolved in human terms.”

Thomas then saw that all of his writings were as straw. Thomas saw that theology is not God, faith is not God, hope is not God: God is love as Jesus tells us in St. John’s Gospel. Thomas travelled a long road, wrote many books, engaged in many disputations. Without them this vision would not have been possible. We are the instruments and servants of the word, not its masters. Our purpose is to be useful to Christ in his Church. This is our task and it brings its own reward, which will be, one day, to have Thomas’s question answered.

Fr. Allan White, O.P. is a Dominican of the English Province.