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The Awakening of Aquinas

January 28
Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

By Federico Serra-Lima

As background material to be kept in mind, we shall postulate five basic assumptions:

  1. God is absolutely beyond human comprehension. As Aquinas concludes, “Sed Deus est infinitus … [Deus] est ignotus.”
  2. God is not a Supreme Being atop a pyramid of lesser beings: he is Absolute Reality in itself, not just part of It. As such, he is beyond being and non-being and every other conceivable category.
  3. God is concerned not only with Jews and Christians: he is the God of the whole universe and the fountainhead of life and growth of every culture and society that exist or have ever existed.
  4. “The incarnation … has a cosmic dimension: the ‘firstborn of creation’ unites himself in some way with the entire reality of humanity, with the whole of creation” (John Paul II in “Dominum et Vivificantem”).
  5. Deification (Theosis) is the main purpose for which Man was created. “He (Christ) became man so that we can be made God” (St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione 54:3).

In his book “Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice,” Thomas Ryan reminds us that (in January, 1990) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) — in answer to questions about Eastern practices such as Zen, transcendental meditation, and yoga — wrote: “Just as the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true, and holy in [non-Christian] religions (Vatican II’s ‘Decree on Non-Christians, no. 2’), neither should these ways be rejected out of hand, simply because they are not Christian.” I mention this because I will be drawing from non-Western and non-Christian sources.

This essay focuses on a crucial day in the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. On December 6, 1273, after having reached Question 99 of the Third Part of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas put down his pen never to pick it up again. On that day, he made the memorable decision to leave unfinished his ambitious undertaking.

When asked why, he replied: “I cannot go on … All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” Another rendition says: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.”

In “Seeds of Contemplation,” Thomas Merton writes that the absolute simplicity and evidence of the infused light that contemplation sheds in our soul suddenly awakens us to a new world, and we enter into a region which we never knew existed. Evidently, St. Thomas was awakened to this “new world” by an infused light radically different from the natural light of reason by which he had been approaching Catholic truth.

The belittling of the Summa by its own author should have sent a shudder throughout the entire Catholic hierarchy and elicited some response. Yet, to this very day, in Church circles the earthshaking statement of St. Thomas is hardly ever mentioned, if at all. What we hear, instead, is the eulogizing of the Summa as a major exponent of Catholic philosophy and theology.

On August 4, 1879, Pope Leo XIII promulgated Aetemi Patris, an encyclical on the restoration of Christian philosophy. In paragraph 14, the pontiff includes a quote from Pope Sixtus V, who lived in the 16th century:

By the divine favor of Him who alone gives the spirit of science, wisdom, and understanding, and who through the ages, as there may be need, enriches His Church with new blessings and strengthens it with safeguards, there was founded by Our fathers, men of eminent wisdom, the scholastic theology, which two glorious doctors in particular angelic St. Thomas and the seraphic St. Bonaventure, illustrious teachers of this faculty with surpassing genius, by unwearied diligence, and at the cost of long labors and vigils, set in order and beautified, and when skillfully arranged and clearly explained in a variety of ways, handed down to posterity.

Obviously, what St. Thomas Aquinas considered as “so much straw” and “of little value” was received by both Popes as a blessing “handed down to posterity.” Quite a difference of perspective! One could ask, “Why did the Church pay so little attention to Aquinas’ negative assessment of his Summa, and why did she neglect to follow up on the matter of his visions and revelations?” One possible answer is that the Church prefers to stay on the solid ground of logic and reason rather than to venture into that rarefied and unpredictable atmosphere where “[t]he wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8, World English Bible).

Logic and reason allow words to create a framework of reference wherein things can be handled with precision. But since God is totally beyond comprehension, words are useless to access the Divine Reality. Reason cannot lead us to the actual knowledge of God. Even apophatic language, useful as it is, cannot take us there. We are left bereft of a framework of reference. There is a hopeless gap between the world of words and the world of reality.

In the West, it is commonly believed that there is a definite correspondence between words and reality. Hence the decision of St. Thomas to apply his keen mind to capturing in the Summa Theologica the full scope of Catholic truth.

To the Oriental mind, however, such a correspondence is impossible. Words and reality cannot ever coincide. Words always remain words and reality always remains reality. In the “Sutra of Perfect Awakening” (one of the texts of Mahayana Buddhism) we find this picturesque caveat: “All of the Buddha’s teachings are a finger pointing to the moon.” In colorful but clear terms, we are warned not to confuse words (“the finger”) with reality (“the moon”).

At the heart of the irreconcilable views of West and East lies the issue of dualism versus non-dualism. By dualism we understand the belief that there is such a thing as a subject (who observes) and an object (which is being observed). In the East, this difference is negated. Subject and object, mind and matter (and similar pairs) are regarded as non-dual.

T.S. Eliot (a devout Anglican steeped in Eastern thought) can help us clarify the notion of non-dualism. In the third of his Four Quartets, he speaks of “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.” This is a perfect example of non-dualism: in the actual experience, the duality of subject and object simply melts away.

Thomas Merton succinctly touches upon non-dualism, saying, “You are not you, you are fruition … you do not go through an experience, you become the Experience.”

Contemporary Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, writes extensively about it in his book “Zen Keys”:

When you have some tea, for example, you have a direct experience of the tea … The experience of drinking tea is not a concept … Our concept of drinking tea is not the experience itself, so, strictly speaking, we cannot say that our experience has become a concept. At the moment of the experience, you and the taste of the tea are one. There is no differentiation. The tea is you, and you are the tea. There is not the drinker of the tea and the tea being enjoyed, because there is no distinction between subject and object in the real experience. When we start to distinguish subject and object, the experience disappears, and only our concepts remain. The world of Zen is the world of pure experience without concepts. [Italics added]

Centuries before the birth of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Zen master called Yen-kuan Ch’i-an, while engaged in conversation with a visiting Buddhist scholar, abruptly interjected:

Deliberate thinking and discursive understanding amount to nothing; they belong to the household of ghosts; they are like a lamp in the broad daylight; nothing shines out of them.

Vivid language indeed! St. Thomas could have answered in those very words when questioned about his decision to stop working on his magnum opus.

Centuries after the death of Aquinas, Abraham Joshua Heschel made a statement reminiscent of Yen-kuan Ch’i-an’s remark:

God is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions, but an immediate insight, self-evident as light. He is not something to be sought in the darkness with the light of reason. He is the light.

“The human being has reason. This enables him to conceive of truth- yet what he says or writes in learned books is always but a thrust in the direction of truth, it ever falls short of truth itself.” So concludes Rollo May in “The Springs of Creative Living.” And, as a wise afterthought, he adds that “man is the great seeker. He is always becoming, but he never arrives.”

In his book “The Discovery of God,” Henri de Lubac, eminent theologian and known authority on St. Thomas, reflects on the inherent discontinuity that exists between philosophy and mysticism in Aquinas.

St. Thomas insists no less that “the intelligence naturally desires to know God in himself” … and that is precisely why a certain number of his interpreters consider themselves justified in maintaining that the natural desire in question, being the desire to see God as cause, is not the desire to see God in the full sense of the word.

The mystical impulse, no doubt, bridges the abyss at a single leap. The mystic discerns the One in the Unifying cause, and when he meets the Unifying cause he adheres to the One. But can one say that his strength comes to him from the principle which first moved the intelligence to look for the “cause of causes”? Could one even say that the mystical impulse simply continues along the path of reason, that it simply goes further in the same direction? Would it not be better to recognize that the philosopher’s reasoning conceals an anagogical dialectic, the inspiration of which is quite different from the general desire to know?

St. Thomas … seems to have failed in his attempt to establish continuity between philosophy and mysticism, between the dynamism of the intelligence and the desire of the spirit. The doctrine of  “the natural desire to see God” is central to his thought, and he has not succeeded in completely unifying it.

No one will succeed where he has failed.

St. Thomas’ abandonment of his search for truth through reason, in favor of a living encounter with Christ, bespeaks his awareness that there is no nexus between concepts and reality. This being the case, Aquinas is not a lonely voice crying in the desert but one more witness of a hopeless gap.

December 6, 1273, was a pivotal day for Thomas. And so was March 7, 1274, the day he gained entrance into Eternity to be blessed with a closer embrace of the living Truth.

The Rev. Federico Serra-Lima is a retired priest of the Diocese of Albany and former chairman of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York.

Image: Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel, Right wall 03, Miracle of St Thomas Aquinas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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