Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A beginning and an ending

     St. Thomas Aquinas is mainly known for the "median" of his life -- his great work Summa Theologica, which took him nine years to write and touches upon almost every area of Christian doctrine, and which, in the end, was never finished. But the beginning of the Summa, (i.e, the introduction, or prologue) and the way both the book and St. Thomas' life ended have much to say not only about who he was, but also about how we should look at the study of theology.
      St. Thomas made his introduction short and sweet and to the point. He intends to "instruct beginners" in the science of theology. We cannot resist a bit of a chuckle at this statement, although I'm not so sure St. Thomas would get the joke. (A thousand pages of simplicity? Seriously?) However, it's not really so much that the Summa is complicated as it is dense. It is packed full of concentrated truth, and in order for us beginners to get it, we need to unpack it. He really does deal in the basics of the Christian faith, but to grasp what he is saying, one must constantly rephrase it in one's own terms and words. The Summa must be made personal so that it may become worthwhile. Yet once we become familiar with this mode of discourse, it becomes fascinating and, dare I say it, hard to put down.
     St. Thomas also says that he wants to eliminate the useless questions and arguments and the repetition found in other theological texts. This seems a little funny as well, since his whole treatise is based on questions (423 of them!) and their accompanying arguments. But we must conclude, no doubt, that St. Thomas thought every single one was essential and practical! True to his word, he rarely repeats a thing, showing the amazing scope of his knowledge of spiritual things, his precise perception of truth, and his unfailing devotion to his task.
       But, I believe, the impact of the Summa is best understood by the story of the end of St. Thomas Aquinas' life. In 1273, while part 3 of the Summa was being written, he is reported to have seen a vision of Christ who spoke to him and said, "You have written well of me, Thomas. What will you have as your reward?" To which he replied (as we all should), "Only thyself, Lord." After this experience, he stopped writing, giving this explanation, "I can write no more; compared with what I have seen, all I have written seem to me as straw." A short time later, he died and left the Summa unfinished. (Kreeft, p.33) He profoundly echoed the sentiments of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, "...I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things." (Phil. 3:8) He articulates for all of us who teach the Gospel the paradox of discussing spiritual truth -- how do you say something for which there are no earthly words? How do you explain the incomprehensible? Somehow it all seems like a heap of straw when set beside "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" -- the treasure we hold dear in jars of clay. (2Cor.4:6,7)
     Whenever I consider the story of the end of St. Thomas Aquinas' life, I am reminded of the words of a song by the contemporary Christian singer and songwriter, Michael Card.
          That is the mystery
          More than you can see
          Give up on your pondering
          Fall down on your knees.
Or, as the Apostle Paul said, "Great is the mystery of godliness..."  It is, of course, good and right to study Scripture and to contemplate the order of theology. It is immensely important to know God and to learn about his truth. But, in the end, it is all a great and powerful mystery, something that is certainly not fully known here on earth and which will be, to our eternal delight, explored infinitely in heaven. Seeing the mystery is heart of Christian theology; a vision that will transform our souls and set us on a collision course with the wonder that only the Spirit reveals. Everything else is just so much straw.

Kreeft, Peter. Summa of the Summa. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1990.


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