Preparing to preach on the feast of Thomas Aquinas, I did some background reading, while in the midst of exploring writings of Thomas Merton. Two Thomasses who did a huge corpus of writing—one, the Summa Theologica and countless other writings and preaching, and the other, a great many articles, books, and major correspondence. One Thomas who dialogued thoughtfully and deeply with the realities of his changing culture, while living and teaching and writing in the midst of growing cities, universities, points of view. The other Thomas, who left the world behind to become a Cistercian, then a hermit, but who never disengaged from the culture and thought calling from outside the walls of Gethsemane. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Merton, both scholars and communicators with the world of ideas, deeply absorbed in an obedience that stretched the boundaries of their thought and the conventions of the time, an obedience to the One who could not be known, but called them nevertheless to wrestle language into insight—or insight into language—in changing and confusing times for church and society.
Thomas Aquinas, Dominican Friar, he of giant intellect and systematic thinking, Master at the University of Paris, popular teacher and preacher, was willing to forego the heady joys of conversation and disputation in his university culture, to place his considerable gifts humbly at the service of the student brethren who needed a program of study to ground them in the theology they would need to preach the gospel in a church and in disparate places where understandings and interpretations of the Christian life were pulling at the edges of traditions and systems. But he was no slave to pride nor sought recognition. Grace was at the center of the mystery. The purpose of study had only one end; union with God whose faithful presence and promise always overtook the human tendency to bend or misstate the truth and fail in charity.
Thomas Merton, Brother Louis, with a restless spirit and a deep need to engage with the great thinkers and movements of the post-World War II era, always pushing at the strict rules of the cloister and the mediocrity of the community while knowing in truth it was his home; a life-choice which pulled him deeper into the Mystery he always experienced as the pull and strain of contradictions he termed his True Self and his False Self, thirsting for both knowledge and communication, the emptying of himself and the darkness of God’s silence.
Both were deeply aware of the beauty and witness of creation to its creator, the extraordinary brightness of all being, given God’s “sheen” (TA) and people “shining like the sun” (TM), reflections of divine radiance, beauty and joy. For each one, life was a great gift.
I’m not attempting biography here, or spiritual analysis of any merit. It is what both Thomasses speak to me now, today—this difficult time engulfing the whole of the globe, the chaos and confusion, the agony of need, the division and cruelty vastly enlarged and clouded by our instantaneous communication, the widening rifts in humanity—the cry everywhere for love and truth and peace. This is a “too-muchness” before which I quail, with that sense of dimming zeal and ineffective discipleship and wavering hope.
Here’s the lesson for me. They toiled steadily, daily. And by God’s grace, each brother’s work of probing and communicating went way beyond great achievement, if that ever was a concern. Communication found its heart in communion, the contagious enflaming of hearts and minds, a gracious freedom in letting go, as if each heard God say, “Thanks just the same, Tom, but I’ll be running the universe today.”
We know of Aquinas, in the last year of his life, dismissing his work as “all straw” in light of God’s ineffable love. Herbert McCabe OP has written that Thomas dedicated his life to asking the questions “What is God? Who is God?” McCabe continues, “His great virtue lay in the fact that he let the questions defeat him.”
And one finds in Merton that recurrent theme of self-emptying, death to the False Self in order to be possessed by God; an impossibility if left to himself, through any rational and human way. “The only One who can teach me to find God is God himself.” One of his most memorable reflections is about the call to the “General Dance:” “…the Lord plays and diverts himself in the garden of his creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear his call and follow him in his mysterious, cosmic dance…..the more we analyze (life) out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the common dance….Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds, and join the general dance.” (New Seeds of Contemplation 296-297)