Fr. Michael Demkovich, OP
Reading: Wisdom 7:7-10, 15-16
Our reading from Wisdom cast a very counter-cultural sense of what life is all about for many people today. Truly wise people and wise words seem foreign to our political and public discourse. We can see by way of its absence, the importance of wisdom. In 1945, as World War II was ending, the English Dominican Gerald Vann in his insightful little book “The Divine Pity” observed:
It is useful for man to have much information about matters of fact; but that is not wisdom. It is useful to have scientific knowledge, to know the immediate what and why of things· but that is not wisdom either. It is better to have philosophy, which is the knowledge of things not in their immediate but in their ultimate causes: that is wisdom, …. It is wisdom because it … reduce[s] the manifold of life to the one, and therefore makes things intelligible as a unity… (166)
It is an honor to preach this evening to fellow religious in that it marks not the date of Aquinas’ death, which took place on March 7, 1274, but rather the translation of his earthly remains in 1369. It is significant in that we remember the rehabilitation of Aquinas by Pope John XXII who canonized him in July of 1323 and by Pope Urban V, transferring his remains from Italy to the Dominican mother church of the day in Toulouse. History also reminds us that four hundred years later the Dominican Order would be banned by the French Revolution and the bones of Aquinas housed elsewhere until 1979, when they were again restored.
Too often we can think of the glorious tradition of Aquinas but need to recall his challenges as well, even the opposition he faced. For I believe that Aquinas offers all religious today a special lesson for our times, that is our learning the unity of thought, especially amid today’s contentious divisions.
Aquinas and the questionable band of friar mendicants, the Franciscans and Dominicans, represent a novelty in their day that I believe all religious today will benefit to recall for our own times. The then new religious orders were suspiciously engaging the world, introducing innovations that challenged the established ordo monasticus and threatened the status quo. The Church faced a time of change in the social order as the merchant class and commerce evolved. People, and the friars, sensed a new need to revitalize the old institutions, to challenge the intellectual assumptions of the scholars and to define a new vision for religious life.
Amid countless spurious allegations against the new religious orders Thomas, among others, was inspired by wisdom to defend this novel religious call. In November of 1269 Thomas Aquinas composed his “Apology for the Religious Orders” (Liber contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem). He defends the religious in light of the call to Christian perfection of the human person which, simply put is charity. In his at times passionate discourse, calling his opponents “enemies” (inimici), “worthless malcontents” (malignantium nequitiam), and “malicious men” (malignorum), he argues the benefit of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. This challenge, to justify why a new way of living appealed to Thomas and why it was so necessary for the Church, is again addressed later in his Summa IIa-IIae q. 182-189.
Concerning this synthesis of Aquinas’ thought on Christian perfection, Marie Dominique Chenu wrote “…this abundant literature [on religious life] came to a serene conclusion in the articles which the Summa Theologiae devoted to the states of life” (Toward Understanding St. Thomas, 1963. 343). For in the intervening years since his initial defense, Aquinas came to see that religious life is part of the larger call to human perfection in light of God’s gracious grace at work in the diversity of peoples’ lives and the diversity of their call.
Wisdom drew Aquinas to think bigger, to see the unity of Christian perfection in all states of life, each with its unique character.
There is a simple and poetic wisdom to what Thomas tells us. Our call to Christian perfection varies as to vocation, but it exists most radically in our charity to and for one another. So the reason for my preaching is this: today, as in Thomas’ day, we face a fundamental challenge to the meaningfulness of human life — how we are meant to be. As religious we need to be the ones schooled in human perfection because our chosen life is extremely receptive to its lessons.
What does this mean?
The evangelical counsels dispose us to see poverty and the want of our neighbor, to see the use and abuse of power, and to see the fullest meaning of human sexuality and true love. These lessons of poverty, obedience and chastity are not imparted by divine illumination, but rather they are learned in the messiness of common life, in the demands of apostolic mission, and in the surrender to serve the Gospel.
Why is this so critical?
The Millennial and Post-Millennial generations face a crisis of ultimate meaning. Having suckled from their birth on social media, their default screen is more Platonist, that is to say, overly preoccupied by appearances and the superficial, by the cosmetic, and by public opinion. The Pew Research Center defines this group as “Anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 22 to 37 in 2018) [are] considered a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward [are] part of a new generation” often called the post-Millenials. [Defining generations: Where Millennials end and post-Millennials begin Michael Dimock (March 2018)]
In our ministries and in religious life we are aware of this generational shift. Not unlike Aquinas’ day, the issue underlying these differences is between idealism and realism, or between virtual avatar reality and the moral Christian life. We have done a fine job of creating a generation that on the outside can seem so confident and self-assured, but on the inside are so insecure. Reality, for this younger generation, is mediated through the social media, that is virtual reality; with constant-connectivity and on demand entertainment; through group events e-blasted in community organizing; and through giving voice, that is nothing more than personal opinion. For to truly find one’s voice comes only from a life well-lived, not YouTube videos; it comes from genuine personal struggle and not echoed slogans or repeated soundbites.
Gerald Vann, again almost a century ago wrote:
Wisdom means the ability to take the long view about everything; and that is, again, why wisdom and peace go together. If you are hopelessly upset by every transient ill-fortune; if you are thrown off your balance by every threat of trouble in the future, however remote; if you are endlessly worried about the state of your own soul and the perils which may beset it, instead of trying to love God and living in the trust which is begotten of love; then of course you are not at peace. But wisdom teaches you to look beyond these fears and timidities to the great lines of the eternal design, and the great power and love and protection of the everlasting… (171-72).
I say this not to offend a younger generation but to illustrate a similarity between our times, Vann’s times, and that of Aquinas’ turbulent second regency at Paris from 1269 to 1272.
Latin Averroism fundamentally devalued the truly human character of Christian life and human thought, particularly in our capacity to individually understand the world. Aquinas faced and confronted an attitude that mistakenly found the facile and superficial as more acceptable to the public’s opinion. More importantly it distorted how we think wisely, more completely, more humanly, by positing some universal controlling intellect to the exclusion of individual thought. Siger of Brabant, for example, couldn’t appreciate the unity of truth, so instead he promoted his popular double-truths theory, reducing truth to “either/or” categories, a truth for philosophy and a truth for religion, opposing faith and reason. So instead of wrestling with the difficult task of ideas, and the diversity of ideas, people ended up advocating a faulty sense of humanity. This deeply distressed and even angered Aquinas.
Why is this important for us today?
Because as we heard in the reading from Wisdom, it is prayer and prudence, wisdom and reason, value and worth, our words and our understanding which fashion the truly meaningful human life. A life of ultimate meaning that we as religious are called to serve, for it is the fullness of humanity revealed in the Incarnate mystery of Christ dwelling among us.
Now back to Aquinas on Christian perfection. As I said, for Thomas there was a maturing of his thought on the diversity of God’s gracious gifts at work in people, but it is especially in the interior life, the life of understanding, of intellect, of the spirit that we encounter the divine lessons. Just as for Thomas, a generational mindset had drifted from Wisdom’s guiding each unique soul, so too we need to be prudent and wise. Like Thomas, let us not surrender life’s deepest meaning to tweets, hash tags, and postings, to either/or polemics and to divisive rhetoric. As religious we must be schooled, and we must help school even the young, in the ways of Wisdom.
There is a uniqueness to our call as religious in that the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience inform our understanding of the world as a unity, indeed a “common-unity” and show us the common good. “God is the guide of Wisdom and the director of the wise.”
St. Thomas knew that if we abandon wisdom, our genuine sense of the world as one, as a unity, and as uniting, then we fall prey to the deception of our vanity, the arrogance of our egos, and the avarice of our greed. [The truly great downfall of religious life is our becoming covetous, licentious, and inconsiderate]. “The religious state,” St. Thomas tells us, “is a training school wherein one aims by practice at the perfection of charity” (ST II-II q188.1) May we as religious always be open to learn such lessons. Amen.
Fr. Michael Demkovich, O.P., Ph.D., S.T.D