SATURDAY READING: Saint Thomas Aquinas — Nuns, Prophecies, Communists, the Bomb, the Dread of Angels, Reason, Faith, and the Summa Theologica

This bright Sunday, the four of us are off to find a place to go to Mass.  I am driving.  Walker and I are in the front seat, Karen and Bunt in back.  Bunt sees a beautiful blanket of nasturtiums in a field we pass, and she calls our attention to it.  Walker points out another splash of color on the other side of the road — a bed of tulips.  It seems to me that both of them notice the natural world more than other people; certainly more than I have tended to over the years.  Karen points out a prodigious drooping wall of a weeping willow, which seems to dwarf the mansion whose front lawn it shades.  We all remark on the fine weather, the mountains in the near distance, the blooms of forsythia bordering one fenced lawn.  Walker and I talk briefly about writers we like to read.  We talk about Henry James.

“I have a complete set of the New York Edition of James,” he tells me.  “But I haven’t looked in them much.”

I tell him that I’ve been reading all the short stories.

“I had a student years ago who got interested in James in a big way,” Walker says.  “She wanted to read everything he wrote.”  He looks out the window of the car, pausing, letting out a small sigh.  “She disappeared into Henry James without a trace.”

We laugh.  It is getting late, and we haven’t been by any churches yet.  I vaguely remember a street with several, though I’m not certain any of them are Catholic.  I do not know this city very well, and I am driving aimlessly around, looking for anything that looks like a church.  At last, we come over a rise and find a gray edifice with spires and stained-glass windows, and ivy climbing the tall sides.  We stop at the crest of the hill across from it, in the striped shade of trees that are about to bloom.  Walker and I get out to investigate.  As we approach the building, he says, “This one has an Episcopal look about it.”

I laugh.

“It’s too much like a real church,” he says.

We make our way along the shaded walk to the front.  Two men are standing outside, and we see from the big stone plaque at the entrance that this is indeed an Episcopal church.

“Excuse me,” I say to one of the men.  “Is there a Catholic church nearby?”

“Why, yes,” the taller of the two says, squinting at us in the sunlight.  “You go on down this road and take your first right, then take the next right and it’s on the left as you go up the hill.  Look for a big aluminum statue.”

Walker looks at me and we both laugh.  We are for the moment in that state of wordless understanding that nourishes the spirit, even if the object of that understanding is a sort of mutual dismay.

“It’s Saint Thomas Aquinas,” the young man says.  “You can’t miss it.  Big statue of Saint Thomas right out front.”

“Thanks,” Walker says to them, and we walk back down to the car, still laughing, quietly.  We pile in, and I take us to the church.  We see it on the left, coming up still another hill, just as the man said we would — an enormous shining sculpture, flanked by the church, which is oddly suspended on many thin white columns over a deep declension in the ground.  It looks a little like a flying saucer on props.  And then it reminds me of houses near the ocean, built to withstand high water.  A catwalk leads to the door, and to the left of the entrance to the catwalk, sits the big statue of Saint Thomas.  He’s wearing what I suppose are the robes of a monk, and is indeed made out of something like aluminum — bright metal, at any rate.  He resembles no image I’ve ever seen of a saint.  He’s sitting or squatting, and the tin folds of the robe fall about him as if they have been arrested in the process of melting.  He holds books on one massive arm, and he looks jowly, well-fed, faintly disgruntled, almost goofy.  No stigmata for this portly gentleman, and no battles with himself about faith, either.

No, Thomas battled with his family when they tried to keep him from the priesthood, and he battled the ignorance and superstitions of his time, battled them reasonably, with that amazing document, the Summa Theologica.  I cannot imagine him having any arguments with himself over the matters of ultimate concern.  Certainly there are no wavering moments in his famous book.

I began reading it, understanding little, when I was eighteen, and still thinking about entering the priesthood.  Having run away in abject terror from the intimation of some more visceral proofs, and having come to the knowledge of how superstitious and atavistic most of my training had been, I found the Aquinas as a form of searching, though I was mostly unaware of its deeper meanings, for some final intellectual explanation of the matters on which my tottering faith might rest.

I was destined to fail in this, of course.

And through the years of my journey away from the superstition and fright of the first day I’ve described — which consequently became a journey away from my church — the memory of the calm, reasonable, teacherly passages of Aquinas remained, an anomaly in my experience.  And Aquinas himself remained, a voice from the distance, disputing in the pages of his book, which I had kept.  The great serene intellectual acumen of those marvelous propositions, with their clearly stated purposes and precisely countered objections, gave me an inexpressible sense of some sure knowledge beyond faith, which I had come to see as a form of superstition.  But I never stopped to think about it at all.  I went through the book, and then went on to the next.  In my late teens, I was finding a kind of nourishment provided by the printed word alone.  I hoarded everything, traveling indiscriminately in the world’s literature — reading mostly philosophy and history.  But I kept going back to Thomas — this medieval saint, who had attempted an explanation of the whole matter of divinity.

And as I entered my twenties, and my concerns were far from anything religious, I kept him in my mind as a hedge, somehow, against all the desperate ravings of the world I moved in, with its assassinations and its hopeless little various wars near and far, its riots and body counts and burning villages and atrocities; its glass-littered streets, and broken houses, its many innocent slaughtered — the wages of all those suppurating hatreds and appalling cowardices, and bigotry of every stripe and kind — the world I was trying to make my way in.

To this day, I know less about him than about his book.  I have learned that after he took the habit of the Dominicans, who had recently put together a school of theology at the University of Naples, where he had been a student, he was seized by members of his own family, and it took special pleas from the Pope and from the Dominican order, along with his own resoluteness about his future, to obtain his release.  I know that he spent his days, as I am spending mine, teaching and writing, and I know that along with the great Summa, he wrote hymns, composed a work attempting to reconcile the Greek and Roman Catholic churches, crafted explications of several works of Aristotle, and produced many, many treatises, on everything from Boethius to Scripture.

For me, over the two decades, drifting far from the church, yet still carrying the two sides of it — the atavistic and the reasonable — inside, still praying out of something like superstition, and still fighting the urge to give in to all on those terms, wanting to come to my religion without fear, if I could, and without all the hysterical and narrow voodoo of the nuns — I still thought of Thomas, with his questions, articles, objections, and replies.  Thomas stood in my mind as a principle of sorts: the one who reasoned his way to God.

And so on this particular early spring day in 1982, kneeling beside Walker Percy in the discouragingly modernistic building that is the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, I find that I am aware of this terrible modernism as against the monk perched on his bench outside, and, as happens often when I am at Mass, I’m vaguely troubled, unpleasantly and somehow reprehensibly detached — feeling that perhaps I ought to be elsewhere, that my doubts and my old angers about the ignorance and folly of the earlier time, not to mention my lapsed state, make me an intruder here.  I probably would not have come, were it not for Mr. Percy.  And there he is, kneeling next to me, that consummate artist and philosopher, a deeply learned man with a scientist’s knowledge (Percy, as most people know, was a trained physician), there he is, saying his prayers, head bowed, eyes closed, simply believing.  Or, at any rate, believing first, before the complexities.  And in that one moment, still thinking about the heavy scholarly figure depicted in the ugly metal statue on the lawn, I have a kind of revelation: for perhaps the first time in my life I think of Thomas not in terms of his great intellect, not in terms of reason at all, but of the faith that could drive an enormous undertaking like the Summa.  Abruptly, with a shiver, deep, I realize something everyone else must already know: that it all has finally to stop there, in faith.  At faith.  That what I have always felt was the tremendous reasonableness of Aquinas’s book is not so much the product of intellect, as it is the most powerful manifestation of his faith.  And I remember hearing that the year before he died, he stopped writing or dictating, claiming that what had been revealed to him in a revelation while saying Mass made everything he had written in his life seem “as straw.”

Reason wedded to faith, then.  But faith is first.  The end and the beginning — or, in the exact words of the old prayer: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen

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