SERMON: The Thomist Football League by Martin Thornton

The Thomist Football League by Martin Thornton

From A Joyful Heart: Meditations for Lent

For the sake of the uninitiated let me explain the ramifications of the English football league.  For any possible transatlantic reader it should not be too difficult to translate the analogy into the American game (this might be more difficult when we get on to cricket).

The league comprises ninety-two clubs divided into four divisions.  The first division consists of the best, the top grade, and the most wealthy, with magnificent grounds and stadia.  The second division is roughly the same but not quite, and we shall see the significance of this later.  It is also important to see that there are subtle variations within these two divisions themselves, as well as something of an overlap.  For example, the few clubs at the top of the first division are considerably superior to those at the bottom, and yet the top team in the second division may be as good as or better than the bottom club in the first division.

There is a considerable gap between the second and third divisions, the latter being plainly inferior, in play, status, and dignity.  And the fourth division is pretty rough stuff, with far less skill and technique.  The analogy will not be complete until we bring in a knock-out competition – the Football Association Cup – in which all the clubs take part, as well as others who are not in the professional league at all.  The cup is especially exciting because it gives the inferior clubs a chance to play against the cream of the first division, often with surprising results.

Saint Thomas Aquinas explained God’s creation as a hierarchy of being.  At the bottom of the scale, or league, the fourth division, is the world of inanimate matter, rocks, water, bits of dead, and so on.  Next up the scale is the living world as we know it, plants and trees, insects, reptiles, fish, birds, and animals, all headed by the special sort of mammal homo sapiens.  Then comes the unseen sphere of the spirit inhabited by the saints perfected in glory; or in theological terms the Church Triumphant.  At the peak of the hierarchy is what is traditionally called Heaven inhabited by a further hierarchy of created beings: “therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven we laud and magnify thy Holy Name.”  In past ages, speculative and gnostic theology went to town on all this: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, powers, principalities, before we get down to angels and archangels.  It is all treated in mystical speculation in the Divine Comedy of Dante, but the important thing here is to recognize at least the probability that the heavenly sphere – the hierarchical first division – is the most complex aspect of the whole creation.

We are apt to think of Heaven, if we consider it at all, as a sort of monochrome sphere of cloud and shadow.  C. S. Lewis said that Heaven must contain more color, not less, than our world, more, not less, complexity of harmony than you can wring out of a piano keyboard, and if you happen to bump into an angel, rather than gliding through a phantom you are likely to bounce off with considerable force.  Heaven and its inhabitants are more real not less than anything we know of in the present life.

The first point in translating the analogy, which can come as a surprise to many a devout Christian and a traumatic shock to the humanists, is that homo sapiens finds his rightful place in the divine economy as head of the third division, and nowhere near the bottom of the first, with promotion to the second division as his greatest hope and ultimate goal.  Although the league itself is a unity, and the Thomist hierarchy of being is one divine creation, humankind is eternally barred from division one; we might share in the perfected glory of the angels but we shall never be one.  All we can hope for, and all we should and need to hope for is a lowly position in the Church Triumphant, the sphere of the saints in division two.

A great deal of mischief is done by bandying about the unbiblical notion that man is “lord of creation.”  If he is lord of anything, it is as top of the third division, and if we look around the contemporary scene and ask precisely who or what power controls our civilization, even this modest status looks doubtful.  God created Heaven and Earth and put men and women in charge of the earthly part.  God created the animals and instructed Adam to name them, that is to give them status and dignity.  As the deeply theological Ladybird series of nursery rhymes has it:

The animals went by one by one,
And Adam said this sure is fun,
Now what is that? I wish I knew–
But I rather think it’s a kangaroo.

We are in the third division of the tool league, we have our ordained place in the whole hierarchy of creation, so we must now consider in more detail our relation with the other three divisions, for it is only this total dimension that tends towards a healthy spirituality: only this perspective makes sense of giving up sugar for Lent.  First we must look to our relation with all the other aspects of our own division three, for a spiritual harmony here and from here to the rest of the created universe is the foundation for contemplative prayer.

If we are in any sense lord of this little created planet, it must be benevolent lordship not despotic tyranny; we are not supreme rulers but rather ambassadors of Christ, our planet’s ultimate redeemer as well as creator.  Somewhat old-fashioned theology used to speak of an interdependence between all things in a natural order; the old argument from design, and this way of thinking retains a value.  It has been pointed out that the so-called lord of the Earth, of this planet, is nevertheless dependent on it at every point.  In Christian Universe, E. L. Mascall reminds us that we cannot keep alive on the merely physical level without absorbing bits of animals and plants into our stomachs.

More pertinently a spiritual harmony, a rapport, with our environment is sometimes called the first form of contemplation, and Mascall tells us in the same book that we are unlikely to achieve a loving relationship with each other or with society at large until we have achieved harmony with the material environment.  A country walk between lovers is not going to come off if one loves the rural scene and the other hates it.  This brings us back to the need, in Lent or at any other time, for the quest of solitude and silence; for the spiritual efficacy of doing nothing for Lent; of watching the snowdrops instead of the telly.

All of which leads naturally into our relation with the fourth division, with the world of inanimate matter.  Let us first bring to mind that it is, by biblical affirmation, very good.  Rocks and stones, minerals and metals are all very good and redeemable, made glorious, by human creativity inspired by grace.  As Evelyn Underhill taught, chunks of stone and lumps of iron can be contemplative mandala: Hugh of Saint Victor and Saint Francis of Assisi said much the same thing.  But the same goes for a lighted candle or a flaming lump of coal, and the same even more for cathedrals, iron bridges, and steel pythons.  What of finding time to take such things with contemplative seriousness – for Lent.

Having been a philistine farmer early in life, I have always been, and remain, suspicious of aesthetic sentimentality about nature.  I still hold that the best thing to do with a moorland wilderness is to plow it up and redeem it; be that as it may, inanimate matter, the fourth division, is to be loved and respected.  It can be argued that we need some bits of wilderness for contemplative purposes, although I still prefer the Fens to Dartmoor as inspiration for prayer.  In short, never despise the fourth division.

So in heart and mind we ascend to the second division, hoping to ascend there more fully after this earthly sojourn.  In more usual terminology, we ascend from the Church Militant to the Church Expectant, thence to the Church Triumphant in Heaven.  So Lent, or Christian life at any time, must be incomplete without a prayerful interpretation of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints.  The most important thing about the saints is that they are alive, and it follows that they are contemporaries.  We arrive at the traditional exercise of spiritual reading; but what and how to read?

The diversity of tone, approach, and idiom in the writings of the saints is inexhaustible; they are all different, and yet this mass of devotional writing is roughly classifiable into types of schools.  Every Christian, by attrait, outlook, or temperament also fits, again roughly, into one or other of these schools.  There is nothing to worry about if certain writings, however famous, fail to satisfy, or seem even repulsive.  The immediate job is to discover which of the saints or saintly schools make an immediate appeal.  Many a devout Christian will have discovered this already, for those who have not there are two courses open: first to experiment, to pick up many of the classic works and so browse through them until one strikes an immediate chord.  Such experiment would itself constitute a valuable lenten exercise which would lay a good foundation for the future.  Do not take a book at random with a conscientious proviso that you must go through with it; if it does not fit, get rid of it and have a taste of something else.

A second and possibly better way is to seek advice, since the whole process, which could take some time, under the guidance of a competent spiritual director, will also lay a firm foundation for the future.

Having made the discovery, read as though from a contemporary; read Saint Bernard, or Saint Augustine, or Jeremy Taylor, or anyone else as if it were this month’s issue of a religious journal, as if the author was alive – which he is – and writing personally to you.  There may be differences in style and idiom, the most modern writer can still be out-of-date, and fashions change, but the central messages of the saints are of eternal significance.

As our contemporaries, the saints also have personal relations with us as individuals.  The concept of saintly patronage is no mere sentiment, as a live and contemporary Saint John has a real and special relation with Saint John’s parish, Saint John’s college, and John Smith: Holy Martin ora pro nobis.  Of course you might not get on too well with the writings of your patron saint, the boss can always be awkward, but find out who you do get on with and the patron-boss will not mind.  It is accepted as natural and sensible for the Franciscans to be devoted to Saint Francis, the Benedictines to Saint Benedict, and the Cistercians to Saint Bernard; personal patronage is only an extension of the same principle.

There are many who, while easily accepting, and acting upon the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, find more difficulty in working out their relation with the first division.  But the whole hierarchy of Heaven are also our living contemporaries: we say so at every celebration of the Eucharist.  And the whole hierarchy of Heaven cannot be less than personal, the archangels are even known by personal names: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.  It is all part of the celestial ladder which leads to God, the ladder which begins with chunks of rock as manifestation of the divine, and ends with the worship given by seraphim and cherubim in which we take part.  The overriding truth behind Saint Thomas and the football league is that this illustrates what is the real world in which we live, and if the four divisions constitute one league there is perpetual interplay between them.

Here is the significance of the Football Association Cup, which is played out alongside the league matches but in which the clubs all get mixed up; first division versus third or fourth, second division against third.  In the Cup matches the little fourth-division club, with a modest ground surrounded by a few wooden seats and an average spectatorship of a few hundred gets the chance of a match with a first-division team before sixty thousand people cheering from opulent grandstands all around the ground.  We humans of the third division come right up against the saints of the second, and may hopefully get an occasional glimpse of the hierarchy in Heaven.

We have been unashamedly speaking in spatial terms, following ancient, patristic, or scholastic usage and based on biblical cosmology: the three-tier universe.  In such language the Church Militant is here on Earth, the  Church Expectant in paradise is “above,” and the Church Triumphant in Heaven is further “above” that; Heaven is the firmament “on high” from which the incarnate Lord “descends.”  There is still no reason why we should not think in this way, so long as we recognize it as analogical, symbolic, and illustrative.  Thus we think of the church as a three-story building with a basement underlying the first and second floors.  The Eucharist is sometimes seen as a lift, celebrated in the earthly basement yet linking it with the next two floors; all the saints are present at every celebration which is offered in the Holy Spirit, through the Son, to God the Father Almighty, and it is offered “with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven.”

Despite the outmoded, in fact bluntly erroneous, cosmology, there is nothing wrong with this so long as we accept biblical typology and realize exactly what we are doing.  But the Thomist football league has the advantage of being rid of this way of thinking.  In all cases the church is one, the universe is one, an organic unity, and so is the football league; they do not need ladders or lifts to join up the forms or stories or divisions.  All the clubs play at the same time and on the same level.  In this analogy, the Eucharist is not a lift but a horizontal channel.  The ninety-two clubs are separated as modes or spheres of activity but not necessarily spatially:  intersecting circles form a better diagram than three floors arranged vertically.  In other words, Heaven and Earth, men and saints are contemporary in activity and conjoined in existence.  The spacial-vertical design is legitimate but unnecessary; devotionally we are nearer to the saints and nearer to the angels, separate but on the same universal plane.  One does not need a lift to carry the saints down to the altar, they are there already and all the time, so are the angels.  Neither do you need a lift from which Jesus descends from “Heaven”; the Eucharist is a manifestation of his presence rather than a vehicle that arranges it.  The Eucharist does not create the grace of God through Christ but makes it available, usable, efficacious.

It is also in the Eucharist that proper prominence is given to the significance of the fourth division, the realm of inanimate matter, for the Eucharist is usually celebrated on an altar which is traditionally and correctly constructed of stone.  It is celebrated in a consecrated place which is also made of stone, while its necessary equipment is chalice and paten formed out of precious metal, rightly ornamented with precious stones: perhaps there is mystical significance in the masses of jewels mentioned in Saint John’s apocalypse?  Then there is bread and wine consecrated by a Christian community, all from the third division, while we have seen how the two higher divisions, saints and angels, are ever present.  All these together, as a whole, stress the sanctification and final redemption of the whole universe, but here in the Eucharist we do not need lifts and stories to unify that universe; all is temporal and all is eternal.

It is hoped that his analogy, this parable, might help a little to widen the scope of eucharistic worship.  Many of the faithful think in terms of hearing the Word, worshiping the blessed Trinity, partaking of the fruits of our Lords’ passion, of receiving life-giving, cleansing grace; all of which is right and good, but the analogy of the Thomist universe tends to further enrichment, it widens the vision and brings in the transcendental element.

If analogical thinking has its inherent dangers, it also provides safeguards against error and distortion.  As already noted, it guards against immanentalism, and keeps alive eucharistic enthusiasm in our duller periods of aridity.  It also opposes Pelagianism, which is the bastard child of pride, because it deepens faith by extending its boundaries.  Our analogy here quite literally “puts us in our place”; top of division three, not of division one.  These two aspects properly combine the church universal with the church local.  It is right to stress the power of the local community, to intercede for those in need within that community, but against a cosmic background this is brought into proportion.  By all means offer prayer for friends and neighbors, for Jack in hospital and Jill in distress; intercede also for the tragedies of the wider world.  Yet keep to the perspective which assures that the offering of the Eucharist itself is sufficient intercession for everything there is to intercede for: it pierces all the divisions “with angels and archangels.”

A further all-important safeguard is against the prevalent heresy which theology calls angelism: the desire to be an angel, to be done with the ridiculous human body, to jump straight into division one, without effort or training.  With the deepest humility we honor the faith and courage of the handicapped, the patience of the distressed and seriously sick, but the temptation is strong to grumble at God for making us human, for placing us in the third division, especially when things to wrong.  In our prime of life we rightly thank God for all the blessings of this life, for food an drink, sex and love, but how we detest the body when it hurts.  Saint Francis had the humility to call it brother ass, acceptable under God’s providential order.  With a little application the analogy helps to redeem our suffering, to share it with Christ who, infinitely above and beyond all the divisions in the whole league, deigned to play in division three and there to suffer unimaginable tortures.  The Word became flesh; he did not take the short cut of becoming an angel.

How then can we make our worship more real?  How do we enter into the Eucharist?  Not by going to church as spectators but by going home, to our Father’s house where we belong.  Above all, by recognizing that our little local family of God is of cosmic significance in all it does.  Let us breach the temporal while living in time, for it is only by the abject humility that goes with division three that we can truly see how important we are.  Let us enter the eucharistic throng to receive what we cannot do without, then to give, and ultimately to give in.

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