Tell me more, tell me more
Was it love at first sight?
Not hardly. And that my latest theological crush happened at all is pretty miraculous. I still have enough vestigial Cathar in me, left over from my flirtation with Gnosticism, to be amazed and slightly horrified that a Dominican could steal even a piece of my heart.They’re all alike, those Dogs of God, the Nurse to my inner Juliet sneers. Burn you and leave you. But here I am anyway, scribbling in my diary on my guy’s feast day, Dumb Ox + Jojo circled with a heart.
Looking back, though, Tommaso from Aquino was always there in the background, wooing. As a wee girl, veiled in white, I walked in the Corpus Christi procession, chanting Thomas’s ineffable hymn in praise of the Blessed Sacrament:
Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
How ironic to have been singing about the need for faith to supplement our defective senses, when that procession was sensory overload in itself–Monsignor in a cloth-of-gold and watered silk cope, bearing aloft the Host in a gleaming sunburst monstrance, the Holy Name Society men in their sharp suits wrangling the embroidered velvet canopy, we little girls tossing flower petals in their path. The heady perfume of incense and spicy-clove stock flowers trodden underfoot said Heaven to me then, and I will be sorely disappointed, should I get there, if eternal bliss is not released in beatific smell-o-vision.
My 14 years of Catholic education didn’t give me any direct exposure to Thomas–probably because I was a girl–so I mostly thought of him as one of those dry-as-dust guys who wasted time counting angels on the heads of pins. First-hand exposure in the Antioch Humanities program years later didn’t do much to change that impression. My classmates and I found the Five Proofs for the existence of God circular and silly (God as Popeye: I yam cuz I yam and you are cuz I yam) and much preferred the romance of Abelard and Heloise.
But if I didn’t love Thomas at first sight, a lot of people I care about did. Surely it’s no coincidence that I’ve been romantically involved over the years with two different guys whose idea of intimate pillow talk was musing on the Summa contra Gentiles. And now I am finding that Aquinas had a profound influence on many of my literary crushes, too. Dante, in the Paradiso, places Thomas in the Heaven of the Sun, and (following ancient tradition in which the Dominicans and Franciscans eulogize each other’s founders) gives him the honor of introducing Francis of Assisi, my all-time holy boyfriend.
James Joyce (who, being Jesuit educated and a boy, did imbibe Aquinas in grade school) was a lifelong Thomist. I never noticed, when I fell headlong for Ulysses, that it was shaped as much by Tommaso as by Homer. Answering a friend’s jibe that Aquinas’ thought had nothing to do with modern life, Joyce bristled, “It has everything to do with us.” And my beloved Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum) is a Thomist, too. Eco even hints at why it took me so long to come around when he says that the worst thing that ever happened to Thomas was not dying and being too fat for his brother friars to carry the corpse downstairs, nor having some of his writings condemned as heretical for a time, but
. . . when John XXII decided to turn Tommaso into St Thomas Aquinas. These are nasty mishaps, like receiving the Nobel Prize, being admitted to the Academie de France, winning an Oscar. You become like the Mona Lisa: a cliche. It’s the moment when the big arsonist is appointed Fire Chief. (“In Praise of Thomas Aquinas,” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1986)
The big arsonist! Now there’s a Thomas I can love.
But what sealed the deal for me is having had the great pleasure, over the last couple of years, to hang out with Matthew Levering, the young, brilliant, prolific Aquinas scholar who’s proving Joyce was right about Thomas having everything to do with us here and now. I met Matthew through my friend Michael, whose neighbor he was, and for a long time only knew him as the most interesting conversationalist I’d ever encountered. Table talk with Matthew can and does careen dizzyingly from Shakespeare to Harry Potter to the Trinitarian economy to Downton Abbey, and is my idea of the most fun you can have while sober. But I confess I wasn’t aware of Matthew’s reputation until I met a theology professor from Spain at a reception at the North American College in Rome. “You are from Dayton?” she asked. “Do you know Dr Levering, the Aquinas Scholar?” When I said I did (not copping to the fact that I knew him only as Dr Levering, Michael’s Neighbor), she practically genuflected. I have been humbly catching up since then, and particularly recommend Matthew’s latest way-more-fun-and-interesting-than-it-sounds book on the deadly sins, The Betrayal of Charity. If somebody as cool as Matthew can give me Aquinas’ phone number, I figure, it is worth taking a shot.
So, late have I loved thee, Tommaso, but I’ve finally come around. I always did fall for the smart guys, especially the ones who are smart enough to know that in the end all that scholarship is merely straw–fuel for the arson of the heart. I won’t pretend I can get to know you now as well as I could have had I started younger, but then we’ll always have clove-and-incense-scented eternity. Buona festa!