I love this about Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher, whose story reminds us that we do not know as much as we think we do:
[In 1273, on the feast of Saint Nicholas, Aquinas was celebrating Mass] when “he received a revelation that so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more, leaving his great work the Summa Theologiae unfinished. To Brother Reginald’s (his secretary and friend) expostulations he replied, “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” When later asked by Reginald to return to writing, Aquinas said, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
— Butler’s Lives of the Saints
Apropos of today’s Memorial for Aquinas, the Office of Readings excerpts a portion of his sixth conference on the Creed — on the suffering and death of Jesus: “Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross, and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.” He lists some of them: Love, patience, humility, obedience, and detachment.
The reading inspired my piece at First Things, today. Pondering the crucifix — which teaches us everything, if we let it — it seemed to me that there was another virtue we could add to Aquinas’ list: the virtue of understanding who and what one is, particularly within the concept of obedience. It is a virtue within a virtue, so to speak.
It was Jesus’ precise understanding of himself that propelled his own obedience, even through personal weariness and his Gethsemane terrors. Found within the temple, he asks his shaken parents, “where else would I be?” At a wedding in Cana, he gives in to his mother, while reminding her “my hour has not yet come.” Throughout the Gospels the evidence of Christ’s self-awareness comes to us through his own words or the acknowledgement of others: He is a man (John 4:29); a son (Luke 2:48); a friend (John 15:14); a lamb and sin-sacrifice (John 1:29). His who?—“The Christ” (Mark 8:29). His what?—the Word (John 1:1); One in being, with the Father (John 10:30).
For that matter, most of the apostles are presented as both who and what. Matthew, the tax-collector; Nathaniel, the “Israelite Without Guile”; Thomas, the skeptic; block-headed Peter, foundational Rock. Others come into the story and are never named. We don’t know who they are, but we know what they are as they meet Christ: the leper; the adulteress; the Samaritan woman from whom he asks a drink. These scenes are particularly interesting, because an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with Truth, so he does not try to pretend that the leper is not a leper; he says, “be healed” and tells him to show himself to the priests and be ritually cleansed. Jesus does not tell the woman she is not an adulteress; he says, “go and sin no more.” He does not tell the Samaritan woman that she is living well; he tells her sins before disclosing his identity to her.
Meeting Christ dramatically alters the lives of each of these people, and yet in order to tell their stories, they must declare to others their whole selves—claim themselves as both who and what. The healed leper is perfectly healthy, and yet he must identify himself as a leper in order to be a witness to others. The adulteress later (we believe) returns with expensive nard and as she anoints Christ’s hair and feet, her weeping is a public declaration of her who-and-what, and God’s mercy. The Samaritan woman says “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.” After talking with Jesus, her excitement is so great that she drops all pretenses about her past or present state.
What has all of this to do with the “New Homophiles” of my headline? You’ll have to go over to First Things, to find out.