Tuesday 12 October 2021

The English Aquinas

The sermon of Br Albert Robertson OP for the feast of St John Henry Newman

At the top of a bookshelf in the library of the Dominican community in Edinburgh, there’s a quotation from St John Henry Newman. According to the quotation, St John Henry Newman is supposed to have said that ‘What England needs is more Dominicans.’ I’m not really sure where this comes from. I’ve never been able to track it down. The quotation has no reference. But St John Henry Newman was keen on the Dominicans. Our sisters at Stone in Staffordshire were visited by Newman on a number of occasions, and he had a great love for that community, connected as it was to the mission of Bl Dominic Barberi. Indeed, for a while there was the question of whether Newman himself would become a Dominican. When his own small community of converts from Littlemore arrived at Maryvale in 1846, the question of the future of their community life came to the fore. Bl Dominic Barberi wanted Newman and his friends to be ‘preachers, missionaries, martyrs.’ Wiseman’s idea was that they should use their special intellectual gifts contending with the various infidelities of their time. A letter dated 6 July 1846 ends with Newman’s speculation about the future, and explores the idea of embracing the life of the Friars Preachers. At the very end he states his objection: ‘Is not the Dominican Order’s great idea extinct’? Are not the Jesuits ‘the fashion of the age’?

Talk of becoming a Dominican seems to have filled his companions with some dread. In a letter from Frederick Sellwood Bowles to Ambrose St John, Bowles writes ‘For my part I would sooner be a Jesuit. I have no fancy for that no meat diet, and eight months’ fasting you talk about. And how do you think you would stand all that hard head work, living on nothing but air?’

If Newman had become a son of St Dominic, the fit may have been a very difficult one. The English province of the Order was, at that time, in a precarious state, propped up with friars sent from other provinces. During his time at Rome, Newman found that Aquinas wasn’t much taught. This is probably a surprise to us now, but until the revival of St Thomas under Leo XIII, Aquinas was an obscure figure. Despite this obscurity, Newman recognised St Thomas as, in his words, the champion of revealed truth. But the difference between them is great enough for Newman to be considered an English Aquinas, almost an English version of Aquinas — not only because of the range of questions he addressed and the amount which he wrote, but to also reflect the real difference in their thought: Newman was certainly no Thomist. His time in Rome did not equip him with the vocabulary or thinking of St Thomas, and his age meant that he was unlikely to ditch his own intellectual system in favour of another. So what should a Dominican say of St John Henry Newman? For all their differences, Newman and Aquinas stand as two intellectual giants in the Catholic Church, and it was precisely in their understanding of the intellectual life that they stand as one. For both Newman and Aquinas, our faith is not simply about what we know, but about abiding in Lord, and allowing the words of Christ to abide more deeply in us.

From its very beginning, St John’s Gospel tells us that the life of the disciple is one of abiding with the Lord; the intimate relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit, is the basis of an intimacy between the Lord and His disciples. The Lord’s first disciples are called when he invites them to ‘come and see’ where he is abiding and they respond in turn by abiding with him. But in the chapters which recount the Last Supper, the Chapters from which our Gospel Reading was taken, the Lord tells the disciples quite plainly that this relationship is mutual: ‘Abide in me, and I in you.’

For St Thomas, this abiding is expressed as friendship. The disciples gathered around our Saviour enjoy not just his companionship, but also his friendship. The true sign of friendship is that friends reveal the secrets of their hearts to each other, and an intimacy and confidence grows between them. Ultimately friends become of one mind and one heart. In Christ, God reveals his secrets to us by allowing us to share his wisdom when we abide in Jesus, and Jesus’s words abide in us.

But it is the Church which ensures that we remain in this abiding friendship with God. As we are grafted onto the vine, the words of Christ are not just words to us. They become effective in our lives, they mould and shape us, and the Holy Spirit guarantees that these words are as effective now in each of us as they were when Christ first spoke them. As Newman wrote in one of his sermons, ‘…the heart of every Christian ought to represent in miniature the Catholic Church, since one Spirit makes both the whole Church and every member of it to be His Temple.’ The mysteries of Christ’s life are, for St John Henry, almost tangibly imprinted on us. In another of his sermons he writes ‘Christ Himself vouchsafes to repeat in each of us in figure and mystery all that He did and suffered in the flesh. He is formed in us, born in us, suffers in us, rises again in us, lives in us.’

If we love Christ’s words, they remain alive within us, they teach us and mould us to abide in an ever deeper relationship with our divine master and teacher. St Thomas tells us that by loving and believing in the words of Christ, by constantly meditating on them, we come to accomplish them, and we do this, says St Thomas, by living well and teaching well. This is the fruit which we bear. Loving the words of Christ brings an integrity and a coherence to our lives. Indeed, for Newman, the divorce of our thought, our intellectual life, from our life in Christ was the very essence of the rationalism and liberalism which he fought against. Our path to that mature Christian life which St Paul encourages the Christians in Ephesus to aspire to, is only possible if we have, Newman says, ‘clear heads and holy hearts.’

When we think of Newman or Aquinas at work, we perhaps think of these great men precisely as towering intellectuals. We picture Newman standing at his desk and scratching away at his paper with his ink pen, or Aquinas in his intellectual ecstasy dictating to his numerous scribes. What we perhaps don’t see are these two great saints abiding in God, loving the Word of God, and allowing the Word of God to abide in them. If we want to see this a little more clearly, it might be worth remembering that for both Aquinas and Newman, their theology spilled over into poetry: the treatise and the tract were not enough for them to convey the depth of their love.

Newman was received into the Church on this day in 1845, and this feast and anniversary stands at the head of each academic year; a fitting feast day for a saint who loved this city and University and who rejoices that the sons of St Philip and the sons of St Dominic find a home here. This feast which for many of us marks a new year, means that he can be for us a special guide and patron to show us the true meaning of study and enquiry. St Thomas and our very own English Aquinas, St John Henry Newman, teach us that knowledge of our faith is not enough. We must love and meditate upon Christ’s words, as well as believing them. Aquinas distinguished theology from other kinds of knowledge, he said that some things like geometry train the intellect, but theology differs from these other bodies of knowledge, because it trains not only the intellect, but also the affections. In Grammar of Assent, Newman writes that ‘Every religious man is to a certain extent a theologian’, because everyone can come to a fuller understanding of revelation through prayerful and reasoned reflection. St John Henry saw Our Lady as the model for this; in a sermon written while still an Anglican he said that Our Blessed Lady ‘does not think it enough to accept Divine Truth, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit to Reason, she reasons upon it.’ For both Newman and Aquinas every aspect of our lives has to be shaped by the words of Christ which dwell within us, it’s this which leads us out of shadows into a fuller reality. For both Newman and Aquinas knowledge of our faith is not enough, all theology worthy of the name, and really all intellectual life is, for the Christian, rooted in heart speaking unto heart.