Theology and Prayer: Feast of St. Thomas 2012

March 9, 2012

Wisdom opened the mouth of the dumb, and made the mouth of babes speak clearly. (Wisdom 10.21) O LORD our LORD, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants. (Psalm 8.1-2a) “Theology” is God-speech, it is the intellectual quest for understanding by way of rational articulation. Faith bears this impetus. Accordingly, we do well to recognize that the Bible and the Church’s liturgy–in different but analogous ways–are more fundamental than “theological texts.” They are the Bridegroom and Bride’s words of love to each other; and it is this incarnate speech of God that provides the stuff of theological reflection, however much the work of theology is itself already enfolded within biblical and liturgical discourse. All of this is to say that the words of Revelation and the words of Divine Worship are not negotiable. They are the data–the gifts, the things given–of Revelation, and upon which theology works. They formally present God’s word to man and man’s word to God–perfectly mediated by the God-man Himself, who is Head of His Body, the Church. Two days at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in NYC this week were dedicated to receiving and rendering the Word of God with intellectual and heartfelt intensity. On Tuesday, Fr. Guy Mansini, OSB, delivered a lecture titled “Beyond Dogma: Postconciliar Modernism.” He took as his point of concern the way a particular dictum of St. Thomas has been misappropriated in the 20th century. Among other innumerable places, that quotation (STh II-II 1.2 ad 2) is found in our Catechism:

We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch. “The believer’s act [of faith] does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities [which they express.]” All the same, we do approach these realities with the help of formulations of the faith which permit us to express the faith and to hand it on, to celebrate it in community, to assimilate and live on it more and more.” (CCC 170)

Consistent with the thought of the Church’s Common Doctor, the Catechism teaches that the possibilities of a genuine spiritual life (“to assimilate and live…”) are pursuant to our “approach [of divine] realities” by cleaving to the Church’s formal speech: her doctrinal preaching (“to express the faith”) and her sanctifying prayer (“to celebrate it”). Unfortunately, St. Thomas’s own words have been widely expropriated and misapplied, Fr. Mansini convincingly and passionately argued. Those modernist and modernistic thinkers, who hold that the words our Church hands on (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed) are relatively negotiable due to their historical conditioning and created incommensurability with the Creator, place the salvific gambit of God at stake: It radically undermines the benefits of God’s Incarnation! For, if God came as man and spoke to us as one of us, what could his human words truly say of His own divinity?! And if the Word’s own words fail, then what becomes of those sent by him who was himself first sent by the Father (cf. Romans 10.14-17)? The work of catechesis and the work of theology is, before any kind of reflection on the incommunicable particularities of one’s religious “experience,” a handing on and extrapolating of the words that the Church hands on, preeminent among which are those of Scripture, as apprehended by the created mind. And this is no mere semantic play; it is the very “syntax” of God’s Revelation (Mansisni). The words bear the divine reality as intelligible in faith. Hence, theology is to be practiced on one’s knees, as one famous modern theologian memorably put it. And in St. Thomas, who was no mere academician but firstly a religious, i.e., a man consecrated to the works of religion, and who composed such beautiful liturgical poetry (which the Church will sing in a few weeks), we see the absolute importance of liturgical worship. The following day, 7 March, was the traditional feast of St. Thomas. In his honor,  a Sung Mass was offered before a packed nave according to the Dominican Rite. The very words that so many Dominican friars over the course of so many centuries used to pray to God–the very God who called them to speak of Him–were those used by the celebrant, Fr. Austin Dominic Litke. Preaching this Mass, Fr. James Dominic Brent noted some of the unique words that the Dominican utters at the Offertory: Quid retribuam Domino pro ombibus quae retribuit mihi? (What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has rendered to me? Psalm 116.12) Meditating on what he called “The Problem of Infinite Gratitude,” Fr. Brent spoke of the human heart’s natural (if wounded) desire to render to God fitting thanks for all that He gives–all that is good… which is all that is! And it is only in the Word-made-flesh’s self-offering, perpetuated until the end of time through the Sacrifice of the Mass, that man is able, not only to resolve a problem, but enter into the Mystery of God’s providentially proffered love. For at the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say… Audio files of Fr. Mansini’s talk and Fr. Brent’s homily are found below. (Photos of the Mass may be found here, and a video should be forthcoming.) The Church of St. Vincent Ferrer expresses its gratitude to all the friars, other clergy and religious, 3rd Order and laity, who contributed to two wonderful days of speech with and about God. (Especially to be commended are the schola and the servers.) Praised be the Name of the Lord!

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