St Benedict, St Thomas and the Thought Police

How, you may ask, do I get from today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 19–23, which is about desire and corruption of the will, to St Thomas Aquinas and what I have called the thought police? It is really very simple. Today is the feastday of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian whose work has proved so influential on Western thought. His attempt to reconcile several elements of Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity led to many disputes which have continued to our own day. At one point, Thomas was even accused of championing Averroism (an extreme form of Aristotelianism he specifically rejected). It seems that not everyone was capable of reading what he wrote in the way that he intended, and those who put a false interpretation on his words assumed he held a position he did not. A very similar situation exists today, but it is more generalised and is often an unintended consequence of the way in which the internet has opened up all kinds of speculation and discussion. We read the words others have written and interpret them according to our own ideas. Sometimes we fail to understand properly, or we put a sinister twist on them. That is when the thought police launch their attack!

I sometimes wonder whether, had Thomas lived today and done much of his writing on the internet, he would have been able to do as much as he did. I suspect a lot of his time would have been taken up with patiently trying to explain to those less gifted than himself what he had already explained. I feel quite sure he would have been accused of lack of orthodoxy and had his motives impugned. Those who scoff at truth, or, just as bad, assume they have mastered the truth, easily forget that theology is a prayerful quest for understanding. It is not an exact science. Speculation, thinking aloud we might call it, sharing ideas, arguing, are all part of the way in which we deepen our comprehension; but the final point, the aim of theological endeavour, is, surely, experience of God. As Thomas remarked to Reginald after what is generally regarded as some sort of mystical experience, ‘All I have written seems like straw to me.’

When Benedict writes about desire, he too is urging us to go beyond the material facts of our daily life to experience of God. Not our will but His is to be done. He is aware that good people are led astray not by bad things but by good (cf Proverbs 16.25). Just as those who censured St Thomas Aquinas thought they were doing a good deed, so we can be misled. Benedict’s remedy is the constant scrutiny of mind and heart, the watchfulness I touched upon yesterday. He is a practical man, writing for practical people, few of whom will have the intellectual or spiritual gifts of St Thomas. He simply tells us God is always with us and our every desire is before Him. That is both a comforting thought and a very disturbing one.

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