Getting to Know God: A Homily for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Why are we all gathered here tonight, not only in a place of Christian worship, but one attached to a scholarly institution? The answer, I assume, is at least in part that we seek to know God. St. Thomas Aquinas, to whose honour this Eucharist is dedicated, had rather a lot to say on the topic of the knowledge of God. It sometimes makes for sobering reading. In this life, according to Aquinas, we cannot know God as He is in Himself. Even the blessed will never comprehend Him. So much the worse for knowledge, some would say: let us concentrate on love. I will be returning to that idea later: stated thus baldly, however, it would meet with the scorn of St. Thomas, and it is not worthy of any one  of us. ‘Love’, Aquinas says, ‘demands apprehension of the good that is loved’.  Love and knowledge are thus inseparable.

Fortunately, Aquinas’s real views are not quite as pessimistic as they sound. When he says that the blessed will never comprehend God, he means that they will never know Him exactly as much as God is knowable in Himself. Since God is infinite, He is infinitely knowable. However well a finite mind might know, therefore, it will never exhaust all there is to know in God. When he says that we cannot know God as he in himself in this life, he means that no idea we possess of God will be adequate to His nature, as, for instance, our idea of red is adequate to the colour red. We can still have a pretty great idea of God: it’s just that none our creaturely ideas can do complete justice to the Creator. This being so, what we ought to be after, if we sincerely wish to know God, is a better idea of Him. According to Aquinas, there are three principal ways to improve our idea of God: the way of causation, the way of eminence, and the way of remotion.

First, the way of causation. Aquinas holds that every effect is like its cause. Since God is the primary cause of everything, everything, but everything, is in some sense like God. We will know God better the better we know his effects. How might we practice the way of causation? ‘Come and see the works of God’. Look around you. Pay attention. Feel the wood of the stalls against your body, smell the incense on the air, watch the light flicker from the candles. These are all from God, and all these will lead us to Him. This is the way of causation.

The way of eminence is like unto it. Some of God’s creatures are more noble than others. Those that are greater, more fully in being, are more like the Creator who is Being Itself. We will know God better if we come to know the better among His creatures. How do we do so? ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’.  Again, pay attention: this time to each other. Love demands apprehension of the good that is loved. As human persons, we are all among the noblest of God’s creatures, and we all show forth our own pattern of perfections. Appreciate them. Love Robert for his hospitality, love Benji for his genial spirit, love Claire for her tender heart. I could, but won’t, go on. Apologies to those omitted, but that is the way of eminence.

Finally, remotion. We will know God better if we know better how far he differs from even the greatest of His creatures. We could try to think through the way of remotion, denying of God all those attributed unworthy of Him, but if we want a truly lively sense of God’s strangeness, the traditional position is that we do better not to think at all. ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Withdraw from perception and cognition, the portals through which the rest of the created world rushes in to meet us, and wait in silence for the Creator who has awaited you from eternity. The most venerable means of waiting is perhaps to sit down and repeat the name of Jesus, our God among us. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us, sinners’. I like to say more simply ‘Jesus Christ’ as I exhale, ‘have mercy’ as I inhale. It sometimes brings a wonderful peace, sometimes frustration and fear, and often it is just dull. Fortunately, given the frequency of the latter case, the point of the exercise is neither to feel a delectable peace, nor thrill to a holy fear, but to grasp the fact of God’s remoteness. Turning towards God requires turning away from the thoughts and feelings than which he is so entirely other. That is the way of remotion.

So, how do we get to know God? The way of causation, the way of eminence, the way of remotion. Causation: ‘see the works of God’. Smell the incense, see the candles, attend to all the trivial points set forth by our liturgy. Eminence: ‘love one another’. Remember each other in the intercessions, reach out to each other in the peace. Remotion: ‘be still’. Kneel before the altar. Wrench the whole of your attention from the world around, and focus it on the little bit nothing that is the body of your God.

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2 thoughts on “Getting to Know God: A Homily for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

  1. Hi Alec, thanks for sharing this. You begin by saying,

    “Why are we all gathered here tonight, not only in a place of Christian worship, but one attached to a scholarly institution? The answer, I assume, is at least in part that we seek to know God.”

    Can I coax you into sharing more of your thoughts on the relationship between the College, Christian worship, and the academic study of theology? Possibly, but not necessarily, with reference to St. Thomas…

    Like

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