Void and empty, a pair of eyes stares back at you. They belong to a man, but could just as easily belong to a goat.
Blink. No recognition.
“Uhh,”—somewhere beneath the eyes, feet shift uncomfortably, like cloven hooves finding footing on a craggy hillock. Why is his mouth moving like that? Is he chewing grass?
“I don’t get it.”
No matter how clever the quip or quick the wit, if our words garner vacuous goat-stares in return, we’ve failed as communicators. When someone doesn’t “get it,” that’s our problem, not theirs (most of us don’t have many people that are actually obligated to listen to us). This applies to everything from table conversation to classroom teaching, and the friar preacher would do well to remember it, too: our words must not get in the way of the Word.
Few Christians understood this better than Thomas Aquinas. The goal of his Summary of Theology was “to pass along what relates to the Christian religion in a way fit for the education of beginners.” What did that mean? It meant waging war against useless discussions, rambling tangents, and annoying repetitions. St. Thomas got to the point. Would that some preachers (myself included) followed suit.
But beyond averting hordes of head-scratching students and glassy-eyed parishioners, the practice of verbal trimming also has a spiritual component. For those of us who love to hear ourselves talk, the Letter of St. James crashes the me-party with a pretty big downer: “the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze” (James 3:5). If we want to stamp out pretentious words, we need to learn to zip our lips and put the focus where it belongs (turns out the hairy woodland ideologue was right: only you can prevent forest fires). Or, in the words of St. John the Baptist, “he must increase and I must decrease.”
Here, too, Aquinas excelled. His verbal reserve earned him the nickname “the mute ox,” and when he did speak, he did so in unpretentious, everyday language (his examples always came from mundane things like rocks, fires, and the “whiteness” of his Dominican habit-inhabiting brethren). Our straightforward friar would never have called himself “abdominous,” just fat. That lack of pretension explains why we meet so little of such a big man whenever we pick up one of his works. Friar Thomas didn’t write about himself; he wrote about God, and he always took the shortest route to get there (why else would a brilliant man in line to become the abbot of one of the most famous monasteries in Europe leave to join a band of beggars?).
Yves Congar once compared St. Thomas’s writings to a monstrance (the big golden thingamajig that holds Jesus during Eucharistic adoration—the word comes from the Latin monstrare and basically means “a pointer-outer”). But we can go one step further. St. Thomas himself was a monstrance. Everything he did, everything he said, everything he wrote always pointed to Jesus. Despite a capacious midsection that may have demanded table-cutting, St. Thomas never got in the way. He was a clear glass people saw through. What they really saw was Jesus.
I wonder if this, more than anything else, explains why Aquinas became the “common doctor” and “universal teacher” of the church. Bl. John Duns Scotus was later known as the “subtle doctor,” but that very subtlety may account for the dearth of Scotist popularizers over the centuries. Aquinas translated common sense into theological language, and so gave us a way of thinking that easily translates back. No jargon needed. Venerable Louis of Grenada’s Sinner’s Guide, St. Catherine of Sienna’s Dialogue, and Fr. Walter Farrell’s Companion to the Summa and My Way of Life all prove that—like the saint himself—Aquinas’s thought refuses to stay locked in the ivory tower.
On this feast of St. Thomas, please pray that God will grant the brothers of that abdominous monstrance the grace to go out and preach the gospel simply, clearly, and boldly, always pointing beyond ourselves to Jesus, with words that everyone can “get.”
Image: Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky, Mental Arithmetic in the Public School of S. Rachinsky