Some years ago, an acquaintance asked me why I didn’t write columns or articles that were more theological. Certainly, he said, my education enabled me to undertake the task.
His tone reminded me of the young man who scolded me for making a roomful of new Catholic school teachers watch a video of “The Rabbi’s Gift” instead of reviewing the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant theologian, philosopher and doctor of the Church.
What this teacher did not realize was that St. Thomas inspired, in part, my decision to use my limited time with teachers as I did. It was St. Thomas who said, “Lord, in my zeal for the love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.”
The story in the video was about an old, deteriorating monastery where the number of monks was dwindling and their spirits were depressed, and in their current state did not treat each other well. The monastery abbot sought the wisdom of an old rabbi who walked the surrounding woods in prayer.
The rabbi offered one simple thought: “The Messiah is among you.”
With these wise words a daily thought in their prayers, the monks, and the monastery, began to change. They were resurrected, so to speak, by their love of Jesus, of each other and their vocation to bring Jesus into the lives of others. This new life was the fruit of the Rabbi’s gift, and the truth about love.
The young man in my workshop was angry, he felt cheated. He had wanted a theology lesson but I gave them an opportunity to reflect on what it means to have an encounter with Christ – something that seemed to me to be more valuable in helping teachers, at so many different stages of theological training, understand the mission of their schools and their vocation as teachers, particularly on the eve of their new assignments.
Years later, I would come across a book, “Theology Brewed in an African Pot,” which described theology as “talking sensibly about God.” I could relate.
In the book, written by Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, the author shared the story of a conversation between the British missionary, Mr. Brown, and Chief Akunna of the African village of Umuofia. Mr. Brown “possessed an impressive mastery of the religious vocabulary and could reel off the theological terminologies with ease. Chief Akunna … possessed a native sense of religion that made him a theologian of no lesser statue and repute than Mr. Brown. He knew how to talk sensibly about God – the nature of God, the meaning of worship, meditation and creation, divine providence.”
Orobator wrote, "We need to dispel the notion that theology is the exclusive preserve of experts and academicians. Theology is something that we all do all the time, even without actually paying attention to it” – a reality within our homes, classrooms, work places and parishes.
There are many among us who are not familiar with the teachings of St. Thomas, nor comfortable with theological language. They are familiar, however, with Jesus, who changed the face of the world through parables, promises and a passionate love of God the Father and God’s children. That sacrificial love permeated his every thought, word and deed, and led him to the Cross. He is our reason and our example. He speaks a language everyone can understand.
Still, I would never question the value of studying the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, teachings that rose out of the saint’s love for and encounter with Christ. The language is challenging and the breadth of his writings is daunting, but it is a challenge worth accepting.
My personal favorite for getting to know the saint, before trying to grapple with his theology, is a biography of St. Thomas of Aquinas written by G.K. Chesterton, a writer of incomparable insight and wit. His comparison of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas actually had me laughing.
I believe St. Thomas would have liked “The Rabbi’s Gift.”
Mary Morrell is the former managing editor of The Monitor and an award-winning writer, editor and educator working at Wellspring Communications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and read at her blog, “God Talk and Tea.”