By Very Rev. Hugh C. Barbour, O. Praem., S.T.L, Ph.D.
Fr. Barbour, O. Praem. is the Prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange, California. Following is the Baccalaureate Homily he gave for the Mass of the Holy Spirit as part of Commencement Ceremonies on June 10, 2000:
Down in adoration falling
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! oe’r ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.
The words of a hymn most familiar to us is the Tantum Ergo – one which surely, a number of times, if not countless times, you have sung or heard sung even here – the words of the Angelic Doctor. Faith for all defects supplying, Where the feeble senses fail.
When St. Thomas was a little boy, a very little boy, he was in bed with his little sister in a cradle by a window. A flash of lightning entered the room and took her life and saved his, as he startled and moved, obviously from such a tremendous, sudden, frightening object. Ever after, in his life, when there was a thunderstorm, or a tempest, St. Thomas would cross himself, or he might even lay his head on the table of the altar if he was in the church, and he would repeat over and over, “God has become man. God has died and has risen.” Faith for all defects supplying, Where the feeble senses fail.
We know why it is that God revealed to us truths that exceed the capacity of our human reason, our unaided human reason. In addition to truths which He revealed on account of our fallen state, which we could have come to know on our own, He revealed truths which exceed our understanding, that utterly surpass the state of this present life. Why did He do so?
Well, the first answer is very simple and serene and makes eminent good sense from our perspective, as well as, of course, from God’s. If we were only in this life to know such things as can be known by our unaided human powers, then we might be led to think that that good, that end which God has established for us for the perfection of our nature and for our beatitude, would be something proportionate to the things which we find in this world.
And so, God revealed, as St. Thomas teaches us in the fifth chapter of the first book of his Summa against the Pagans, against the Gentiles. He says that in order that we might desire and tend with zeal towards an object that utterly exceeds the state of this present life, God revealed to us truths which we cannot know on our own – indeed, truths so profound that we cannot even discover with our human mind the inner reason for these truths, their plausibility seen from within the way we know things of science, of human science.
God revealed Himself to us so that we might desire Him as He really is, as one of whom the Apostle speaks when he says, “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of anyone what God has prepared for those who love Him” – that is, for those who desire Him and tend towards Him with zeal, knowing that what He is and what He holds in store for us, utterly exceeds all that we could ever experience or come to know or learn by our own discovery or learn from another.
But, this reason, as helpful as it is and certainly as enlightening as it is, as we pursue studies which are academic – and surely all of the students here, both those graduating and those who still have a ways to go, recognize that they can learn a great deal from the fact that everything that they learn which is good and true and beautiful, that everything which is worth striving for doesn’t even approach the majesty, the sublimity, and the capacity to satisfy the divine mysteries once seen face to face – but this reason is a reason for revelation which would have been the case even had we never fallen, even had our first parents never – for them and for us – placed our human nature universally in such a sorry state that we no longer live forever, that we no longer know and penetrate the secrets of nature by particular gifts given by God; that we no longer have that inner harmony and integrity between our understanding and our passions because of the Fall – lost, lost to us.
Even had there been no Fall, there would have been revelations of truths that exceed human reason. For God, being very good indeed, always intended these things for our benefit, that we might see Him as He really is. But given our fallen nature, revelation takes on an even more important (from a practical point of view), even more urgent and necessary, crucially necessary aspect. For, I put it to you today, that as you have discovered in the past, so you will know even more in the future, the principal difficulty, challenge, and, of course, occupation of our life is not to come to know the things we can know, or even to come to know them very well, but to overcome ourselves – the three-fold concupiscence: the concupiscence of the flesh, of the eyes, and of the pride of life. It is these things against which we must struggle our whole life through.
And this is really and truly where the victory is to be won. For although it is necessary that we know in order to desire, it is not enough for us poor fallen creatures, sons and daughters of Eve. There has to be a healing and saving grace that lifts us up from our state and gives us the victory over our passions. Our senses, which are our friends, the friends of our nature through which we receive all that we know in some way or another, become the source of disturbances of memories, imaginations, impressions, the source of passions which will trouble us all our life long.
We are not so fortunate as St. Thomas to have had so innocent a life that the only passion we read of him struggling against was a perfectly understandable passion, the remembrance and the cognitive awareness of judgment of an experience which certainly exceeded the limits of human nature – exceeded the capacities of toleration of a little child’s intellect and memory. His struggle was one against a fear long remembered.
But where did he find the consolation for this struggle? In the dogmas of the faith there is a perfect, pure, pristine reason in his reaction to his fear of thunder and lightening – a fear so much like that of the smallest child and yet existing in the wisest, most angelic, most universally sound of human minds and hearts. “God has become man. God has died. God has risen from the dead.” This was the consolation for the defect of his senses, for that disorder in his passions, in his memory.
The Christian life is a battle. Job said it and it is so true. Our life is a warfare, and a spiritual one, for the Apostle tells us that we are not warring just against flesh and blood, our own inner difficulties, but also those sources of temptation which transcend our own selves and which are malicious. But first of all, if the battle is to be won, it has to be won by our steadfast profession of faith in the face of all that would keep us from our final goal. All that we know will be of no avail if we do not overcome ourselves.
The great St. Augustine, the perfect example of this, understood that fact so well. And his conversion to the one and Catholic faith was not one only of his mind, but a conversion of his heart and of his sensibility. The truths of our faith, those which are most profound, provide our understanding but also our passions with the remedy which can lead us to eternal life and everlasting happiness and satisfaction in a supreme good. For it is the Cross, after all, which St. Thomas tells us, is the most difficult of the mysteries of faith – difficult, that is for our understanding – that God could take upon Himself a human nature and endure every sort of suffering for our salvation – this is a mystery beyond our comprehension.
And yet, in it is found the remedy for our every ill – the humbling of our mind with that wisdom which is foolishness to the world; and the healing of all of our faculties through Our Lord’s five precious Wounds, His Heart open to both give and to receive that which His creatures need and that which they long to return to Him. Someday, sooner or later, maybe sooner for some, later for others, we will finally reach eternal life by the grace of perseverance. We will reach that day on which we will be judged according to our works by the merciful eyes of God.
St. Thomas reached that day in an extraordinary way. For on St. Nicholas Day, in the middle of the 13th century, in the chapel of St. Nicholas, where St. Thomas said Mass every day in Naples, that great Saint, that giver of gifts to children, gave through his intercession, that gift which is of all gifts, the greatest; not just the good, but the supreme good. And after St. Thomas saw that, as he was celebrating the mysteries of the Passion in sacrament, he said, “In comparison to what I have seen, all that I have written appears to be but straw. I can write no more.” And he put his writing utensils away.
Someday those feeble senses, defective with all their effects, will be enlightened, healed, lifted up, risen, glorified and will share in the redundance of that vision which is complete and perfect happiness. Our life after college, during, before, the whole span of it, is ordered toward this and this alone, if we would be truly wise. So let us resolve today to seek those things which do not pass away in whatever it is that we do – and to seek above all to find in the faith, in the mysteries of the faith, the consolation, the power, the healing, the solution to all of our human weaknesses, which, I can assure you, you have only begun to appreciate.
That verse, which I read at the beginning, precedes the conclusion of that hymn – the conclusion which promises us Eternal Life in the vision of the Blessed Trinity. This is the point of today’s celebration. And indeed, as I love to repeat from time to time, all of us here will understand and see one day, this day, in the light of an eternal day and will recall in the providential judgments of God the words that were spoken and the inspirations given, those graces actual and efficacious. And so, in view of that happy day when we will recall to our great benefit and joy, God willing and with our cooperation, what we do here today, let us set our hearts wholly on the truths of the faith that St. Thomas expounded so well but which, by God’s mercy, his own experience superseded so utterly that he could work no more.
I’ll conclude with some words of a disciple of St. Thomas, one who, also like him, shared abundantly in the understanding, penetration, enjoyment of the mysteries of faith and who knew what it was to overcome the obstacles of the senses in order to receive a higher light. St. John of the Cross writes this. And these words could be in fact a profession of faith, a concrete one, for each one of our graduates to be – a statement of what is truest about life and a statement about all of life’s experiences in the light of those truths which utterly exceed anything of which we have had experience or will experience. St. John of the Cross writes this: “Mine are the heavens and mine the earth. Mine are the people, the righteous are mine, and mine are the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God is mine. And God Himself is mine and for me. For Christ is mine and all for me. What do you ask for, what do you seek, my soul? All this is yours and it is all for you.”