By the Very Rev. Sam Candler
Dean of the Cathedral
I know it is a nerdy thing to admit, but I actually like philosophy. In particular, I like the particulars of philosophy. I like the philosophers who focus on particulars.
The Episcopal Church, in our appointed feast days, actually remembers the brilliant Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas. When Aquinas lived in the 13th century, the Episcopal Church (as the Church of England) was still a part of the Western Catholic Church centered in Rome. I am glad we observe his feast day on January 28.
After mentioning both philosophy and feast days, maybe I have already lost you. But I will persist. I remember today an old philosophical conversation between universals and particulars. One classical branch of philosophy starts its study with “Universals;” another branch starts its study with “Particulars.” A person who studies “Universals” studies the properties of things, common characteristics of individual things, classes of things. For them, these “Universals” are real. On the other hand, a person who studies “Particulars” starts with the thing itself, giving the object – or subject—its own attention before assigning it to some category. For them, only “Particulars” are truly real, not “Universals.”
That is a simplification, of course. My apologies to philosophers. But the complicated difference plays a large role in the history of Western philosophy and theology. Plato started with universals. Aristotle started with particulars. For a thousand years, the Christian Church used the work of Plato to form its theology. Saint Augustine was good at it.
It was today’s saint, Thomas Aquinas, who brought Aristotle back to the attention of philosophy and theology. Aquinas taught us to pay attention to particulars again. Of course, he did much more. He was the great synthesizer, able to interpret both Plato and Aristotle together, able to combine faith and reason in edifying, wholesome ways.
He developed, even more, the definitions of the existence of God as First Mover. There is a God, he claimed, because something must have begun this energy, this motion, in the world. Aquinas focused on being itself, too. We are contingent beings, he said, implying that there has to have been a Being before us.
Today, however, I simply point out his attention to real and physical things, the particulars in life, not the lofty universals that escape us. Aquinas brought philosophical attention back to flesh itself. Like Aristotle did. Like a good scientist does.
I give you a simplistic example of music. A person who starts with universals says something like, “I like music.” A person who starts with particulars says, “I like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” Aquinas taught us to pay attention to particulars; it is through particulars that we might grasp something universal.
Amidst the profound theology of Thomas, he also wrote texts for hymns. He wrote two famous texts for the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ). One such text was the hymn we often sing at communion, “Humbly I Adore Thee.” What a beautiful opening stanza, translated as, “Humbly I adore thee, verity unseen/ Whom thy glory hidest, ‘neath these shadows mean.” (a “particular” shows us a “universal”!)
I give thanks for his life and theology today. But I give thanks, by combining his spirit with that of the twentieth century theologian and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who also paid attention to particulars, but in an expansive way. Teilhard loved the earth itself, and the things of creation. He ended up finding in them the very incarnation of God.
Using both the eucharistic hymn of Aquinas and the expansive incarnation theology of Teilhard, I offer this poem as a tribute to them:
(a sonnet after Aquinas and Teilhard)
The ocean and the beach are the wine and the bread,
The chalice and the paten who nourish the world.
The sea and the earth are the chalice and the paten,
The golden dome and the generous plate.
The marsh creek and mud are the blood and the body,
The holy mysteries offered twice daily in the tide.
“O memorial wondrous, of the Lord’s own death;
Living Bread that givest all thy creatures breath,
Grant my spirit ever by thy life may live,
To my taste thy sweetness never failing give.”
So I sing to the earth and the sea.
So I offer my heart and desire.
The hovering sky overhead is the Spirit,
With warm and wild illuminating fire.