instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

How to study

St. Thomas has a reputation for thinking deeply about... let's say, matters the immediate relevance of which is not everywhere and always acknowledged.

For my part, I'm inclined to believe the stories showing him as a person driven by "nonisity," a word I made up meaning "the state of being satisfied with nothing less, and nothing other, than God." If so, then everything he wrote served at least an ancillary role in drawing him close to God.

If I were fanciful, I might even suggest the way to understand his famous words, "All I've written is like straw," is that his writing was the tinder through which the flame of Love roared to life in his soul.

All this isn't to say everything St. Thomas wrote will draw us, who still find his words more valuable than straw, close to God. I'm not convinced, for example, that every paper written about the precise meaning of an obscure passage in the Summa is written in St. Thomas's spirit of concern with what is true rather than with what other people say.

There is a lesser known work of St. Thomas, a reply to a fellow Dominican who'd written him asking how best to study, which gives a characteristically brief rule for following in St. Thomas's nonisitic footsteps. (And yes, one of St. Thomas's characteristics is brevity, in terms of words per concept.)

St. Thomas begins his letter to the young Brother John with this warning:
Do not wish to jump immediately from the streams to the sea, because one has to go through easier things to the more difficult.
Then comes the following list of instructions:
  • Be slow to speak, and slow to go to the conversation room.
  • Embrace purity of conscience.
  • Do not give up spending time in prayer.
  • Love spending much time in your cell, if you want to be led into the wine cellar.
  • Show yourself amiable to all.
  • Do not query at all what others are doing.
  • Do not be very familiar with anyone, because familiarity breeds contempt, and provides matter for distracting you from study.
  • Do not get involved at all in the discussions and affairs of lay people.
  • Avoid conversations about all, any, and every matter.
  • Do not fail to imitate the example of good and holy men.
  • Do not consider who the person is you are listening to, but whatever good he says commit to memory.
  • Whatever you are doing and hearing try to understand. Resolve doubts, and put whatever you can in the storeroom of your mind, like someone wanting to fill a container.
  • Do not spend time on things beyond your grasp.
Some of these I'm better at than others. I'm not very good, for example, at avoiding the discussions and affairs of lay people, but then, the original Latin phrase was de factis et verbis saecularium, so for my purposes as a Lay Dominican I might take it to mean "of the world."

No one who reads or writes a blog can claim to avoid conversations about "all, any, and every matter," but here the word St. Thomas used was discursum, which can be translated as "idle conversation," and it's hard to make a case in favor of idle conversation as such.

Overall, this letter reads like it came from the hand of a faithful son of St. Dominic, of whom it was said he spoke only of God or with God -- and, if I may suggest, from the hand of a close spiritual kinsman to St. John of the Cross, and probably every other great spiritual director.

But how many people would have guessed St. Thomas as the author of the line, "Love being in your cell, if you want to be introduced to the wine cellar"? And no, it's not what you think; the "wine cellar," the cellam vinariam, is a Scriptural reference, to Song of Songs 2:4:
"He brought me into the cellar of wine, he set in order charity in me." Douay Rheims

"He brings me into the banquet hall and his emblem over me is love."NAB
The NAB's note states, "The banquet hall: the sweet things of the table, the embrace of the bride and bridegroom, express the delicacy of their affection and the intimacy of their love."

Over and over and over, in his books and his letters and his life, St. Thomas teaches us that the purpose of study, of the ascetic life, of everything we should do, is loving God. "Nothing but Thee, Lord."