On the night after the actor Alan Rickman died, I watched the version of Sense and Sensibility in which he plays Colonel Brandon. What a beautiful movie, and what a wonderful performance he gives. Since then I have been reading Sense and Senibility on my kindle. Jane Austen was simply a moral genius. The book contrasts a elder sister (Elinor, ‘Sense') who faces up to the fact that reality cannot be modelled on her wishes with a younger sister (Marianne, ‘Sensibility') who still needs to learn this basic moral truth. The novel uses a deep ironic humour to convey these essential building blocks of the virtuous life. Emma Thompson's movie version is a tonic to watch but it is worth reading the novel to get that rich ironic humour.
Newcomers to Thomistic theology often suffer on account of the dearth of rigorous and accessible guidebooks for beginners. The most popular popular introductions to St. Thomas today tend to be either too topical, too broad in focus, or too casual in their treatment of concepts and argumentation. Books that suffer from any of these faults leave students ill-prepared to approach primary texts like the Summa Theologiae with confidence and understanding. The old method of preparation for theological study—a course in the Aristotelian corpus, possibly accompanied by St. Thomas's commentaries on Aristotle—is so difficult to carry out that it ends up being even less helpful to the amateur. And the best-regarded courses in Thomistic philosophy (e.g. John of St. Thomas's Cursus Philosophicus) remain untranslated, while the best known neo-Scholastic manuals in English (the works of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange) are dense, soporific, and uninspiring.
Having suffered through the pains of Thomistic beginnerhood myself, I was delighted recently when I discovered H. D. Gardeil's Introduction to Thomistic Metaphysics. The book combines all the most important features of an introductory guidebook in philosophy: it is focused, rigorous, conceptually precise, stylistically pleasant, careful in its use of language, and leaves enough questions open that the reader can treat it as an entryway into the subject, rather than an artificially complete (and therefore deficient) summary. New and aspiring Thomists should give it a read.
I've begun re-reading Dorothy Sayers's The Mind of the Maker, and it holds up as a meditation on God that eschews mysticism by developing one metaphor at length: the image of God as a writer. Acknowledging that all such images are imperfect and, at best, mere analogies, Sayers nonetheless gamely sets her own formidable mind to the task of mining some theological truth from her writerly experience. And there are fascinating insights here! Her discussion of the Trinitarian nature of creative writing has stuck with me since I first read the book. Here she is defending that analogy in her slightly grouchy way at the beginning of the chapter, “Idea, Energy, Power”:
I suppose that of all Christian dogmas, the doctrine of the Trinity enjoys the greatest reputation for obscurity and remoteness from common experience. Whether the theologian extols it as splendor of the light invisible or the skeptic derides it as a horror of great darkness there is a general conspiracy to assume that its effect upon those who contemplate it is blindness, either by absence or excess of light. There is some truth in the assumption, but there is also a great deal of exaggeration. God is mysterious, and so (for that matter) is the universe and one's fellow-man and one's self and the snail on the garden-path; but none of them is so mysterious as to correspond to nothing within human knowledge.
Whatever you think of her particular analogies, Sayers does us all a great service here by uniting the great mystery of God to the constant mysteries of living in the world, pushing us to find what is Trinitarian in the very structure of reality.
“Do not ask your master to talk just for the sake of talking,” advised Father Jerome, a Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Sept-Fons. “Ask him about the problems of human destiny and other related problems, problems that are still relevant today. How does he himself experience them? How does he manage to accept them with courage and peace of mind? Ask him what he knows with certainty, what he no longer questions, what he considers indisputable and unchanging. . . Let him confide in you what he learns in his silence. . . Get to the heart of this man.” It is with these words in mind that Nicolas Diat set out to conduct the months of interviews with Robert Cardinal Sarah that make up his new book, Robert Cardinal Sarah: God or Nothing. In speaking to Sarah of his childhood in the highlands of Guinea, of his decision to enter seminary at age nine, of his leaving for France to pursue theological studies, of his being appointed bishop and then cardinal, of his criticisms of the West and his worries and hopes for the Church, Diat reveals a deeply contemplative, subtle, self-effacing man of God who is at once resistance fighter, theologian, and friend of the poor. Of course, God or Nothing is worth reading for the factual richness alone—the Church is decidedly in an “African moment,” and to be able to see things through the eyes of this African cardinal is its own kind of revelation—but it is Cardinal Sarah's “way of display[ing] a gentle and angelic stubbornness in all things” that enables us to get to the heart of the man, and which might just capture our own.
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