Monday, March 28, 2016

Unction from Above or Reasoning from Below? A Small Illustration of the Importance of Critical Texts

A youthful Aquinas looking for unction from above
One of my research interests (and spiritual interests) over the years has been to see how St. Thomas Aquinas is a mystic in the fullest sense of the word and how, nevertheless, he came to acquire his later reputation as a rationalist. This is a big topic, but not long ago I found a little detail that struck me as fascinating — and a reason why we need good editions of medieval texts. If ever the devil is in the details, one sees this in the realm of paleography and text editing.

In one of the saint’s earlier works, the commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences (or, in its Latin title, Scriptum super libros Sententiarum), Book IV, d. 15, q. 2, a. 4, qa. 1, we find Thomas talking about how to make good judgments with respect to giving alms, since there are so many particular circumstances that escape our knowledge. It’s not a bad question to ask in Lent, when we are continually reminded of the three great works of self-denial: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. There is a modern mentality that discourages the kind of almsgiving our forefathers in the faith practiced, on the grounds that “we don’t know whether a poor man will use the money well.” While admittedly there are cases where one can judge from signs that a potential recipient of largesse is a fraud or an addict and that it would be prudent to buy him food rather than handing over money, it also has to be said that we can rarely, if ever, know for certain whether any alms we give will be well used, and that, if comprehensive evaluation of circumstances were a precondition for charitable works, none would ever get done. Still, our modern position at its best is likely to be that the almsgiver must be a man of solid good sense who, consulting his native reason, analyzes the situation in terms of probable human causes and effects, forms a rational judgment, and follows it — the very model of a modern major domo.

Coming back to St. Thomas, many editions print the following line in his response: Et hoc quidem sermone determinari non potest, quia de singularibus non est judicium; sed statur in hoc prudentiae arbitrio, et DISCRETIONIS, quae docet de omnibus. “And this can certainly not be determined in a word [i.e., a simple rule], for a [universal] judgment cannot be made about particulars; but the judgment to be relied upon in this is that of prudence, and of DISCRETION, which teaches about all things.” Ah, good old Whig Thomism!

But wait . . . according to the best manuscripts, what Thomas really wrote was: UNCTIONIS — that is, “the judgment to be relied upon is that of prudence and of the UNCTION that teaches about all things.” Now this is to say something quite different. Thomas is referring to 1 John 2:20 and 27: “But you have the unction from the Holy One . . . And you have no need that any man teach you; but as his unction teacheth you of all things.”

Later in the same passage he writes (in the faulty editions): singulares conditiones, quae attendendae sunt, sunt infinitae, et non cadunt sub arte. De his autem RATIO docet et prudentiae consilium. “Particular conditions that need to be attended to are infinite, and they do not fall within our scope. But REASON and the counsel of prudence teach us about these.” Sounds like classic Thomas, right? Always turning to reason. He might as well be the precursor of rationalism.

Yet, matching the earlier text, what he actually wrote was UNCTIO: “But the unction [of the Holy Spirit] and the counsel of prudence teach us about these.” For those who know St. Thomas’s writings, it comes as no surprise that he appeals here both to the natural faculty — the counsel and judgment of prudence, which is the virtue that perfects man's practical reason — and to the supernatural gift, the anointing of the Holy Spirit that distinguishes the Christian fully alive from the potential Christian or the fallen-away Christian. Nature and grace are united in the guidance of our actions: Thomas says et, not vel or aut. These two sentences are significant if only as a reminder to us that we are meant to be supple and mobile in the hands of God, able to be prompted, motivated, steered by Him in our acts of charity, and not, as it were, slaves to our sometimes narrow rationally-constructed criteria.

I think the same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the realm of liturgy. By our own lights there is plenty and more than enough we can learn about, evaluate, compare, critique, and propose, but in the end there is also the hidden influence of the Holy Spirit who, exercising at times a severe mercy, opens our myopic minds and our too easily satisfied hearts to the riches of the Church’s tradition, and leads us into them in ways we did not choose ahead of time — ways that surpass our understanding then and maybe even now, ways that continually challenge our reason to catch up and find some rational threads to weave together.

Looking back in my life, I can see decisive moments when my encounters with the beauty of authentic Catholic worship were an unction from above rather than results of prudential decisions — times when I was not expecting to be somewhere or to do some particular thing, and yet there I was, and the gift to see with new eyes or hear with new ears was given to one unworthy of it, by the hand of God’s mysterious mercy. Times when I was blindsided, knocked over, woken up, thanks to a certain person, event, book, piece of music that had gone through my soul like a sword and had left me feeling spent and refreshed, almost as if blood-letting had occurred and had worked.

Re-reading Thomas’s actual statements —
And this can certainly not be determined in a word, for a judgment cannot be made about particulars; but the judgment to be relied upon in this is that of prudence, and of the unction that teaches about all things. … Particular conditions that need to be attended to are infinite, and they do not fall within our scope. But unction and the counsel of prudence teach us about these.
— I am reminded again of how that which is noblest in man’s nature, his reason, can at the same time be pathetically weak in the face of complexity and difficulty; how this much-vaunted reason is, in and of itself, incapable of securing man’s ultimate end; and how the Holy Spirit comes to our aid, the Spirit by which we learn to remember, appreciate, and utilize all that we have received from the Lord.

This, then, is a little example of how careful one must be in selecting an edition of a medieval text, for different readings, especially when not carefully controlled by the editors and explained in adequate notes, can give us a very different doctrine and impression. Surely, Thomas is better for his unction, and we stand to gain a new appreciation of the intimate union between God and man that is necessary for perfectly moral behavior.

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