Monday, March 04, 2024

“May their words be as goads, and as nails deeply fastened in” - Fr Hugh Barbour on St Thomas Aquinas and Urban Hannon

In anticipation of the 750th anniversary of the death of St Thomas this week, we are pleased to share with our readers today the text of the Foreword contributed by Fr Hugh Barbour, O.Praem., to a newly published work that will be of considerable interest to readers of NLM: Urban Hannon’s Thomistic Mystagogy: St. Thomas Aquinas’s Commentaries on the Mass, a careful synthesis of the saint's remarks on the greatest liturgical act of the Church as found in various of his writings. Fr Barbour does a splendid job introducing this book, explaining why it is important, and offering a gentle but firm critique of liturgical minimalism, positivism, and legalism, which he sees as suffocators of mystery, reverence, and beauty. 

Foreword to Thomistic Mystagogy
Fr Hugh Barbour, O.Praem.
“The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails deeply fastened in, which by the counsel of masters are given from one shepherd. More than these, my son, require not. Of the making of many books there is no end: and much study is an affliction of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12, 11–12)

Few are the books in any area of theological inquiry of which we could say that they were so sufficient as to render further searches unnecessary. Yet such as there are, if and when we find them, are concise and illuminating, and one finds oneself saying, “Finally I get it!” “I’ve never understood before as I do now.”

These are the “goads,” the “counsels of masters,” given as though “by one shepherd,” which become as “nails deeply fastened” in our understanding. Only when we come across such works do we understand how it is that “the making of many books” and “much study” can be a merely futile exercise and affliction. The boon we have received in insight simply disposes us to contemplate what we now possess in knowledge, and to cease from further restless precisions and amplifications which do not add to the intensive quality of our thinking, even if they may add a certain quantity of erudition.

The authors of such books are not the greatest masters themselves, but rather the keenest students of the greatest masters. They match their masters, not in the grand volume of their comprehensive writings, but in the lean precision of their appreciation. They are hard to list, since their authority is established in a very relative way, and there are always more waiting to be known.[1]

In fact, one may say without exaggeration that it is the task of every careful student to compose such lesser accounts of his greater masters’ teaching in order to keep hold of the insights he has received from them—if nothing else, in a notebook of commonplaces, some file to which we add over time. This may be a happier reason than Qoheleth’s for faciendi libros nullus est finis!

After all, are not the Summae of St. Thomas themselves, thanks to their very method, an ordering of such little, lesser, portable treatises woven together formally, reflecting architectonically how the whole of things comes forth and returns to its principle in sound judgment, while retaining the relation of each article in itself to the way in which we come to know, which is not the pattern of the whole, but that of our intelligence in motion? And thus the order of things and the order of coming to know are in their different ways reflected?

Regarding St. Thomas’s teaching on the Eucharist, which is our interest here, Urban Hannon offers us the second half of a work not his own which needed to be completed. Thomistic Mystagogy is, I would have the reader understand, an unintended (to Urban) completion in precisely Thomistic terms, a kind of companion volume, to Dom Ansgar Vonier’s A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist. Hannon would insist that Vonier would have done it better, but he didn’t, and now surely is gratified from his place on high to favor the younger theologian’s efforts.

The century which separates the publication of Hannon’s work from the great abbot of Buckfast’s only serves to illustrate the appositeness of this pairing. The key work of clarification of the sacramental sense of St. Thomas’s eucharistic doctrine, and the demands this sense makes on the consistency and rigor of its exposition and application, sets it apart from any positivistic or practical presentation. And yet it is just this sort of positivism which characterizes the preoccupation of the intervening liturgical movements, pre- and post-conciliar, and their approaches to the Mass. In the meantime, some Thomists are still content to entertain the French School rationales of the “essence” of the Mass as being found in the dispositions of the soul of the Incarnate Word, and not simply the offering of his body and blood!

So it is time to renew the forces of the greatest of eucharistic theologies by a return to Thomas pure and simple. Taking up Urban Hannon’s Thomistic Mystagogy will provide Aquinas’s attentive students with just that lively positive exposition which avoids the deadly positivism both of the ceremonial manuals of the pre-conciliar sort and of the bureaucratic “Office of Liturgy” nomenklatura authorities of the post-conciliar sort. What we need now is historical continuity with the liturgical sense of the Christian tradition—not a ruthless, historicist, “scientific” elimination of all allegory and subjective devotion, which is as foreign to the Epistle to the Hebrews as to Durandus or any of the medievals.

St. Thomas’s understanding of the unique reality of the sacramental order is the exhilarating and demanding summit of his doctrine of the Eucharist. This is Vonier’s contribution. Thomas’s devout exposition of the solemnities of the sacrament in the Mass is ours thanks to Hannon’s present work, which is about the things which are “said and done around the sacrament,” which are not its very being, but which nonetheless are not superfluous for its “being well.” This is the kind of simple Thomistic language which overcomes a mere essentialist minimalism, for when would it ever in practice be interesting to separate a valued thing in its esse from its bene esse? One could never take away from the theology offered here an attitude which is accustomed to thinking, “Well, at least the Mass was valid!” And how many of us over the years, sadly, have said or thought something similar.

For this we can blame a certain kind of deracinated theology of the essence of the Mass, and a certain kind of liturgical theology. Let us have no more of either. A minimally valid Mass is an illicit and sacrilegious one. Canon law forbids as nefas, literally “unspeakable,” the confection of the sacrament outside the Missarum solemnia even in extreme urgency. St. Thomas’s eucharistic theology is not a matter of settling for less, just because we know what less is.

A final fraternal caution to fellow Thomists: Hannon is wise to point out as a faithful disciple, and not merely a fan of Aquinas, that Thomas is rarely novel in his ideas, and that his use of others’ opinions makes them no less his own. Too often, in their zeal to justify the Angelic Doctor’s superiority, Thomists have looked for some new insight or essentially “Thomistic” teaching, hitherto unknown. Here, however, in Thomas’s mystagogical instructions, as in all his teaching on sacramental and liturgical matters, we find only a faithful recitation of what has been handed on in the rite of the sacraments, and which might easily have been written by almost any twelfth- or thirteenth-century theologian.

Nowhere is this habit of his more evident than in his preferential and well-nigh exclusive use of the authority of the Pseudo-Areopagite, whom he prefers to call simply Dionysius, in matters which touch on hierarchical worship, whether sacramental or angelic. This attitude an all-pervasive one.[2] Thomas, would, it seems, have been ashamed to be novel in expounding so great a mystery. And this quality, perhaps, is what gives his twin expositors, Vonier and Hannon, their own measure of humility and thus of a certain Thomistic greatness. “May their words be as goads, and as nails deeply fastened in,” as they unite our minds to the sacrament of the sacrifice offered on the cross.

Fr. Hugh Barbour, O.Praem.
St. Michael’s Abbey, California
January 1, 2024
Circumcision of Our Blessed Lord
Thomistic Mystagogy is available in paperback, hardcover, or ebook, directly from the publisher, or from all Amazon outlets.


[1] For theists and Christians generally one might name the Lewis of Mere Christianity or The Abolition of Man, and the Chesterton of Orthodoxy, and for Thomists, Pieper shines out, and Sertillanges, and Clerissac for ecclesiology, and for more recent students of the Mass there is the incomparable Joseph de Sainte Marie (Salleron), O.C.D., then for the understanding of prayer there is Gabriel Dieffenbach O.F.M. Cap.’s woefully little known gem Common Mystic Prayer, and for Mariology the suave treatise of De Koninck, Ego Sapientia: The Wisdom That Is Mary.

[2] In fact, throughout the works of St. Thomas, Dionysius is regarded as a supreme authority after sacred scripture and before the other Fathers in exegesis, theological method, metaphysics, and angelology, as well as in liturgy and spirituality. This, it is said, is because he is presumed to be the earliest non-canonical writer, the convert of St. Paul at Athens named in Acts 17. And yet it can hardly be that an authority so developed, consistent, and universal could be based only on a simple historical error. The content of his teaching, however historically recommended, is beyond question. The Areopagite’s teaching and the Church’s reception of it are undeniable and immoveable facts of history and Christian theology. One need only examine, for example, the acute use of the Areopagite in medieval English vernacular literature on prayer to verify its far-reaching influence. Of no one else did St. Thomas say in the most absolute terms, and precisely regarding the metaphysical principles of speculative thought, what he said of the Areopagite and his Christian Platonist disciples in his commentary De Divinis Nominibus: “Verissima est eorum opinio.” One can only hope that Thomists will begin to take his words formalissime as they were clearly meant and draw fruitful conclusions therefrom! We await a movement of Dionysian Thomists.

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