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Aquinas two books 400This doctrine is wisdom above all human wisdom … he who considers absolutely the highest cause of the whole universe, namely God, is most of all called wise. Hence wisdom is said to be the knowledge of divine things, as Augustine says (De Trin. xii, 14). But sacred doctrine essentially treats of God viewed as the highest cause—not only so far as He can be known through creatures just as philosophers knew Him—"That which is known of God is manifest in them" (Rom 1:19)—but also as far as He is known to Himself alone and revealed to others (quantum ad id quod notum est sibi soli de seipso, et aliis per revelationem communicatum). Hence sacred doctrine is especially called wisdom.

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q.1, a.7

The first word from chapter one of the book that lodged in my memory and imagination was sapientia, wisdom. William went on about it at length – how precious a starting point it was for Thomas, and for the whole Dominican tradition; how it invited us to see the doing of theology as the search for Wisdom.

William himself was a memorable model of that way of doing theology. When we came to reading the Summa Theologiae, wisdom, sapientia was there again in the very first question. Article 7, quoted above, establishes that theology is Wisdom. In reading it in Latin a little phrase from it lodged in my memory, and has been a headline in my theological search for Wisdom ever since. In Latin the phrase has a lovely bit of alliteration, which has made it attractive and easy to remember: the repeated “s” in sibi soli de seipso caught my fancy. To be told that doing theology was to be sharing in the very knowing that God, and God alone, enjoys of Godself was mind-blowing; and to be told that one was going to be part of the process of revelation in which God communicates this intimate self-knowledge of his to others offered a profound understanding of the meaning of preaching – the activity towards which my doing of theology was being directed. That way of thinking about theology soon became wedded to the understanding of Dominican spirituality that I had imbibed from my novice master, fr Anselm Moynihan. Anselm had written a beautiful booklet called The Presence of God. Being a Dominican, he taught us, was to live in the presence of God. He spelled this out for us, as he had done in his book, along the lines that Thomas had set in q.8 of the Prima Pars, on the presence of God. All four levels of the presence were to be delighted in, and brought together in our living of the fourth level, which is that of grace. The ‘grace presence’ is experienced in knowing and loving God. It makes one, I was learning, a partner to, a participant in quod notum est sibi soli de seipso, in God’s intimate self-knowledge. And in that contemplative participation one becomes qualified to take part in the et aliis per revelationem communicatum, in the divine communication by revelation that preaching is meant to make happen.

Many theological themes have filled out the cherished theological nugget I received from Thomas: the Trinity is the personalizing of God’s intimate self-knowing and self-loving; grace is supernatural, not just because it is relatively beyond nature but because it is God’s personal domain absolutely inaccessible to creatures except in the measure in which God chooses to communicate it; contemplation is entry into the inner life of God, not just by study and virtuous living but by the gifts of the Holy Spirit made accessible to us by Christ; the vision of God given in our resurrection to eternal life is the bringing to light of something we can have been enjoying all through life in our exercise of Faith, Hope and Charity. All happiness in heaven and on earth is knowing God quantum ad id quod notum est sibi soli de seipso.