In the wake of the rise in numbers of people who are homeless there has been an increase in the numbers of people begging on the streets; in response there has been pressure in some circles to fine people for begging. To drive such unwelcome impoverished people further out public view.
Imagine though what you would think if one of your own children or a sibling made the voluntary decision to become a beggar.
The much admired St Francis of Assisi appalled his father when he did exactly that in 1207
Voluntary beggardom reached almost epidemic proportions over the next few decades, as the Franciscan and Dominican movements caught fire across Europe.
That was part of the deal for all those who joined movements we often see now as charming and admirable, if a bit eccentric.
At the time parents and families were horrified, by such appalling, counter-cultural behaviour.
Entering a monastery was seen as a perfectly acceptable career move. It provided warmth and food, an opportunity to become a scholar and pursue, in its purest form, the religious life.
It was what we might now call an aspirational decision.
To become a friar- a Franciscan or Dominican, was regarded for many decades as down-right scandalous.
So when Thomas Aquinas, aged 19, in 1244 decided to join the recently formed order of Dominicans, his family were so horrified that they kidnapped him and locked him up for a year.
Yesterday was the day the church remembered this particular drop out saint.
For those brought up within the Roman Catholic fold or who have studied philosophy at any level Aquinas is a familiar name, but otherwise he has become a bit of a blank.
So here are some good reasons that this medieval man who died over 700 years ago should still be celebrated.
The first reason is Reason itself.
We often think of Aquinas’ time as a benighted era- hence the dismissive term’ The Dark Ages,’ often applied to it- but it is becoming more and more apparent that it was actually the time when many of the building blocks that founded the modern world were first laid.
Thinking hard about the world and trying to understand how it works and has coherence, were all things that Aquinas endeavoured to do.
He was the first major Christian thinker to draw on the philosophy of Aristotle rather than Plato, which meant that he drew attention to the material world in which we live and the uncertain way in which we probe it via our senses and hazily get a grip on it through our experiences; and he constantly looked for causes- being certain that although everything ultimately had its origin in God, all the causes along the way were worthy of study.
He was convinced that anything that was observable as true in the world owed that truth to God, its ultimate source.
Truth really was for Aquinas sacred!
But my next good reason for attending to Aquinas is that he was clear about the limits of reason to.
We like to believe that we personally apply logic and the scrutiny of evidence and fairness when we go about our business; particularly when we make moral or political judgements.
The give-away should be that we frequently suspect that people who disagree with us have not thought things through properly or have suspect motivation.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done an enormous amount of work to show how out intuitions and other unconscious factors actually take the lead- my favourite anecdote of his being that if you interview college students about their political opinions and moral concerns they veer in a conservative direction if standing near a water cooler.
There seems to be some subliminal effect caused by water’s association with purity and cleanliness.
I wonder if I should try a similar experiment next to the font!
Having studied cultures around the world and interviewed thousands of people he has concluded that factors such as purity, attitudes to family, notions of freedom and tradition, and religious outlook have far more influence on all of us than what we consider as rational decision making.
Which is not to say that thinking and sifting evidence is not a good; just that it is not as automatic to us and straightforward as we would like to think.
Aquinas would have agreed completely.
My final good thing to celebrate about Aquinas is that he was not essentially a philosopher, he was a saint and a theologian, whose main concern was how to be a faithful Christian.
No one joins a religious order, especially one like the Dominicans, dedicated to begging, poverty and preaching- to align oneself with the fundamentals of Christ’s life- unless deeply committed to following in His footsteps.
And one of his great convictions, which connects with what I have just said about how the irrational plays such a large part in our lives was that love was at the bottom of everything.
Absolutely immersed in the Scriptures such praise of God, as heard from the psalmist just now, would have filled his consciousness.
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
Your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
Your judgements are like the great deep…
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of their wings.
Bringing that exalted image down to earth; here a number of things he wrote, which are worth chewing over and give a flavour of his character.
The things that we love tell us what we are.
There is nothing to be prized more than true friendship.
Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over it drives compassion out.
We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have laboured in the search for truth, and both have helped us find it.
The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays his head against us.