"Do I hear someone exclaim, “What! The Summa Theologica as a bed time book?” Why not?...I keep it there partly for the fun that is in it. Fun in St. Thomas? Yes..."
As you may know, given my prior article, I am having a wonderful time reading the works of Father James M. Gillis, C.S.P. Father Gillis was a no nonsense kind of guy, yet, he also had a great sense of humor. His love for Saint Thomas Aquinas shines through as you delve into his work. Below I have retyped an article that he published in the syndicated Catholic publication, Sursum Corda, titled, 'Finding Fun In St. Thomas Aquinas.' The brief article gives you a glimpse into the character of Father Gillis. His unflinching love for the truth did not put a damper on his sense of humor.
Finding Fun In St. Thomas Aquinas
By: Father James M. Gillis C.S.P.
(Reprinted from the book 'On Almost Everything.'
If there is one subject to which I have returned more often than to any other in this column, it is that of popularizing Catholic philosophy, especially the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.
I have maintained that it can be done, and that it must be done if the people at large are to be saved from the devastating influence of false philosophies. Yes devastating. You may perhaps be tempted to think that “devastation” is caused only by war,pestilence, famine, earthquakes, tornadoes, tidal waves, and such. The truth is that false philosophies have done more harm to mankind than all of these other scourges. I mustn’t go off on that tangent. It would take not a column but a book.
So, back to the idea of making true philosophy popular. I say it can be done. One reason I think so it that it has been done- in spots. One instance is the book ‘A Companion to the Summa’ by Father Walter Farrell, O.P. It looks formidable- three big fat volumes thus far and more to come- but don’t let that frighten you. For over a year now I have had it at the head of my bed and have been dipping into it incessantly. Perhaps that’s why I don’t sleep so well.
Do I hear someone exclaim, “What! The Summa Theologica as a bed time book?” Why not? Abbe Hogan used to tell us, when I was a student at Brighton seminary, that the best spiritual reading of all was the Secunda Secundae of St. Thomas. And that was the original reason that I had it at hand the last thing at night. But now- I hope the Lord and Father Farrell with both forgive me- I keep it there partly for the fun that is in it. Fun in St. Thomas? Yes, in St. Thomas as well as Father Farrell presents him.
For example, would you expect to find what is at once a translation and a running commentary on the Summa, wit and humor and epigrammatic expression? There are there.
For example: speaking of the need of order in one’s life (order is fundamental with St. Thomas), Father Farrell says, “This does not mean that a badly cluttered desk or a pile of unwashed dishes in the sink is evidence of a satanic visitation.” I wonder if anyone else ever discovered in the Summa so much as a hint of unwashed dished in the sink.
On confusion of mind about things just and unjust: “The good intentions of champions of, euthanasia, industrial laissez faire and birth control may be an inspiring thing; but the damage they do to society is not lessened by their sweet simplicity.”
On telling the truth, or rather on telling fibs:”When a wife asks her husband, ‘How do I look?’ She is not seeking a diagnosis; prudence will teach him to restrict his comments to a few large and fairly obvious objectives.” However we must not fib too much or too often: “Imagine the turmoil if bus conductors, ticket agents and traffic policemen answered all questions with artistically fluent lies; indignation would be a timid word for the outburst of the explorer in search of Brooklyn who was deposited in the Bronx.”
Again: “No matter how much of a nervous release it may be for a man to commit murder, no matter how innocently he deprives a laborer from his wages, no matter what pleasure it may give him or how much good it may do the State to choke a crooner- these things remain unjust.”
“A doctor is seriously obliged to know something of surgery before he throws open his beautifully-equipped operating room to defenseless patients; a priest must know moral theology before he opens the confessional slide; and a wife should know something of the fundamentals of cookery before she serves up the products of her art.”
“It is easy to deal with a boaster: all we need do is listen, sprinkling our silence with appropriate exclamations, ‘Oh’ ‘Ah,’ ‘How Wonderful.’ But it is a much more serious problem to deal with the belittler who says, ‘I haven’t a brain in my head,’ or ‘Now wasn’t that a silly thing for me to do?”
The author of this unique and delightful interpretation of the mind of St. Thomas doesn’t hesitate to make a point by reference to a Saturday Evening Post cartoon, or to the drive, who on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington or some other of its “slanting streets” starts in one direction and finds himself going in the other.
Or consider this quietly humorous sentence that ruins a whole philosophy: “Even a poet cannot lie long on the bosom of Mother Nature. The picture of nature as kindly mother and man as easily masterful are fictions of the French Encyclopedists concocted from the dreams by which they tried to escape the gutters of Paris. Nature is not they type of friend to be chosen for a stroll along a dark quiet street; at least not until she has been searched for weapons.”
In place of humor often Father Farrell throws in an epigram: “Pettiness in human nature is as revolting as squalor in a hospital or laughter at a funeral.”
Years ago I rad in a book on the priesthood a recommendation to pastors that they should not have the eyes of a hawk for the imperfections of their people. “There is great virtue,” the author said, “in the blind eye.” Father Farrell says, “We can see too much for our own good, particularly when we meander about the universe like a women who saunters through a department store “just looking.”
As of looking, so of speaking: “No one has the right to wader through the hours of the day scattering judgements with the same abandon with which he makes comments on the weather.”
And so it goes: wit, wisdom, humor. And the marvel of it is that as the author says (he is an author though he might call himself only a translator and expositor), “the whole work is not a book about the Summa, but the Summa itself reduced to popular language.”
I wouldn’t give the impression that all those pleasantries interfere with the solid worth of the amazing tour de force. On the contrary. Thus far three volumes have appeared. There are to be four. I know one reader who will pounce upon the remaining one when it appears with eager anticipation. For philosophy after this fashion is, as Plato said, “a dear delight.”