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Verity Unseen – Br. Mark Brown

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Wisdom 7:7-14
Psalm 119:97-104
Matthew 13:47-52

“Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen, who thy glory hidest ‘neath these shadows mean; lo to thee surrendered my whole heart is bowed, tranced as it beholds thee, shrined within the cloud.”  

Words of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274), whose feast we keep today. Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen…actually, it seems that Thomas may indeed have seen the unseen Verity, the unseen Truth, or at least some manifestation of the Divine, some kind of theophany.

Thomas is remembered mostly as a great theologian, especially for his monumental Summa Theologica.  But he was also a writer of hymns of Eucharistic devotion, one of which I’ve just quoted and two of which we’ll sing later.  Thomas had a very colorful life: Sicily, Naples, Monte Cassino, Paris, abduction by his family to keep him from joining the Dominicans, the hiring of a prostitute by his family to try to dissuade him from a religious vocation.  The Great Google knows many interesting things about the life of Aquinas and will tell you if you ask.

One of the things I learned from the Great Google is that Thomas was once seen to be levitating while praying in church. It was on Dec. 6, 1273; the sacristan of the Dominican chapel in Naples saw Thomas lingering after morning prayer—and not only praying, but levitating. The sacristan also reported hearing Christ say to Thomas: “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” To which Thomas was heard to reply: “Nothing but you, Lord.”

Something then happened that Thomas never spoke or wrote about, but that changed his life: he stopped writing. After many thousands of words, he stopped writing. He told his scribe that he could dictate no longer, because, as he put it, “All that I have written seems like straw to me.” He died a few weeks later.  It seems that Thomas had some kind of mystical experience, that God revealed himself to Thomas in some spectacular, life-changing way. It seems he experienced some kind of theophany, that is, some kind of appearance or manifestation of the Divine.

Now levitation is really dramatic, and we’re inclined to be skeptical of such stories.  But mystical experiences, even life-changing mystical experiences, are not so rare. People tend not to talk too much about these experiences of the Divine, these theophanies.  What can you say about the inexplicable? And the church generally is skeptical: mystical experiences can’t really be verified and they don’t necessarily confer special status on the person experiencing them.  The church is generally more interested in the fruits of our mystical experiences, that is, how we treat other people.  Do we love more because of what we have seen of God.

Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen. Did St. Thomas toward the end of his life see the unseen Verity? Some manifestation of the Divine ordinarily hidden “beneath these shadows mean” (as the hymn puts it)?  Some kind of theophany? It seems quite possible—why not? He would have been neither the first nor the last to have such experiences. (By the way, our English version is a poetic translation; the original Latin speaks to a “Deity unseen”.)

But there is another unseen verity, another kind of unseen truth that I don’t know if anyone has ever claimed to have seen. And that is whatever God sees when God looks at us. If a theophany is a manifestation of God (theos in Greek), I suppose a manifestation of our humanity (anthropos) could be anthropophany—which is not in the dictionary.  It’s a clunky word and for some reason awkward to type, but perhaps it will serve for the moment.  An anthropophany would be a manifestation of our humanity—a complete, full manifestation of our humanity—as God would experience it.

What does God experience in a manifestation of our humanity? Well, God only knows—we’re in the realm of pure speculation about such things. But pure speculation is a distinctive feature of our humanity, so, why be inhibited in our speculation? As long as we remember it is indeed speculation.

We might think of our gathering for worship, as the Body of Christ, as a kind of staged anthropophany, an intentional manifestation of our humanity. We might think of this Eucharist that way. In this intentional way, in this peculiar Anglican way, in this carefully and skillfully curated way we come together to spread it all out on the altar: the full scope, the breadth and depth, the light and shade, the wholeness and the brokenness of our humanity.

Our anthropophany before God, our manifestation of our selves gathered in worship is many things.  It is celebration of all that is good.  It is lamentation for all that is wrong.  It is begging for healing of all that is broken. We come here together before God with all that is wonderful about us and all that is not.  We come with all our cares and concerns and distractions and worries. With our anger and resentment. With our hopes and fears.  We spread it all out on the table. All that we are.  And all that we are is a lot–and a lot more than we can see. There is a lot of unseen verity about us and within us.  There is also a lot of unseen deity about us and within us. We can put it all out there—and God sees still more.

Maybe we’ve been on the wrong track.  Maybe Aquinas did not experience a manifestation of the Divine. Maybe what Thomas Aquinas saw on Dec. 6, 1273 in the city of Naples was something else. I wonder if what Thomas Aquinas saw was Thomas Aquinas.  Perhaps the Verity unseen, the Deity unseen, “beneath these shadows mean”, was seen in the fullness, the completeness of his own humanity, his own being fully conformed to the image of Christ—a complete and full anthropophany.  Which, in the end, may not be so very different from a theophany…

Jesus said to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas said: “Nothing but you, Lord.”  Perhaps the sacristan didn’t hear Jesus’ next words: “Very well–but today, Thomas, I will show you Thomas”.

Whatever it was he saw, whatever it was he heard, it swept Thomas off his feet and caused him to float clean off the ground.  Wouldn’t that be fun?

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3 Comments

  1. Annette Taylor on January 31, 2014 at 16:01

    Oh how wonderful! Thank you. Most of the time it’s hard for me to see behind the lines, to look further. Concrete thinkers are cursed that way I think. But I do wonder sometimes how things might have been as apposed to how they are often perceived. You’ve helped me see a possibility into the unseen. I like that.

  2. Barbara Harris on January 30, 2014 at 15:05

    Thank you.

  3. Bob on January 30, 2014 at 14:32

    Thank you Br. Mark what a wonderful sermon! Please would you offer a workshop in levitation. Margo

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