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Aquinas Institute/Templeton Lectures – Nicholas Lombardo OP

Thursday, May 10, 2012
Last week the Aquinas Institute at Blackfriars, supported by the Templeton Foundation, was privileged to host two open lectures by Dr Nicholas Lombardo OP, professor at the Catholic University of America.

Ransom, Redemption, and the Sign of Jonah: The Crucifixion in Patristic Theology (1 May) was a nuanced exposition of the idea of the 'Devil's Ransom'. Although the dominant account of the Crucifixion for the first millennium of Christian theology, this view has been out of favour since St Anselm's critique in Cur Deus Homo? Fr Lombardo, however, contends that the Patristic theory of the Devil's Ransom had been misinterpreted, often through a failure to see the Crucifixion in the light of the Resurrection. Relating it to the earlier image of the Sign of Jonah (who is a type of Christ), he argued that the theory can be adequately rescued, contrary to Anselm and later theologians, in a way that safeguards and even amplifies the sense of God's goodness and unity.

This inadequate précis does not do justice to the richness of detail or clarity of argument in the lecture; hopefully the following account of the Fr Lombardo's first lecture will bring a little more satisfaction to our Godzdogz readers' desire for truth.

Boredom and its Discontents: Making Sense of a Modern Phenomenon with Aquinas' Theory of the Emotions (30 April)

Beginning with the emergence of 'boredom' as a theme in modern literature, notably in Huysmans' À rebours (1884), the seminal text for the Decadent movement, Fr Lombardo observed that we often talk about boredom without knowing either its root causes or its proper cure. Boredom afflicts only humans (other animals just go to sleep), but not as a positive emotional distress: rather, as an "experience without qualities" (Elizabeth Goodstein) or "the desire for desires" (Tolstoy). We are bored when our desire cannot find anything on which to rest. Our will restlessly strives after God-knows-what – and fails to desire anything at all. No wonder many people rush to seek escapist pleasures, such as high-risk gambling, violence, casual sex, and even pain. Was Schopenhauer right to think that, since nothing can ever totally fulfil our desires, we are doomed to swing between boredom and dissatisfaction? Is perpetual entertainment our only hope?

Aquinas makes a similar diagnosis, explained Fr Lombardo, but comes to a radically different solution. Aquinas states that the will is inexhaustibly oriented towards the good, bringing joy if satisfied or desire if not. Boredom is when unsatisfied desire becomes restless. In his 'Treatise on the Passions' (ST I-II, qq. 22-48), completed in 1271, St Thomas distinguishes passions (which we share with other animals) from intellectual affections (our deepest joys and sorrows, which are mental but flow over into the body). Among the latter, acedia (sloth, accidie) is a kind of sadness, about God or spiritual goods; it is a vice opposed to charity and the joy that flows from it. It is a cognitive, not just affective, failure to appreciate God and spiritual goods. And this is what causes boredom (though Aquinas does not have an exact term for this).

Now we can see that there is a possible remedy, which Fr Lombardo called Aquinas' "counterintuitive cure": boredom (or acedia) is best overcome if we spend time thinking about spiritual goods. Don't rush about, but learn to concentrate. When we do so, we can't help but find those spiritual goods attractive. Whereas the disenchanting project of the Enlightenment tries to sever us from the Infinite, in reality our will restlessly strives after God. So we need a stand-point from which to see the world properly. But, if the Infinite seems a little too far above us, where then shall we look?

We must seek out the least bored – that is, the saints! The saints did seemingly boring things without getting bored. In Fr Lombardo's phrase, "they are heroically not-bored"; and the fifth-century St Simeon the Stylite serves as a classic example. While living atop his pillar for 37 years, he gave homilies twice a day, prayed constantly, and oversaw ministries to the poor. Yet he wasn't bored; instead, he conquered boredom. The saints could overcome boredom only by a "proactive love of God and neighbour, saturated with the infinite". This was a continual activity of perceiving the lovability of the world. When desire is enflamed this way, boredom is infallibly banished. If our deepest (i.e. intellectual) desires are satisfied, the rest will follow; echoing perhaps St Augustine's maxim, "Love, then do what you will!"

We are not disembodied minds, however, but weak flesh and blood. So the solution must be cultural as well as cognitive. Fr Lombardo therefore proposes a recovery of the Sabbath. Though especially relevant to Jews and Christians, the Sabbath is a way for all people to reorient their spirit, to rest and relax in order to "see the world with fresh eyes". This is an end in itself, not a utilitarian means to enjoy greater productivity the other six days of the week (though that is a concomitant benefit). It is also the way to create space for community, in the "streams of living water" flowing from the Temple.

The lecture did not explicitly characterise the Sabbath rest as essentially for worship (as Josef Pieper does), perhaps to encourage a common cultural space with the non-religious. But it ended unambiguously on that prophetic note. In his review of Huysmans' novel, Barbey d'Aurevilly had challenged the author to choose between his present atheism and the Cross; and eight years later, as a result, Huysmans became a Catholic. In the end, Fr Lombardo repeated that challenge: our contemporary Western culture must take that same choice.

Matthew Jarvis OP


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