An interview with an old friar

The rectory was in village at the base of the mountains, though it was set apart several hundred feet from any other buildings in the villiage. It had a large full-wall window in the living room that faced the approach to the house, and today when I walked up to it I could see the friar sitting in a chair, holding what looked like a pair of balled-up socks in his hand that he was squeezing in pulses, as though he were inspecting his fingernails while doing some sort of hand-grip exercise. He didn’t know I was coming. I knocked and he let me in, still holding the balled-up thing in his hand. I could see it was a dish-towel crumpled to the size of a baseball. He led me into the kitchen (it was where he always took visitors) and folded the dish towel over a bar in front of the sink.

“So what was that?” I asked him, half waving my index finger at the towel.

“What was what?” The friar said through his smile. He smiled at everyone, as though he were continually thanking you for being the most wonderful person he had ever met.

“The towel” I said. He looked at me as though he were waiting for me to explain why I was asking what a dish towel was.

“It’s just that I…” and suddenly I figured out I had to tell him that I was watching him through the window “… I thought you were using a stress ball or something.” And I squeezed my hand in a grip motion like the one I saw him doing through the window.

“Oh…You saw me…  I was still doing that at the door?” Even when he asked innocent questions, he still spoke as if he were convinced that you had given him a unique and irreplacable joy. I paused at the question, not wanting to say ‘yes’, since it was impossible to lie to him.  He broke the silence, “that was nothing, just some thought on the First Way”. He waved his hand as though he were dismissing the whole thought.

“But that’s my field, Father.” I said, perking up at the mention of the First Way – “so what’s with the dish towel?”

“I don’t know that it’s all that interesting, or that if I could explain it in a way that won’t seem terribly dull or silly.” He half shrugged.

“What’s that?” I kept asking.

He picked up the towel again and crumpled it into the palm of his hand. “Just this” he said  “God is the source of all motion, and all things in motion stand to him as his instruments. As I was thinking about this it hit me that my heartbeat was just God doing this.” And squeezed the towel in pulses.

We were both silent for a moment, but I looked at him like I wanted him to continue. He understood.

“I was thinking about some Moltmann and some of the other contemporary theologians who find it so offensive that God would be immovable- he calls it the apathy of God. But this strikes me as exactly wrong. It’s better to say that the first way shows the intimate concern that God has for all things. All I could think about while I was looking at that towel was about how I had spent so much of my day not thinking about God at all, not in some evil way, but just because I was thinking about what was immediately at hand, or even about nothing at all. But all that time God was holding my heart like this, being so careful that the beats should be paced exactly right. All I could think was how ungrateful I was! What ingratitude!” You could tell he was genuinely sorry and that he thought no one could possibly be more of a thoughtless wretch than he was. I wanted  to respond to this, but I more wanted him to continue on.

“All of nature is like this.” He said, sitting down, making a more general point. “They are instruments. Now all instruments contribute something to the action, but nature is an instrument by contributing its own interiority to the action of God. The motion they contribute is uniquely their own, coming forth from within – from the heart of their being. Nature is the point of contact where the action of God touches the action of the universe.”

He explained one insight that led him to this: “I can remember how once, after I read the First Way and became convinced that a series of movers could not be infinite, that I thought ‘then why don’t we simply take any motion and peel back the causes until we see the face of God?’ I asked this to my teacher and he told me ‘as soon as you reach to the activity of nature, then God is the next step… nature is simply a way of taking part in the activity of God’. I thought about what he said for many years. It seems to me now that nature takes part by contributing its own interority. The contribution is more intimate, even while the dependency is much more profound.”

I didn’t understand all of this at the time, and I don’t know how accurately I’ve spoken of what he actually said. But this has struck me for a long time as being a crucial insight as to how one should read the Five Ways.

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