Whether Br Gabriel had a good year
By Br Gabriel Theis O.P. | As his time in Oxford comes to an end, Br Gabriel reflects on his year at Blackfriars, and on the ways it has been a good experience. While reading a lot of St Thomas’s works, it appears that Br Gabriel accidentally stumbled upon the lost Fourth Part of the Summa Theologiae.
It would seem that Br Gabriel’s year at Blackfriars was not a good year.
1. One will call an experience good or successful if all the goals and hopes he had in advance were accomplished, as we read in St John’s Gospel (10:10): “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. Br Gabriel had many hopes before he came to Oxford: for his personal and spiritual growth, but also concerning his studies for the doctorate. Now, he still has to go to confession regularly, and since the Bodleian Libraries closed due to a pandemic, he was not able to read all the books he wanted to. Thus, he did not accomplish all his goals, neither personally or academically. Therefore, his time at Blackfriars was a failure.
2. Further, the quality of life depends on friends to share it with; this is why our Lord and Saviour wanted to be the friend of His Apostles, and not their master, as we read in St John’s Gospel (15:15): “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father”. However, most of Br Gabriel’s friends do not live anywhere near Oxford. Thus, his time there must have been awful for him.
3. Further, everyone from ‘the continent’ knows that the English are a peculiar people, and that their cuisine is average at best. Br Gabriel is not accustomed to all aspects of English culture (although he read Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” tentatively), and he is used to Austrian excellence when it comes to food. Therefore, his time in the United Kingdom must have been disappointing, and he will regret having gone there.
On the contrary, everything that happens is contained in providence, which is ordained to the good of the individual; thus, Solomon says of God: “although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose” (Wis 12:18). Also, Br Gabriel, his superiors, and the brothers in Oxford all agreed that it would be good for him to spend a year in Oxford. Therefore, his time at Blackfriars necessarily was a good experience, since it was contained in divine providence and all human participants complied with it.
I respond by saying that Br Gabriel confirmed to me that his time in Oxford has been very pleasant; and only God’s knowledge of Br Gabriel’s experience is more credible than his own witness about the experiences of his subsistence, as St Augustine says about God: “You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest”. However, we can think of three reasons of fittingness for Br Gabriel’s perspective.
Firstly, because of the charity of the brothers at Blackfriars. Br Gabriel has learned from many brothers (some of whom came from his own province) that they found the community of this priory both hospitable and friendly, and this experience is shared by the congregation and many students who have spent time here as well. In particular, the prior and the student master have made an effort to make Br Gabriel’s time here as enjoyable as possible. And thus, he is happy to say that like in most of his religious life, he has not only sought for the mercy of the brothers, but has also found it in Oxford.
Secondly, because Br Gabriel’s studies where illuminating and helpful for his doctorate. This might be hard to believe, since he had to study some of my own works, in particular the Third Part of my Summa theologiae; but as we said above, we have to believe Br Gabriel’s witness to his inner experience until proven otherwise. However, it seems reasonable to attribute the quality of Br Gabriel’s studies more to the excellence of his tutors, who were able to assist him in gaining a deeper understanding of the divine truth even from insufficient sources like my own writings, which in comparison with the sublime truths they consider will appear like straw.
Thirdly, because every moment of sadness or suffering that was part of Br Gabriel’s experience will help him in his future; and this is why a young, but already wise brother of our Order claims that life in general and religious life in particular will always be “pleasantly disappointing”.
To the first objection, I say that the disappointment of some of our plans is God’s way of teaching us humility. If Br Gabriel had expected to be a perfect human being and disciple of our Lord at the end of his year at Blackfriars, he would have been rather foolish in the first place, since perfection is bestowed on us by God alone, and only in our heavenly home, as we read in the Book of Revelation (21:4): “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more”. Therefore, it was not necessary that all of Br Gabriel’s plans and wishes for his time abroad were fulfilled in order to make it a good and fruitful experience for him.
To the second objection, I say that while friends are indeed indispensable for a fulfilling experience, no one is born with friends in this world, but he has to find them. Now we know that in love, one has to overcome all selfishness and learn to love more; thus, we read in St John’s Gospel that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:24). Therefore, it was better for Br Gabriel to go abroad and try to find new friends to love; and indeed, he has found new friends in Oxford. Also, the wonders of modern technology made it possible for Br Gabriel to stay in contact with his friends although he could not spend time with them in person.
To the third objection, I say that the beauty and richness of life can be experienced only by being challenged by other cultures with all their aspects. While the English might have many strange customs, they are also a gentle and courteous people, and rightfully enjoy worldwide admiration for their great sense of humour. Although their cuisine might not be able to compete with the Italian, and possibly overestimates the value of pies and potatoes (in every possible form), it proved to be much better than its reputation. Therefore, Br Gabriel was enriched by getting to know the English, and is very thankful for all his experiences at Blackfriars, even with regard to the (most of the time excellent) food. Finally, he apologises for any problems he might have caused during this time, especially those resulting from his poor attempts to cook for the brethren himself.