Sir Hermann Black was an outstanding Chancellor of the University of Sydney until his death in 1990. He once shared a childhood experience with the students gathered in his august presence. He spoke of the time when his father took the young Hermann for a walk past the impressive university buildings of which he was now Chancellor. ‘What do they do in there, Dad?’, he asked his father. His father was puzzled by the question and took a few minutes to reply. Eventually he said: ‘They think’. All these years later, it would be hard to find a better description of the purpose of the university: ‘They think’.
But what does it mean to think? D.H. Lawrence offers a good description in his poem, Thought:
Thought, I love thought. But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas. I despise that self-important game. Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness. Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness. Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read. Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion. Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges, Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.
For Lawrence, thought is much more that the acquisition of facts, or the pressure to publish or perish. It is ‘the testing of statements on the touchstone of conscience’. Our thoughts have a moral dimension; they have implications and consequences; they inform the decisions we take. Thinking is not a self-indulgent hobby, but in its fullness, it must benefit others, not just ourselves. That is what the Jewish and Christian tradition calls ‘Wisdom’.
It was ‘the testing of statements on the touchstone of conscience’ which informed the life and teaching, the dedication and decisionmaking, of your patron, St John Fisher. His thought and actions were based first of all on his spirituality and personal self-discipline. His theology had an academic rigour which was not afraid of challenge and engagement, not least with controversy and ‘the new learning’. His commitment to learning and his pastoral care left no room for worldly ambition. Fisher was a free man who lived and died ‘in his wholeness, wholly attending’. The balance in his life of body, mind, and spirit made him a man of integrity, of wholeness, of holiness. He modelled his life, and death, on that of the Good Shepherd who ‘lays down his life for his sheep’ (John 10:11). The martyrs of your Cambridge colleges reached the same conclusion and with the same consequences. In them, there was no separation between their public, personal, intellectual, and spiritual life. The logic of their thought and prayer led them to ‘the testing of statements on the touchstone of conscience’. Their thinking had a logic which they could not deny. To say they died for their convictions puts it dryly and clinically: theirs was the living faith which demanded not just thought or words, but also action. ‘For this reason, they are before the throne of God, and worship Him day and night within his temple’ (Revelation 7:15).
In three weeks’ time, another martyred bishop will be beatified, declared Blessed – or ‘put on the road to sainthood’, as the newspapers say. Óscar Romero was assassinated by members of the military in El Salvador in 1980 because he preached against the oppression of the poor in that country. A shy and timid man by nature, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador because the authorities thought he would not challenge the status quo. In his thinking, writing, and preaching, he became more and more convinced that he would have to speak out if his ministry was to have any integrity. He knew he would be murdered, but he wasn’t afraid. In one homily, he said: ‘You can tell the people, if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realise that they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will go on.’
‘Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.’ St John Fisher ‘wholly attended’ the challenges of his time, as did Blessed Óscar Romero. From the depth of his experience Romero was able to say: ‘Aspire not to have more, but to be more’. Now, there’s a thought worth thinking about!
This homily was preached by Archbishop George Stack, then Archbishop of Cardiff, at the Fisher Mass on Monday 4 May 2015. The Mass was celebrated at Great St Mary’s, the University Church.
Archbishop George Stack was Archbishop of Cardiff from 2011 until his retirement in 2022. He was Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Westminster from 2001 until 2011 and, before then, Vicar General for Clergy and Administrator at Westminster Cathedral.