This is perhaps at once the most terrifying and practical of all the principles I have found in Thomas Aquinas. It explains so much of human unhappiness—especially today—while also pointing to a remedy, starting right in our homes. The principle is ten words, plus a line from scripture to back it up.

“A spiritual thing is not known unless it is possessed: ‘No one knows but he who receives it.’ (Rev 2:17)”

Aquinas continues, “So, when it is not possessed, it does not produce a desire [for itself].” Implications are stunning. Material passing things, by contrast, are “highly regarded and thought satisfying” and so they produce in us strong desires, even and indeed especially before we possess them. Once we possess them, however, they are generally found to be less satisfying than anticipated, and so we move on to the next and then the next.

Perhaps we have wondered: why aren’t we, or those we love, more taken and moved by the higher things? If those things are so much better, why is that not more evident in our experience?

The key is in Aquinas’s ten words. A spiritual thing is not known unless it is possessed. And if it is not known, then it does not move us. So life goes on, many if not most of us living in varying degrees of ignorance and isolation from the things that matter most, the things that really matter.

This of course raises the great question: how does one come to have such goods? How does one come to possess them and so know them? Here we come to the heart of the matter. The line from scripture gives a key angle: no one knows but he who receives

There is surely much theology here pertaining to grace and how all gifts, especially the highest, come from the hand of God. So, we can begin with prayer for ourselves and those we love that God give, and we might receive, a taste of the things that really matter.

There is another implication that, from what I can see, gives a kind of charter for homelife and raising children. Children especially need to be offered the higher and richer things. To ‘receive’ these things they count on us to do some ‘offering.’ And this we do in straightforward though quite demanding ways.

Here is the starting point from which to think about our homes. Home is where family members (and guests and others!) start to experience and indeed come to ‘have’ spiritual goods. Home is where, by our intentional cultivation, they get a taste for what otherwise they may never taste and so never seek out. ‘Spiritual goods’ should be understood here in an appropriately broad sense. Generally, spiritual goods are in specific ways that we act, especially with others.

Examples are many and right at hand. Done well, sitting by the fire and reading aloud can be a profoundly ‘spiritual’ experience. Deep personal relationships; real personal presence; rich conversation; shared good work: these things enacted in countless ways can constitute the heart of human life and so also the deepest of human formation—precisely because in them people can ‘receive’ goods that far transcend the material conditions of their enactment.

The rich stuff of traditional homelife are enactments of the basic ‘spiritual goods.’ Right there in ordinary human activities, which have now become somewhat rare and extra-ordinary, is the primary contact with the realm of higher things—the things that define and give meaning to truly human life.

This is why renewing our homelife is the epicenter of all renewal. What dignity this points to for what we do daily in our home! And it’s not just about the children. The lack of attention that we adults give to these things might bespeak our own lack of practice in, taste for, and appreciation of the simple things that matter most.

I do not mean here that all the most important things in life happen inside the home. I do mean that a rich home life is the primordial expression of, and so taste of, the basic practices that are essential to the height of human life. More specifically, I suggest that home is where we should first taste, palpably and regularly, that life is always about simple things: presence; relationship; hearing; speaking; being heard; contemplation; worship. All in integrity, and in love.

The first taste of these things is not assurance a soul will not turn from them. Perseverance will be necessary. But this tasting, this lived experience in a vibrant household is the natural and irreplaceably powerful seed bed of human life, and indeed of a divinized, graced life. ~ ~ ~

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