I saw a raccoon. That might be an unremarkable fact if your element isn't Manhattan concrete, but it was a highlight for this city gal. And it added to the sylvan aspect of the event I was attending last year, the Thomas Aquinas Philosophy Workshop, in Newburgh, New York. So, too, did the sight just yards from the wildlife: A convent chapel full of young men in the white habit of the Dominican religious order. In reality, the event, whose fourth annual session will be held next month, was a contemplative and analytical engagement with the world of the most practical and modern sort.
Gathered were graduate students and faculty from Princeton University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, as well as secular and Catholic institutions throughout the country.
The three-and-a-half day workshop is imbued with sanctity, the joys of fellowship and the kind of intellectual rigor Dominicans are known for. Held just a stone's throw from West Point, it's a powerhouse of a summer school -- just about as close as you're going to get without a time machine to being taught by Thomas Aquinas himself.
"The Newburgh event speaks to an intellectual need that is currently not being met," Anna Halpine, a board member of Mt. St. Mary College, which hosts the event, explains. It's a gathering of thinking people who are interested in working together on a variety of problems leading to new options and solutions.
Thomas Aquinas, the 13-century Dominican theologian, was "the bridge from the ancients to the moderns, and himself played a key role in introducing Aristotle to the West," Halpine says. Anyone even half paying attention to contemporary debates and challenges knows that we need a new common language with which to speak about some key concepts. Aquinas might help. Halpine describes the conference as "a synthesis of the pursuit of knowledge and truth which takes place in this broader experience of friendship."
It's a countercultural renewal that involves both the most rigorous academics and the most pious faithful, sometimes one and the same. It's about reaching people with truth and beauty and faith and reason. It's about renewing institutions that might have languished in their zeal and rigor in recent decades, but have a bold future ahead of them, with a renewed commitment to the integrity of their founding missions.
In one morning Mass homily at last year's Aquinas gathering, Fr. James Brent -- who teaches philosophy at the Catholic University -- said, "We are called not only to understand the mysteries of Christ, the mysteries of our lives and our eternal destination, but to live them." That's authenticity of a very radical sort. That's what Pope Francis has in mind when he says, as he did just the other day, that the seal of a Christian is a joyful hope that flows from being truly reliant on God, from plumbing the depths of human knowledge to discover the most beautiful truths available to us.
For at least one weekend in June every summer, new and more experienced scholars are doing just that. And they do it so they can hop back on Metro North or otherwise go forth enriched and able to replicate this vigorous, rigorous, fun engagement in every corner of the world.