Aquinas: “Capable of the Universe”—Humanity’s Greatness

The release of pictures from the new Webb Telescope (JWST) at this time is a day to celebrate humanity’s creativity, curiosity, eagerness to know where we come from (and maybe hints of where we are going) and how unique or lonely we are in our vast universe.

“I’m a little verklempt.” CNN Aerospace Analyst Miles O’Brien joins Becky Anderson to break down the latest photos from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Father Sky is coming to life like nothing before.  Might this presage a new and deeper understanding and practice of authentic masculinity?  One that takes us beyond guns and war and politics of control and power-over and empire building?

Great mystics of the past have ruminated on the greatness and urgency of this moment.  Howard Thurman put it this way: 

It is natural that man should concern himself with beginnings.  This is a part of the curiosity of the mind.  Without it there would be no exploration of the world and there would be no growth….Contemplation concerning origins is a part of the curiosity of the race.

“Starry Wonder – Cedar Mountain Recreation Area, Castle Dale, United States” Photo by Rick Hatch on Unsplash.

Thomas Aquinas says that our greatness as a species is that we are “capax universi, capable of the universe.”  We want to know the whole and not just the part. This is what wisdom is about—the whole and acting from the whole and not just the part. 

Seeing and knowing the universe gives us context.  It can also give us perspective, perspective on all the folly that we are currently engaged in.  It can also arouse gratitude, deep thanks that whoever we are and wherever we come from and whatever ideologies we carry within us, it is special that we are here.  Where?  In this universe of two trillion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, and on a planet, Mother Earth our home, that is beautiful and generous and welcoming to all of us.

Aquinas urges humans to get beyond our own hurts and wounds and petty agendas and look at the big picture.

Astronomy of Aquinas’ era: the Tusi-couple, a mathematical device developed by Islamic astronomer al-Tusi in 1247, providing a solution for the latitudinal motion of the inferior planets, later used extensively by Ptolemy. Wikimedia Commons.

Our bigness of mind, our vastness of intellect and imagination that JWST attests to, all urge us to look out into a world so much larger than ourselves.  It is not enough to live in the worlds we make. We must consider the world that makes us.  This can grow our souls and with the growing of our souls there comes more courage (or “big heart” in French), more creativity, more joy.

Aquinas marvels that we are capable of such a reach at all. “Other beings take only a limited part in being. But the spiritual being is capable of grasping the whole of being” and “embracing the whole of being.”

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, p. 203;

and Matthew Fox, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times, pp. 20-22.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: In an enormous new image, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals never-before-seen details of galaxy group “Stephan’s Quintet” –interacting galaxies triggering star formation in each other and gas in galaxies being disturbed, as well as outflows driven by a black hole. Tight galaxy groups like this may have been more common in the early universe when superheated, infalling material may have fueled very energetic black holes. Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Queries for Contemplation

Might JWST assist us in expanding our consciousness and our gratitude and and wonder and moving beyond hatred to self, others, Mother Earth and the rest to fulfill our promise as a spiritual species that puts love first?

Recommended Reading

The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times

A stunning spiritual handbook drawn from the substantive teachings of Aquinas’ mystical/prophetic genius, offering a sublime roadmap for spirituality and action.
Foreword by Ilia Delio.
“What a wonderful book!  Only Matt Fox could bring to life the wisdom and brilliance of Aquinas with so much creativity. The Tao of Thomas Aquinas is a masterpiece.”
–Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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19 thoughts on “Aquinas: “Capable of the Universe”—Humanity’s Greatness”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Did this meditation ever get me going? And our Queries for Contemplation are really something to think about: “Might James Webb Space Telescope assist us in expanding our consciousness and our gratitude and and wonder and move us beyond hatred to self, others, Mother Earth and the rest, to fulfill our promise as a spiritual species that puts love first?” Howard Thurman said: “It is natural that man should concern himself with beginnings. This is a part of the curiosity of the mind. Without it there would be no exploration of the world and there would be no growth….Contemplation concerning origins is a part of the curiosity of the race.” This statement coupled with Aquinas’ comment that we are “capax universi, capable of the universe” shows our longing to know how everything got here–as Thurman said: “It is natural that man should concern himself with beginnings.” But where my thoughts went after listening to the CNN news coverage of the first images back from the James Webb Space Telescope, was to the first chapter of the Bible–Genesis 1. But not how you might think. Because what I thought was, even though there is literary beauty to the Genesis account (from a poetic and liturgical perspective), and historical value in terms of how ancient people thought, the bottom line is Genesis is in reality Jewish mythology and what the JWST is showing us is reality! How amazing that we live in a time when we know the truth of the universe–not just believe, or trust the judgment of writers from well over 3,000 years ago, who had next to no knowledge, and worse yet were totally ignorant–like water above the heavens and below the earth–(and we looked at what is really out there in our meditation today). And the universe was not formed by one sky monster tearing apart another, and making the earth from the defeated monster’s body, and its eyes became the sun and moon, etc., etc. Now for one to accept the Genesis account of creation literally, is just living in willful ignorance. They are choosing not to know the truth, believing that the words of the ancients were the inerrant words of God who created the universe, and therefore THEY are the TRUTH. Oh, if Copernicus, Galileo and Giordano Bruno lived today !!! May God help all of us to see and to know that in light of these findings we are not as individuals or countries) the center of the universe !!! Perhaps that could contribute towards having a more loving world.

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    How wonderful to behold this accomplishment, and fathom the information forthcoming. This telescope, along with the two Voyager spacecraft (that have escaped our solar system and carry a record of humanity) surely rank among the greatest of humanity’s achievements. It seems inconceivable, with trillions of galaxies each containing billions of stars, that we are alone in the universe. What mysteries, what vastness of God’s reach surround us. We do well to be in awe, grounded in love and hope..

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    Counterpoint: The pics have great beauty, clarity and resolution like never before as per mankind’s curiosity and predilection for gazing outwardly, the photographic equivalent (plus) of a Van Gogh painting. But of what? More nebulous configurations of gas and dust further away from the wondrous ones we already have nearby as evidence for God’s glory in creation. How much “evidence” do we need, and how distant from earth do we need to go to find it, and at what expense? As for overkill evidence-building in scientific investigation, this latest space venture parallels the endless Trump hearings where convicting evidence from over 1000 witness have been heard. How much evidence is too much evidence for a “conviction” of proof on ANY subject, be it evidence for the glory of God in creation, or treasonous charges for a president? Science is consumed with the gathering of ever more data and evidence on the created order when it comes to “outer” space. When science begins instead to lead mankind in the direction of investing in the exploration of inner space, and the mysteries of solving its gassy, dusty, “nebulous” paradoxes and contradiction there, the species may begin to make some headway before it totally self-destructs. Not sure about you, but I can’t get as “verklempt” (emotionally overcome) by these pics, as over other more pressing matters regarding humankind’s actions against itself requiring a more a more immediate investment and attention of resources and energies. I can think of better ways and places to spend $10 billion than taking pics of smokey galactic formations that, with some exceptions, look the same no matter their distance from earth. Speaking of down to earth things, what manner of folk go around using words like “verklempt” anyway?

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      Joe, your thoughts are always beautifully written and your ideas so clearly expressed. I don’t entirely disagree, and there is this. Last night I was at a discussion group in which this question was asked: “What feelings of awe did you experience when you saw the first pictures from the JWST? What other feelings did you have?” All the people in my group focused on the $10 billion price tag. My life partner David and I had hoped we could hear people talk about their experiences of awe. Where did those take them? Most were either unimpressed or focused on how that money could’ve been spent on the poor or studying our own planet—our oceans for example. I called that a false comparison. Still, it’s a complaint often made. I responded that it isn’t NASA taking food from the mouths of the poor. It’s war. So when we got home, David and I looked up the cost of recent wars. We haven’t yet done the math (maybe you’d like to) but we found this: Since 9/11, the war on terror has cost 8 trillion dollars. JWST’s cost is in the billions, not the trillions, and that $10 billion’s been spent over 25 years. It also employs a lot of scientists and technicians who otherwise might have spent their talents on weapons and war-making. I’m not a great essayist like you, and there are probably false comparisons and fallacies in this essay. But awe!

      Awe! It is one of our pathways to God. In my play “Puzzles and Borderlines,” an astronaut named Jane is standing at the pearly gates. Near the end of the play, St. Peter hands Jane a celestial spyglass and tells her, “Here, look through this lens.” She does, seeing things in a new light. What this planet’s people need is a metanoia—to look differently, perhaps to see things the way God does—the big picture. I believe that is worth something. The engendering of awe is worth something.

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        “The poor you will always have with you…” I agree with you Michelle. The price of such Awe is so worth it!

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        Thanks, Michelle. I appreciate all these perspectives, including yours. And Richard, puh-leeze, don’t feel sorry. I think you all missed the major point in my comment. It was less about the $10 billion, than the preferred direction of the human gaze in its curious endeavors — preponderantly outward instead of inward. Spiritually, the created order was given mainly to steer perception in the direction of the inner meaning of the outer world (environment) including outer space (Rm. 1:20), where, and in “whom are hidden all the secrets of wisdom and knowledge.” Wonder and awe are a part of that, for sure. But not the greatest part, says here, not nearly as much as what the glories in the depths of what awakened spiritual consciousness and perception have to offer. This is especially so in the areas of awakening to the hidden wholeness lacking in so many souls that create the problems Matthew is currently focusing on. If folk focused on, valued and developed their inner landscapes in a mere fraction of the way outer ones allure and dazzle, even distract them, wholeness (holiness, healing) among the species wouldn’t be as scarce as clean air to breathe and water to drink. Sorry (Richard), I’m long past going “verklempt” (going ga-ga) over the visible appetizers of creation, the colorfully decorative fingers that merely point to the moon, the hidden glory their molecular crust only dimly reflects at best, the multiple (lesser) pearls of the created order that must eventually be exchanged (relinquished) for the One Pearl of Great Price. We’re to enjoy the glories of God in the created order, for sure, but for most folk they’re not a springboard to the saving awareness or experience of the presence of the one who created them. Won’t bring them to their knees. The created order isn’t designed so much for entertainment, or to titillate the senses. The lot of you can have the foreplay, let it bring you to tears if so inclined. I’ll take the experience of the rapturous climax, thank you, for which the former is but a prelude. Nope, just can’t get excited anymore over the warm-up act, when the star of the show awaits in the wings. Always in the wings, the best saved for last. It’s what I pay so much to see and experience firsthand.

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    Jeanette Metler

    Love these words from todays DM, “It’s not enough to live in the worlds we make. We must consider the world that makes us!” What a fantastic image of the Carina Nebula. The first thing that came to my mind, when the woman in the video, called this the “stellar nursery, that is birthing new stars”… were the words of Thomas Aquinas… “God is forever lying on the maternity bed, giving birth.” When I continued to gaze upon this image, I clearly saw the image of a body, reclined on its side. Then again I have an active imagination. Yesterday as I was on the Webb Site, meditating on the new images… I was seeing all kinds of things. The other thing that amazed me, were Mathews words, when he said, that what I am looking at now, is no longer there. This kind of got me thinking about time, and our perception of time and things in the space of time. From earth, we say we are looking back in time, but from the perspective of the Carina Nebula, it’s looking at earth in the future time. The thing that distances us is the same thing that connects us… which is LIGHT. I find these images sparking my creative imagination… as I could meditate upon them for hours. The Great Mystery, whom is the creator of all existence… is the most amazing artist of all. And just think… all that exists is created out of the same stuff… yet is so vastly diverse… which includes each one of us. How can not but fall in love with it all!

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    Yes, Matthew, our spiritual beings~souls~consciousness are a marvelous, mysterious, loving, beautiful, humbling, grateful,… part of God’s Creation~Being!!! The mystics throughout human history have experienced and shared/communicated this intimate Divine Loving Oneness with us, each in his/her unique way, to let us know that all our eternal evolving souls are also Being~becoming this Loving Conscious Diverse Oneness on our human spiritual journeys in this challenging earthly dimension with one another and the blessings of Mother Earth….

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    “Existence has shared itself with us, and invited us to be aboard.” These words remind me, Matthew, of your metaphor of “the empty chair.” As I believe you have said in the past, “We are here when so many beings are not here.” All who read this little post have been given the golden opportunity of existence, while so many beings who might have been here are not. How many potential beings could have been sitting beside us, but are not? How many “empty chairs” can we imagine around us? As Mary Oliver writes in her poem “The Summer Day,” from which I took the title of my newest play,
    “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?”
    With all the loathsome things that are happening in our current world, it is good to remember this metaphor of the empty chair. We are here while so many are not. What shall we each do with our one wild and precious life?

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Michele, I too love Mary Oliver’s poem, and the question for us is: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do
      with your one wild and precious life?”

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    The nebula images remind me of the inside of a human womb, so it is truly called a nursery. It is good to pause–Brother David Steindl-Rast ( has a practice he calls stop, look, go. Here we are stopping and looking and noticing and glorying in the truly awesome spectacle of what created us all. Now we must decide how to go on from here. We need to be inspired and uplifted past all the sufferings of ourselves and our neighbors, including Mother Earth, to discern what action(s) we are called to do. My heart is stunned and opened up by the magnificence, which is truly beyond words or complete understanding. My neighbor and I were commiserating with each other over the dire situation in our state of Florida and the world, and we also recognize that it starts with us going beyond the rage to simple kindnesses that we can do for one another. It sounds simple, but something that at least we can do. We also sent off a couple of Zings to our local paper on a few pressing issues. It relieved some frustration and, if printed, might motivate or at least amuse someone.

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    Thank you Mathew for this keepsake consisting of photos never before observed and comments that are sensitive to our mysterious universe and that try to grasp at our mission once we have seen it.
    I wonder if we are being observed from distances too vast to be traversed in the observers lifetime. Are we “ not alone” ?
    Have we been visited? The answers could be closer to unveiling.
    After viewing for ourselves the beauty and creativity of “ outer nature” will we be pulled off our chairs with the desire to visit ? Probably.
    After seeing again a new sample of the vastness of of Space will we want to know more about the equally complex and beautiful particle universe of the Tiny ? Maybe.
    Meanwhile we have the Accessible waiting for the touch of our hand, the love in our eyes and the willingness to heal. Certainly we were fashioned to do these things now.

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    Our monthly prayer group, in its 14th year, is “reflecting” through Christian Mystics. Am daily grateful for having met Matthew Fox in 2001 during my sabbatical. Later in his visit to D.C. I again enjoyed his weekend offering, including a period at the MLK monument. One of the memorable blessings of my long life was picking up Original Blessings in 1984 and “traveling” with Fox since then.
    Brother Charles, C.F.X. Virginia Beach, VA

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