By DONALD DeMARCO
Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP, is not exactly a household name. He is hardly known among Catholics today. Even those who are familiar with the Catholic Tradition may recognize his name but little else. This is a situation that cries out for rectification.
He was born in Ireland in 1868, became a Dominican priest in his 23rd year, and passed from the earth in 1943. He was the tenth of eleven children. His book, Eleven Thank God!, which he dedicated to his mother, is a great apologia for the large family.
G.K. Chesterton expressed some nervousness about writing the introduction to Fr. McNabb’s book, Francis Thompson And Other Essays. He feared that if the humble Dominican read Chesterton’s eulogistic words, he would, if he could somehow get hold of the proofs, cut them out.
“But I will say briefly and firmly,” wrote the author of Orthodoxy, “that he is one of the few great men I have ever met in my life, that he is great in many ways, mentally and morally and mystically and practically . . . nobody who ever met him or saw or heard Fr. McNabb has ever forgotten him.”
Fr. McNabb was committed to bringing the message of the Gospel to everyone. He became noted as an engaging preacher at Speaker’s Corner in London. On one occasion, when he was holding forth in his customary passionate manner, a heckler in the crowd objected that if God really existed He would be everywhere and evident to everyone. The perspicacious Dominican noted the protester’s face that urgently needed to be washed. Without missing a beat, the unflappable preacher replied that no one would believe that a man’s dirty face implied that water did not exist.
Being a Dominican and a philosophy teacher, Fr. McNabb was an ardent student of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. No doubt he was familiar with the passages in the Summa Theologiae where the Angelic Doctor deals with the question of whether God is everywhere (I, Q.8. A.2-3). He also knew that the mere act of ignoring something does not make it go away. Ignoring is a powerless act, let alone one that could banish water from the planet or God from the universe. A dentist may warn that if you ignore your teeth they will go away, but his point is that tooth decay will persist and with unhappy results.
God may be ignored, but He is not dismissed. He may be eclipsed, but not extinguished. When Fr. McNabb wrote, he did so while kneeling at a table surmounted by a crucifix and a small statue of the Blessed Virgin. His library consisted of three books: a copy of the Vulgate, his Breviary, and the Summa Theologiae.
According to St. Thomas, God is everywhere in three ways, by His Essence, Presence, and Power: “Therefore, God is in all things by His power, inasmuch as all things are subject to His power; He is by His presence in all things as all things are bare and open to His eyes; He is in all things by His essence, inasmuch as He is present to all as the cause of their being.”
By implication, Aquinas is saying that God is everywhere through His Providence, His Knowledge, and His Love. But He is not present everywhere as a material object. His existence is not dependent upon His visibility. Hence, the importance of prayer, through which we better appreciate God as the One who sets the outline of our life in order, watches over us, and wills what is best for us. Even if we were to see God, on the street, let us say, what would we make of Him? Would we see Him in His divinity? Would we appreciate His Godliness? I think we would not know what to make of Him. We should not forget that the visible Jesus was put to death.
God is always more than what we might expect Him to be. The heckler with the dirty face should have been looking a little deeper for his God. Yet, even his unkempt appearance was enough for Fr. McNabb to remind all of us that God is even more available than water, and that we have not lost Him by the mere act of ignoring Him.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)