How to Start a St Thomas Squad: Getting Your Friends and Acquaintances Together to Discuss the Universal Doctor of the Church
You've probably never heard of a St Thomas Squad before, but maybe the name is giving you some weird ideas about it, so let's begin by stating what a St Thomas Squad is not.
A St Thomas Squad is not a confraternity, a sodality, a prelature, or anything officially ecclesial. It has no canonical status. It's something I just made up. But it's fun and it works, so I'll tell you about it and give you some ideas if you want to start one.
By the end of the post you'll know the answers to these questions:
- What is a St Thomas Squad?
- What is the purpose of a St Thomas Squad?
- How often does a St Thomas Squad meet?
- What day of the week does a St Thomas Squad meet?
- Who do you invite to a St Thomas Squad?
- How do you invite people to a St Thomas Squad?
- What texts do you read at a St Thomas Squad?
- What practical advice can be given for picking the readings?
What is a St Thomas Squad?
A St Thomas Squad is a group of friends and acquaintances who gather together to discuss a text of St Thomas Aquinas. There's no official membership cards, fees, or dues — just a willingness in each participant to read some St Thomas and show up for a discussion.
The discussion lasts about an hour and a half, give or take. There's extra time at the beginning and the end for exchanging social pleasantries — and for drinking and chatting and good-natured arguing (the drinking, chatting, and arguing usually increases as the evening progresses).
What is the Purpose of a St Thomas Squad?
The main purpose of a St Thomas Squad is for each participant to better understand the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas, and thereby (fingers crossed) have a greater insight into Reality, the Things That Are, or the great Quiddities of Life.
Each participant — knowing that he or she will actually discuss the text with others — attacks the text with a vigor that might be missing if the participant's reading were to remain merely solitary. And the discussion itself spurs each participant on toward a deeper understanding of the text.
Secondary purposes include:
- Getting together with like-minded folks,
- Having some laughs while talking about things that truly matter, and
- Drinking some beers. (The beers are more important to the success of a St Thomas Squad than one might at first realize.)
How Often Does a St Thomas Squad Meet?
The trick with a St Thomas Squad is to (1) convene it frequently enough that there's a formation of (a) expectations ("Hey, we'll be talking about Aquinas again soon!") and (b) habits ("Hey, I'd better read some Summa and buy some beer — the Squad is meeting next week."), but (2) not convene it so frequently that you burn people out or compete too often with other allurements (e.g., school functions, Netflix, etc.).
The St Thomas Squad I'm involved in meets once a month.
Meeting once a month seems to be working just fine and, in many respects, is probably ideal.
What Day of the Week Does a St Thomas Squad Meet?
Thursday evening has been a hit.
Why? Thursday evening is the end of the week, but it's not yet the cusp of the weekend, so there's a relaxation setting in, but it hasn't dissolved into the total dissipation that threatens on a Friday.
On a Thursday evening, people will stay up a bit later than they otherwise might on anther weeknight, but not intemperately late, since they have work the next day (an important consideration for the host).
Other days of the week probably work, too. The St Thomas Squad meeting I'm hosting this month will be on a Friday, because of constraints on my Thursdays in April.
If Friday is a total flop for the St Thomas Squad, I'll warn you in another post.
Who Do You Invite to a St Thomas Squad?
Invite anyone you think will show up on a Thursday night (or whatever night you pick) to:
- Discuss Aquinas's text and
- Drink beer, or
- Just one of the above.
When I invite people to a St Thomas Squad meeting, I also like to let them know:
- They're welcome to invite a friend.
- They don't need to be a professional Thomist to attend — Thomists of all degrees are welcome, from the complete novice to John Poinsot himself (it would be cool if he could show up).
- They don't even need to have read the text.
I add that last one because I recognize that life happens: the best of intentions are thwarted by circumstance (illness, work, binge watching a Netflix series).
For me, I'd rather people show up and listen, not having read, than not show up at all (especially if, moved by guilt, they bring extra beer to those of us who actually have done the reading).
How Do You Invite People to a St Thomas Squad?
You could use anything that works, I suppose: emails, phone calls, text messages, smoke signals, carrier pigeons. But I use Evite.
In Evite, I keep a list of people. I send those people an Evite when I'm ready to host a St Thomas Squad meeting.
If those people show up, I'll keep them on the list. If they don't show up, I still keep them on the list (until they tell me to take them off — so far, no one's demanded removal).
And if someone expresses an interest (either directly or through a friend of a friend) in the St Thomas Squad, St Thomas's thought or texts, philosophy, the Church, or beer (it doesn't take much for me) then I add them to the list.
What Texts Do You Read at a St Thomas Squad?
The thing to know about a St Thomas Squad reading is that it's got to be brief.
You're asking people to read relatively dense philosophy and theology in the midst of their everyday responsibilities and their work weeks. Keep it realistic.
Rather than recommend things in the abstract, I'll list what we've read so far in our St Thomas Squad:
Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 1 — The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine
This reading sparked a discussion about the different kinds of wisdom that Aquinas recognizes. One form of wisdom comes per studium — by studious reasoning. That is the wisdom that Aristotle had, and that we might call metaphysics or philosophy. The other form of wisdom comes per Spiritum —that is the wisdom that is given by the Holy Spirit.
Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 68 — The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
This reading followed from the first, as an inquiry into how the Holy Spirit confers wisdom as a gift. We spent time discussing how Aquinas distinguishes a gift from a virtue, especially from those virtues which depend directly on God — the theological virtues.
Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 45 — The Gift of Wisdom
This reading delved more specifically into one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom. It brought us back to the issue in our first reading: what kinds of wisdom are there? What is the wisdom that comes from God, as opposed to the wisdom that comes from the studious application of reason to reality? In what sense can both forms be called wisdom if they differ so radically in origin?
Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 62 — What is a Theological Virtue?
This reading is scheduled for later this month, so I have nothing to report regarding the fruits of the discussion. But I can tell you that I picked this reading because of our struggle in the second St Thomas Squad meeting to distinguish the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the theological virtues conceptually (the lists themselves are clear; it's St Thomas's conceptual distinction that was tricky to get). I'm hoping this text from Aquinas will help us in the struggle to understand.
What Practical Advice Can Be Given for Picking the Readings?
Having laid out a summary of our readings so far, I can offer you this practical advice if you're considering starting your own St Thomas Squad (i.e., just getting ordinary people together to read some St Thomas):
Keep the readings short. The first reading we did weighed in at 10 articles; this scheduled reading is only 4 articles.
I think 4 articles is just about right for a St Thomas Squad — not too little, and not too much. (Always err on the side of less reading, more beer.)
Keep the readings themed. For our first meeting, I just began at the beginning (which seemed like a good place to begin): Question 1 of the Summa. From there, though, the readings have thus far followed a thread: generally, what does Aquinas think that wisdom means?
Each subsequent reading has related to something that's gone before. It's not random, and so the conversations have had a feeling of progress ("Remember when we said ...?"), which is nice.
Keep taking the readings from the Summa - at least at first. Maybe you're thinking of starting your own St Thomas Squad, and maybe you're thinking: "Let's get down to first principles: De Principiis Naturae. Or better yet: De Ente et Essentia." To which I respond: "Slow down, turbo."
The Summa is set up for beginners to play around in: fun objections, clever resolutions, the meat and potatoes of the respondeo dicendum quod (meat and potatoes aren't really for playing around in, I realize, so I hope you forgive the mixed metaphor).
Stick with the Summa while you're getting momentum going. Then, when you've got a St Thomas Squad that knows the ropes, take them into some other Thomistic works — or maybe even into something by one of the Fathers.
Let me know in the comments section if you have any questions.
Also, let me know if you're inspired to start your own St Thomas Squad (I'd be glad to offer words of encouragement), or if you have something like this already running in your community.