Remembering Thomas Aquinas, Doctor and Saint
I discovered Thomas Aquinas as a teenager. I grew up in the south, in the heart of the Bible belt where faith was biblical or else it wasn’t faith. In middle and high school, debates raged not only among the parents but among the students as well about whether evolution should be taught in schools since it was a challenge to the faith of so many. These debates could get quite ugly among my peers, ending too often with “how can you call yourself a Christian and believe X?”
In this atmosphere of religious conflict, I discovered Aquinas, though I don’t remember exactly how. I probably first read about him in one of my books on the saints as I tried to figure out a saint for confirmation (I do remember my mom forbidding me to choose the name Thomas Aquinas for confirmation as a name unsuitable for a young lady). I remember learning that Aquinas was committed to the inherent reasonableness of the faith and for this, he became my patron. I felt his intercession in a powerful way as I became a young apologist, studying the reasons for the faith that I was committing to and bringing those reasons to bear on my conversations with my peers. But Aquinas also helped me fall deeply in love not only with faith, but also with the God in whom I believed. Aquinas revealed to me a God who was so simple and yet impenetrable, a God of wisdom, a God whose love was life-giving, a God who I could question and a God who was the answer.
St. Thomas continued to intercede for me as I selected a college and ended up at the University of Virginia, a state school but with a vibrant and committed Catholic population who worshipped with the Dominicans at none other than St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. I have no doubt that it was the ongoing influence of St. Thomas, now mediated through some of the most beautiful and faithful Dominicans you will ever meet, that led me into the academic study of theology and into graduate school. I still pray for his intercession daily.
GK Chesterton, in his popular biography of St. Thomas, relates an anecdote that is revelatory for St. Thomas’ contemporary legacy. A woman picks up the Angelic Doctor’s treatise on the simplicity of God: “If that is his simplicity, I would hate to see his complexity!” St. Thomas tends to be the saint of academics, known primarily as a towering intellect, but unapproachable for the ordinary faithful. Here is where we miss something critical about this great saint.
For Thomas, theology was the product of a life lived in profound union with God, “an activity in which the virtues of faith, hope, and charity are given full scope” (Torrell, 4). Theology was most certainly not a purely intellectual exercise, nor was the faith to be explored merely a matter of doctrinal principles and credal formulas. For Aquinas, faith was about the relationship with God, “the living attachment of the whole person to the divine Reality to which the person is united through faith by means of the formulas that convey that Reality to us” (ibid).
This is why Aquinas is a great saint for the universal Church. For theologians, he is a reminder that without faith, without a deep relationship with the Trinitarian God nourished by the sacraments and by the Word, theology would lack justification. He is a reminder that we cannot live out our vocations in the Church as teachers and researchers of theology unless we are deeply rooted in the faith. But for the ordinary faithful, he is a reminder that the relationship with God fostered in the Church and especially in the Eucharist begs to be understood. The desire to understand, the desire to bring reason to bear on the realities and the relationship which claims us makes us all theologians. Torrell writes in his beautiful treatment on Aquinas’ spirituality,
Thomas makes an astonishing observation about his patron saint: when he falls on his knees at the feet of the Risen Lord who shows him his wounds, the apostle Thomas, the doubter, immediately becomes a good theologian.
On this feast of such a saint and doctor of the Church, I want to share his Prayer at the Time of Death who shows both the depth of his spirituality and his intellect:
I receive you,
Price of my redemption.
I receive You,
Viaticum of my pilgrimage,
For love of Whom I have
studied, kept vigil, abroad, preached and taught.
Never have I said anything against You.
If I have, it was in ignorance,
and I do not persist in my ignorance.
If I have taught anything false, I leave correction
of it to the Roman Catholic Church.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.