Tomorrow is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and patron saint of students and Catholic universities. Born in Roccasecca (1225), Thomas entered the famous Benedictine abbey of Montecassino at the age of five, where he began his studies. As a young teenager, he first made contact with the new mendicant order known as the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans. In opposition to his family, Thomas became a Dominican and went to study in Cologne with Albert the Great, where he was immersed in the new (and highly questionable) philosophy of Aristotle. He went to the University of Paris to finish his studies, became a Master (our equivalent to a Doctor of Philosophy) and within three years occupied one of the Dominican chairs of the University as Regent Master. Thomas would hold this chair again later in life, and the university would close down in protest, largely over the disputed use of Aristotle in the curriculum.
Thomas traveled widely throughout Italy over the course of his life (walking, nonetheless, which is why you should question those who say he was obese). He was, first and foremost, a Dominican. He led a disciplined life of prayer and worship, living in community and saying Mass every morning. We often forget about Aquinas as an exemplar in prayer, but he wrote a number of prayers and songs that we still use (Tantum Ergo, for example, is typically sung after Eucharistic adoration). He had a great devotion to the Eucharist. One story is that during times of real intellectual struggle, when he was working on a problem he just couldn’t resolve, Thomas would go and lay his head on the tabernacle and pray for inspiration. The words of Adoro te Devote, especially as translated by Gerard Manley Hopkins, reveal not only his keen intellect, but also, this profound faith in the sacrament of the altar.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.
I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.
Despite his profound spirituality, we know St. Thomas primarily as an intellectual, author of the Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica, among numerous other treatises. Thanks to Matthew Levering and others, scholars are now starting to attend to Aquinas scriptural commentaries as well. Despite their difficulty, Thomas’ texts reveal him to be primarily a teacher, as we see especially in the Prologue to the Summa Theologica:
Because the doctor of catholic truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but also to instruct beginners (according to the Apostle: As unto little ones in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, not meat—1 Cor. iii. 1, 2), we purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. We have considered that students in this doctrine have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments, partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject-matter, but according as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer, partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers.
Endeavoring to avoid these and other like faults, we shall try, by God’s help, to set forth whatever is included in this sacred doctrine as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow.
It is this integration of faith and intellect, of worship and study, and of humility and intellectual rigor that makes Thomas such an important figure for today, at a time when so many think faith is opposed to reason. Thomas is also an important exemplar for theologians as well as a reminder that the life our studies and our teaching is grounded in a life of faith. For a theologian, regular prayer and worship are indispensable, because it is from these fonts that we draw our life and grow in true wisdom. Theology is, accordingly, a work of love: “In the fervor of their faith, Christians love the truth that they believe. They examine it and reflect upon it, and they embrace it while searching according to their ability for the reasons and the love that are a part of faith” (II-II, 2.10).
Thomas should appeal to theologians today who struggle with how to live in a church they so deeply disagree with at times. Though the 13th c. church of Thomas’ day was different than our own, it too was often divided, and Aquinas was often at odds with the larger church authority. In fact, only a few years after his death, he was condemned by the bishop of Paris Stephen Tempiers for holding certain unorthodox positions. Yet, Thomas never left the church or put himself above his authorities. He knew what it was to submit to authority in obedience, and yet still to work to reform the church, bring the tradition alive, and hand on the tradition (“tradition” literally means “to hand on”) to future generations. Aquinas’ sacramental spirituality is what allowed him to navigate this path. As Marie Dominique Chenu notes:
Thomas’ reflection on the Church both as institution and sacrament is developed within his theology of Christ and of the incarnation. The Church is the body of Christ, animated (given life) by the Spirit. Its organs are the apostolic institutions of various members under the leadership of the sovereign pontiff. At one and the same time, the Church is a body, a corporation in the sociological sense of the word, and the very mystery of Christ mystically and sacramentally extended in time and place (Aquinas and His Role in Theology, 71).
If Thomas is about anything, it is unity and synthesis, or as we often call it, finding the “both-and” in what seems like an “either-or” situation: faith and reason, the Church as institution and the Church as Mystical Body of Christ, humble obedience to ecclesial authority and creative and progressive engagement with the tradition. St. Thomas, pray for us.