‘What is God?‘ Little Thomas asked his teacher who was stumped by the five year old’s stunningly simple question and couldn’t answer. So he went on to become a Theologian to find out and that too one of the greatest.
Today’s saint of the day is, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 A.D.) who turns 792. Although he was born of a noble family in southern Italy, his story is not what one would expect. A holy hermit had once foretold his career saying, “So great will be his learning and sanctity that in his day no one will be found to equal him.” It is hard to put into words how influential, extraordinary and sanctifying he has been to the history of the Church. Designated as ‘The Angelic Doctor of the Church‘ by Pope Leo XIII, even centuries after his death, he still revered as one of the most prolific saints who in his simplicity and piety transformed our Christian world. And as you might see, this article would always fall short of space to accommodate him, literally and figuratively.
What was so special about this saint?
His Vocation: At an early age he was identified as brilliant in studies, meditative and devoted to prayer. He joined the Dominicans, one of the two new monastic orders that had been founded a century before by St. Dominic (and the other being the Franciscans founded by St. Francis of Assisi) which really upset his family’s prestigious plans for him. So his brothers kidnapped him, imprisoned him in a castle room and sent a prostitute into the room to test his vocation. Thomas then grabbed a log from the fireplace and put the fiery brand between himself and the temptress who lost no time in finding the door and fleeing away, on which Thomas then burned a large cross. He then knelt and implored God to grant him integrity of mind and body, to which two angels appeared and girded him with a white girdle of perpetual virginity. He later pronounced his vows. He knew very clearly what he wanted and what he didn’t want.
His Disposition: After being noticed as a brilliant student, he was sent to study under Albert the Great the most famous teacher in the Christian world. Aquinas was shy, silent and placid, he was also very large and fat (though not due to lack of fasting). His fellow students called him, ‘The dumb Ox‘ and when Albert heard this, he told them, “You may call him a dumb ox but I say his bellowing will be heard around the world.” And rightly so, a prophecy which came true. To add to that all his writings manifest a kind of ox like demeanor – slow, calm, careful, patient, contemplative. He tells you nothing about himself; his whole passion was to be a transparent window, to let the light of objective truth shine through.
His Profound Mind and Piety: St. Thomas brought during his time of scholastic confusion, simple, straightforward sense – truth cannot contradict truth. So he studied, and taught and argued and eventually the simple, common-sense philosophy that he worked on, that brought about many writings on philosophy and theology, including ‘The Summa Theologiae‘, a standard textbook for many centuries and still an irreplaceable resource today. Out of his depth of learning came, also, the dazzling poetry of the liturgy for Corpus Christi. But shortly before he died he stopped writing ‘The Summa‘. It is unfinished. When asked why he stopped he replied, “Compared to what I’ve seen everything I’ve ever written looks to me like straw“. ‘The Summa‘, by far is the greatest work of Theology ever written and its author refused to finish it because he called it hay. Out of his sanctity he had a mystical experience during mass, a foretaste of heaven and it so radically transcended words that he just couldn’t go back to them.
He labored as if all depended on his own efforts and prayed as if all depended on God. Cardinal Bessarion called St. Thomas ‘The most saintly of learned men and the most learned of saints’. His works breathe the Spirit of God, a tender and enlightened piety, built on a solid foundation, with, the knowledge of God, of Christ and of man. His work may be summed up in two propositions: he established true relations between faith and reason.
His Obedience and Humility: Once when Thomas was visiting, ‘The Dominican House of Studies‘ in Bologna, he was mistaken by another visiting brother to be his helper for the day and so he immediately put him to work, completely unaware of whom he was ordering around. Because Thomas was slow of foot, he suffered many hard words, always without protest. When the visitor was eventually told, he was mortified at his mistake and profusely apologized. But Thomas gently reminded them that the way to perfection must be obedience. He added that
“If God had humbled himself for our sake, should not we submit to one another for God’s sake?”
His Devotion and Love for God: His love for Christ is manifested in his Eucharistic hymns, especially ‘O Salutaris Hostia,Adoro Te Devote‘, ‘the Pange Lingua‘, and ‘the Tantum Ergo‘. These are still some of the most beautiful hymns ever written, and they flowed from the heart of a man who is often caricatured as living among dry abstractions. At the end of his life when he was given Holy Communion for the last time he exclaimed,
“[I receive you] O price of my redemption and food for my pilgrimage. For your sake I have studied and toiled and kept vigil.”
His Connection with Heaven: He was once lying alone, flat on his stomach on the floor of the chapel when a voice came from the crucifix over the altar. It asked Thomas the greatest question in the world and Thomas gave the greatest answer. It said,
“Thomas my son you have written well of me, what will you have as your reward?”
And Thomas answered,
“Only yourself, Lord.”
Conversation with God couldn’t get holier.
One night he stayed up late praying in his cell, stumped with a difficult passage from Isaiah. From outside his secretary, Reginald, heard him conversing with what sounded like two other voices. After insisting, Thomas admitted that the two voices were those of Saints Peter and Paul, sent to answer his prayer.
Pope Leo XIII in 1879 declared him ‘The prince and master of all Scholastic doctors‘ and ‘The patron of Catholic universities, academies, schools and students‘, throughout the world. Greatly revered to this very day.
So to summarise:
St. Thomas Aquinas is the perfect example of our calling to love God with our minds and with our hearts. He gave all his time and talent to what he did best. His love for Christ and the Eucharist can surely be seen in some of the most beautiful hymns ever written. ‘Tantum Ergo‘ is one such hymn we sing at benediction translated in English as ‘Let us bow in Adoration‘. The saint loved God as much as he served the Church as much as he eloquently wrote. His final confession before he died turned out to be like ‘The sins of a child of five‘.
Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to inspire us, like St. Thomas, to love God with our minds as well as our hearts; and if we come across a fact or a teaching that seems to us to contradict our faith, let us not reject it but investigate it: for the truth that it contains can never contradict the truth that is God.
I’m blessed today because of the sheer grace of God but that grace also came crucially through St. Aquinas as I went seeking for answers to my unsettled mind and heart. I received a renewed sense of the reality of God which set me on a sure path. To him I owe my gratitude. His life inspires the student in us, the child in us and our thirst and love for God.
O Angelic Thomas, Pray for us!