A brief blog post cannot be long enough to talk about the life of any person. It is certainly not long enough to talk about the life and spirituality of a saint. In the case of St. Thomas Aquinas, the saint I wish to write about, it’s not even enough to list all the books he wrote. Therefore, I’ll have to focus solely on one aspect of his life and spirituality and how it can be a guide for us.
The more you learn about Thomas Aquinas, about his life, his work, and his spirituality, the more you realize that he was (or should I say is?) very Catholic. You might think, “That’s a dumb statement, of course he was Catholic, he’s a saint, how could he not be Catholic?” Allow me to clarify what I mean. Most of us call ourselves “Catholic” because we believe in God, Jesus, and the Church, we ask the Virgin Mary and the saints for their intercession, we go to Mass, adoration, and so on. But if we sit down and carefully reflect on the way we think about and see the world and even the way in which we live out our faith, we’ll very probably come across some things that are not entirely Catholic. I’m not saying that we’re all heretics here, I’m just saying that there are a lot of things that we’ve picked up from the prevailing culture, from our friends, even from our families, many of them unconsciously, which fail the test of Catholicity.
But what exactly do I mean by Catholic, then? We all know that the word “catholic” means universal. However, we often think of it as meaning that the Church embraces people from all nations and tongues, so that, for example, I, a Mexican, can write for an American blog and we’re all cool with it because we’re all Catholic. As true as that is, it is only partly true. Catholic means “universal” in a broader sense, in the sense of “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole.” It is this notion of wholeness, of totality, of synthesis, of many things being brought together and united, that makes something truly and authentically Catholic. This Catholic quality is ultimately rooted in the central and most cherished mysteries of our faith: in the Trinity, three persons but one God; in the Incarnation, where divinity and humanity are wedded in the person of Christ; in the Sacraments, where the physical signs are bound with invisible grace. This bringing together, even of what at times seem like opposites, is the key to understanding Catholicism and also for understanding the life and spirituality of Aquinas. And it is precisely in this sense that our ways of thinking often fail to prove themselves Catholic! We are so influenced by modern philosophies and ideologies that we tend to see things as separate, autonomous entities. We like to break them down but we are hardly ever capable of putting them back together!
Thomas Aquinas lived in a world that saw things very differently. He was a master of synthesis, and I’m certain much of that had to do with the age into which he was born, the glorious thirteenth century that saw so many wonderful things come together. Latin and the Barbarian languages had fused to form the many languages that are spoken in Europe even today. Engineering, art, religion, and popular piety were united in the construction of the great cathedrals. All branches of learning were being taught in the newly founded universities. Thomas Aquinas began, from the very moment of his birth, to unite things. He was born around the year 1225 to a family of Italian nobles. He was a second cousin of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who ruled in Germany. At the same time, he was related to the kings of France and to the kings of what is now Spain. His family itself brought together multiple nationalities!
But, more importantly, we see his push for unity in the decisions he freely made. For example, when it became clear that he was more inclined toward the religious life than the military life of his brothers, everything was arranged so that he could become abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, a post worthy of a man of his rank and wealth. He, however, had other plans in mind. One day, he casually walked into his family’s castle and announced that he had joined the Dominican order. The rich son of a Count had become a mendicant friar, a beggar! To his life of wealth and worldly power, he united a life of voluntary poverty and obedience. His family did not take this very well, of course, and, while he was attempting to flee to Paris, they managed to kidnap him and lock him up in a tower for two years. Everything was done to make him “get his act together.” When I say everything, I mean that literally. Among other things, his brothers brought a prostitute into the room where Thomas was imprisoned so she would seduce him. And here we see his wholeness emerge once more. One could expect the calm and absentminded Thomas to shy away and tremble in fear before this temptation. Instead, he picked up a fiery brand from the fireplace and in a rage drove her out of the room (he did not intend to hurt her, of course, but he wanted to make it very clear that he had made his mind about becoming a friar). From that moment on, he was granted the special grace of having integrity of body and mind and was free from the concupiscence of the flesh.
He eventually escaped by being lowered down the window in a basket (probably a very large one, for he was a big man) and, after the Pope intervened in his favor, he was allowed to continue his life as a Dominican. His superiors sent him to study in Germany under another future saint, St. Albert the Great, so that to his already vast philosophical education he added the recently re-discovered Aristotle. Studying Aristotle was not without controversy in those days, since his works came to Europe through the Muslims. Thomas argued that the problem was not so much with Aristotle but with his Muslim interpreters (who he also studied) and, after fighting many battles over the potential orthodoxy of Aristotelianism, he succeeded in reconciling the great Greek thinker with Christianity. What was best of Pagan antiquity was now brought beneath the pale of Holy Mother Church because of him.
Eventually, he was sent to teach at the University of Paris where he became a Doctor of Theology, together with his good friend and also a famous saint, Bonaventure. The rest of his life would be spent writing, teaching, preaching, and travelling. And if there is anything we can learn from his massive theological output it is that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, but that they can, and should, work together. One of his most important works, the Summa contra Gentiles, explicitly states that, when dealing with those who do not share with us the recognition of the authority of Sacred Scripture, “it is necessary to have recourse to natural reason, which all are obliged to assent to.” But for Thomas it was not enough to bring faith and reason together. His masterpiece, the famous Summa Theologica, was intended to gather in one book (which consists of multiple volumes) all that was known in theology so that beginners could have somewhere to start. I don’t know much about medieval education, but if the Summa was the “Theology 101” textbook of the time, it must have been a pretty darn good education. In order to write such a book, he necessarily had to gather practically all the human knowledge of the time, and reading the Summa is quite an education in itself. As he approached the end of this massive work, he suddenly stopped writing, saying that such mysteries had been revealed to him next to which his work was but straw. In 1274, the Pope requested his presence at a General Council in Lyon and, as he was heading there, his strength failed him. He collapsed and was taken to a nearby monastery where, a few days later, he died, but not until he had dictated a meditation on the Song of Songs. His confessor said that hearing the dying Thomas’s confession was like listening to the confession of a child of five. The man whose mind reached the highest levels of intellectual maturity had united to it a childlike simplicity and innocence.
If bringing things together was the key to St. Thomas’s life, it is even more so the key to his spirituality, a spirituality which, after all, gave nourishment to his life and work. I will limit myself to three ways in which St. Thomas’s spirituality was so deeply Catholic, how it can help us grow in our own spiritual lives, and how it can help make us more Catholic.
First, his spirituality was made whole by being not only spiritual, but also bodily. It was not only intellectual, but also emotional. This wholeness stemmed from the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh. If Christ had prayed with body and soul, with intellect and emotions (to the point that when Lazarus died, he wept), so should we. It’s easy to assume that such a rational and intellectual person as Thomas Aquinas would have had a purely rational and intellectual spiritual life, that his prayers must have been somewhat like a philosophical discourse on the nature of God. For a long time I imagined his prayers being like, “So tell me God, what are the full implications of You being the unmovable mover? What exactly does it mean that You are pure act, with no potency whatsoever? And please don’t speak too fast, I need to write all this down.” There is nothing further from the truth. On his deathbed he was not meditating on the book of Wisdom or on the theologically dense Gospel of John; he could not but think on the love poem that is the Song of Songs! If we think that somehow emotion and reason ought to have nothing to do with one another, it is because we are viewing rationality through the lenses of modernity, which has completely divorced the intellect from the affections and emotions and has, essentially, separated the body from the soul. But Thomas Aquinas was not a modern man; he was a medieval man and, therefore, one who understood the importance and goodness of the union between the spiritual and the physical. We, as modern men and women, tend to fall into one of two extremes: either our spiritual life is purely intellectual and abstract or it is purely emotional. From Aquinas we ought to learn that a prayer life should be infused with both intellect and emotion, with our will and our desires, with our body and our soul. In a few words, it ought to include our whole personality.
Second, his spirituality was deeply catholic in that it was not limited by the individualistic nonsense that is so prevalent today. It was not limited to “praising Jesus in his heart,” which I am sure he certainly did. His spirituality was not limited to his personal reading and interpretation of the Bible (which he memorized while imprisoned in the tower), but it was also drawing continuously from the living tradition of the Church. Thomas understood that, as important as personal silent prayer is, it must be united to the public prayer of the Church, particularly in the Mass. If we wish to have a truly Catholic spiritual life, we cannot limit ourselves to our own prayer, to talking with God in our hearts. We must also pray with the Church in her liturgy!
Finally, his spiritual life was Catholic in that it was profoundly Eucharistic. He would not publish a work that had not been prayed over in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Whenever he encountered some difficult passage in the Bible or some complex theological problem which he could not solve, he would recline his head on the tabernacle, asking for divine assistance. Witnesses to the fact that he did receive such assistance are the valuable Eucharistic doctrines that he formulated in concise theological statements. It was St. Thomas who coined the term “Transubstantiation” to refer to the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. His Eucharistic devotion, both in its emotional as well as its intellectual facets, was well known by his contemporaries. When the Pope established the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, St. Thomas was commissioned with writing the liturgy for it. He ended up authoring the beautiful hymns that we sing at adoration to this day, and that make him one of the masters of the Latin language. The O Salutaris Hostia and the Tantum Ergo, among many others, are but parts of the longer Eucharistic hymns that he left us. What was clear to Aquinas, and should be to us, too, is that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” A truly Catholic spirituality must have its beginning and its end in the Eucharist.
If St. Thomas’s Catholicism was made evident in the fact that he drew many things together, it was only because it was ultimately rooted in Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the One who draws all things to Himself. Christ the Lord was the source of St. Thomas’s unifying power and, most importantly, of his sanctity. It is said that one day St. Thomas was praying and a voice coming from the crucifix said, “You have written well of me, Thomas; what reward will you have?” to which he replied, “None other than you, Lord!” The person of Christ was the only reward Thomas Aquinas desired. If we follow him in that desire, we will one day be as holy as he was (if not as smart).
Tags » saints, Thomas Aquinas
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