28 January: The Feast of Thomas Aquinas

One of my favorite images in the Vatican Museums, often overlooked by tourists rushing to see the Sistine Chapel, is a portrait by Ludwig Seitz in the ceiling of the Galleria dei Candelabri, shown below. Three angels bear the works of Thomas Aquinas: one can see the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Summa Theologica, and various biblical commentaries (the book on the right is labeled commentaria in sacram Scripturam-– not the title of a singular work of Thomas but a representation of all his exegetical projects). Allegorical personifications of various heresies reel in awestruck terror as the heavenly messengers brandish the works of Aquinas. A pagan is almost made blind at the sight of the Contra Gentiles while a Saracen can barely look at it; representatives of the Jews likewise cower at the scriptural commentaries, while a Reformed Christian (possibly resembling Jan Hus?) is confounded by the Summa Theologica. Offensive for some and amusing for others (like me), it’s a fanciful depiction, characteristic of the Catholic triumphalism of the late 19th century in which this work was produced.

While one may not agree with the blunt, adversarial nature of Seitz’ work, it does point to an important aspect of the life of Thomas. Brilliant, prolific, industrious, and pious, Thomas is a monumental figure not only in theology, not only for the Church, but in the intellectual history of Western civilization. As the picture above implies, Thomas set out to let shine the majesty of God to Christian and non-Christian alike, and his contributions to philosophy and ethics still resonate in the modern world. For this reason the Church names him a Doctor of the Church, with the appellative Angelicus; with unparalleled clarity of mind and expression, it seems as he perceived the divine as only angels know it.

Thomas is first and foremost known to the secular world as a theologian and philosopher, but most importantly to Catholics, he is known as a Saint. Unlike so many professional theologians today, he was not a mere academic whose intellectual pursuits push personal piety to the margins of daily life. Instead, like so many Christian mystics, Thomas’ life boasts of a true fama sanctitatis. He is very much like a medieval version of St. Paul: uncompromising in his faith, eloquent in his writing and preaching, and intensely devoted to Christ, the Church, and the Sacraments. Once he was convinced of a vocation in the Order of Preachers, he endured over a year of imprisonment and sinister temptation at the hands of his own family, who willed for him to become Abbot of Montecassino rather than a poor Dominican Friar. In the end, his family could not shake his iron-clad will, and he entered the Dominican convent in Naples. After studies in Naples (where he discovered Aristotle) and Paris (where he studied under Albert the Great), Thomas was thrust into the limelight of the ecclesiastical world for his commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. In time, his astute intelligence earned him an appointment as the Theologian of the Papal Household, a position first held by St. Dominic, and which to this day is still held by a distinguished theologian from the Order of Preachers.

After hearing of the Miracle of Bolsena, Pope Urban IV ordered the Feast of Corpus Christi to be instituted for the entire Latin Rite and commissioned Thomas to compose a new liturgical Office for this feast. This includes the texts and hymns for all canonical hours of the day as well as the propers for the Mass of the feast. Through this commission, Thomas has bequeathed the Church with beautiful liturgical hymns which should be dear to every Catholic heart: Adoro te devote, Lauda sion Salvatorem, Sacris sollemnis, Verbum supernum prodiens, and, of course, the most famous Pange lingua gloriosi. In contrast to the lengthy technical expositions which characterize the majority of his opera omnia, these hymns offer us in their terse, rhythmic, rhyming lines a splendid poetic synthesis of his intense piety and devotion to the Eucharistic Lord, the source of all his philosophical and theological inspiration.

His fervor and zeal for the Catholic religion was only matched by his deep, personal humility. Throughout his life, he consistently and obstinately refused any ecclesiastical dignity. Even when Pope Clement IV offered to make him Archbishop of Naples, he respectfully declined. Like Francis of Assisi, Thomas relinquished his nobility for a life of priestly poverty in order to better lead a clerical life without the trappings of high office. And like Francis, he too received ecstatic visions of the glory of God throughout his life, and near the end, he experienced a vision so great that he halted work on the Summa Theologica. As witnessed by Dominic of Caserta and retold by his friend and secretary, Reginald of Piperno, Thomas was enraptured a particularly intense ecstasy while celebrating Mass in the Dominican convent at Naples, and it appeared as if the Lord himself was speaking to the friar through the altar crucifix. Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma: quam mercedem accipies? “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas. What remuneration wilst thou have?” And Thomas, with the same meekness which illuminated his saintly life, famously replied, non aliam nisi Teipsum, Domine— “Nothing other than yourself, O Lord”. After having received this vision, when Reginald begged Thomas to continue work on the Summa, he refused, saying, omnia quae scripsi ego mihi videtur ut palea— “Everything I have written seems like chaff to me”. In his mystical experience, he realized the inadequacy of human words to contain the vast and overwhelming mystery of God, and here too he saw the coming end of his earthly life.

On the way to the Council of Lyon, at which Pope Gregory X requested Thomas’ assistance in the endeavor to reunify the Greek and Latin churches, Thomas struck his head on a fallen branch and fell near Terracina; he would not reach the Council. He was sent to convalesce, first at Maienza, then to Fossa Nuova’s Cistercian monastery. Even in the throes of grave illness, Thomas’ humility shone through with unfailing vigor. When monks carried the fuel for Thomas’ fireplace to his room, the ailing theologian exclaimed, “Wherefore this honor that the servants of God should bring my firewood!” He indulged the request of the Cistercians by dictating one last commentary on the Song of Songs. Reaching, however, the verse “Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field” (7:12), he stopped and dictated no more. And with Last Rites having been administered, he pronounced a solemn act of faith before closing his eyes forever. On 7 March 1274, Thomas passed into eternity; at that moment, it is said, Thomas’ old master Albert the Great tearfully declared to those around him at Cologne, Frater Thomas de Aquino, lux Ecclesiae, hodie mortus est— “Brother Thomas Aquinas, the light of the Church, has died today”.

Whether Manicheans, Muslims, Jews, or Orthodox Christians, Thomas always supplied the most formidable answers to the adversaries of his faith. Today, perhaps not all will shudder hysterically at the sight of his works as in the image above (these days, it seems only students of theology react in that manner), but all who wish to rigorously engage or dispute the truth of Catholic doctrine must at some point tackle the works of Thomas Aquinas. For the curious skeptic as well as for the theologian, Thomas’ opera omnia is a valuable, exhaustive resource whose importance to the understanding of Catholicism cannot be underestimated.

Reading his entire works is certainly not for the faint of heart, and may even be superfluous and unnecessary for the common lay Catholic who already gives religious assent to the doctrines of the Church. A layperson of simple but pious faith need not read Thomas’ various commentaries to strengthen his or her Christian life. If anyone were to ask me which passage from any of Aquinas’ texts best encapsulates the mind of the Angelic Doctor, I would not point him or her to the Contra Gentiles, nor to the Summa, nor to Contra errores Graecorum, nor to the commentaries super sententiis. I would instead refer to one of the simple, elegant, time-honored hymns which he composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi: the hymn Adoro te devote perfectly expresses Thomas’ sincere and fervent devotion to the Eucharistic Christ, the source and summit of all his endeavors. Let the Summa and the commentaries be consumed ut palea, as chaff, but let the hymns remain– for through them, Thomas expresses that simple, obedient, childlike faith that all Christians must possess, be he a prince, a priest, or a pauper. With Thomas, may the whole Church take these words to heart and sing them unto God:

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur.
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius
Nil hoc Verbo veritatis verius.

Vision, touch, and taste fail to discern Thee,
But only through hearing Thee is everything firmly believed.
I believe whatever the Son of God hath said
There is nothing more true than this Word of truth. (my translation)

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