Feast of St Thomas
St Thomas Aquinas is known above all for his prodigious theological output, especially his masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, but we should never dismiss him as a ‘dry academic’… He was born into an aristocratic family, whose members were ‘movers and shakers’ in the upheavals of his time. His father was related to the Emperor, and his older brothers served in the Imperial army. Little Thomas, however, was bound for a different career: he was sent to the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino at the age of five, probably with the intention that he would become abbot, and add ecclesiastical weight to the power of his family. This plan fell apart when the monastery came under military occupation, and Thomas, now aged about 15, was sent to the new university in Naples. That university was awash with new ideas, thanks to translations of Arabic works in science and philosophy, and it seems that Thomas was first introduced to the philosopher Aristotle here, by a certain Peter of Ireland! Here too, Thomas got to know a motley crew of begging, praying, studying preachers: the Dominicans.
- Thomas joined the Dominicans in Naples, and persevered in his vocation despite much family opposition (he was kidnapped and imprisoned by his brothers for some time). He studied theology in Paris, then the intellectual headquarters of Christendom, and met a wonderful teacher there: St Albert the Great. During his studies, he would have studied all of the books of the Bible, great commentaries on Scripture, and philosophical works, especially those of Aristotle.
From the time he ‘qualified’ as a Master of Theology, he preached, taught and published at a ferocious rate until his death. He produced about 10 million words in all, including biblical commentaries, philosophical works (like the ‘De Veritate’), and his (unfinished) masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, a comprehensive summary of major theological questions, aimed at beginner theologians. His works have remained central to Western thought ever since, and he is widely recognised as the finest mind of the Middle Ages.
With St Thomas, we are certainly dealing with a thinking saint, one who served others not through charitable works or by prayer alone, but by means of his capacious mind. Yet when we consider the enormity of his achievement we realise that he was no mere professor. His dedication to his work, and the systematic, thought-out nature of his publications force us to ask what motivated him, and what was the uniting principle of his thought? The answer is one and the same: knowledge of God in Christ. Although St Thomas reveals little of his prayer life in his academic works, we know that he was deeply devoted to the Mass, and that he would pray often before the tabernacle and before the Cross. Prayer was the engine that powered the chug-chug-chug of his theological reasoning. Amazement at the reality of God fuelled his questioning (he himself said that ‘wonder is the beginning of wisdom [and] the road to the search for truth’), and the clarity of his answers was demanded by intellectual charity (he wrote the Summa because he felt sorry for students who had to struggle through disorganised textbooks).
In St Thomas, then, we see a model for Christian thinkers. The Christian mind should be rigorous, careful, relentless, but above all, it should be a mind shaped by prayer, a mind in love.
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”