Sunday, January 28, 2007

The (Humble) Greatness of Aquinas

Someday the bellowing of this "dumb ox"
will be heard around the world.
(Saint Albert the Great)

I have missed blogging about (as "FIT"-faithful fans have dutifully reminded me) some GREAT saints this week—including Francis de Sales, Timothy and Titus, and even Paul (well, Paul does have two feast days, so I can still catch him in June!). While I plead the busy excuse, being occupied with family, two jobs, and the new Champions of Faith book, I know that if I was as diligent a writer as my patron saint, Thomas, I would have had time for these activities—plus the saint blogs, commentaries on the day's Gospel, and what's going on in Notre Dame sports (they beat Villanova but suspended McAlarney!) as well.

Indeed Thomas Aquinas, thought by many Christian and non-Christian scholars to be the most intelligent man whoever lived, produced enough writing to cover three full lifetimes despite his death at the age of forty-nine. Born in the famous Rocca Secca Castle in the small town of Aquino, Italy, to a family of royalty, the precocious Thomas was sent to study with the Benedictines at the age of five. He returned home briefly at the age of thirteen, but his busy political parents shipped Aquinas off again, this time to the University of Naples which was run by a new order, started by a Rosary-saying saint named Dominic.

Naples was then at the intersection of the Christian and Arabic world, and (crucial to Thomas' development) was the rare university where Jewish, Islamic, and Christian scholars worked together in harmony. Thus, in his five years there, Aquinas studied Aristotle along with Catholic theologians like Augustine. But when Thomas declared his desire to join the Dominicans, his parents (who figured if their studious son HAD to become a religious instead of a king should at least join the politically influential Benedictines, not some fledgling Mendicant Order) refused to comply, instead "kidnapping" Thomas and "imprisoning" him in one of their castles. And it was here that one of the two defining moments of Thomas' career would occur.

Attempting to seduce Thomas away from the life of priestly celibacy, family members sent a courtesan into his room to woo him. But when the young woman (by all accounts a knockout!) began to strip, Thomas instead grabbed a poker, heated it thoroughly in the fireplace, and, brandishing the iron, chased the startled would-be starlet from his room. Afterwards, his parents relented, and Thomas joined the order and went to the University of Paris to begin studying under Saint Albert the Great.

Between 1245 and 1273 (when the second defining moment of his life occurred), Thomas wrote the works which would earn him the title of "Angelic Doctor," (by Pope St. Pius V) and which would lead many to consider him the greatest theologian of all time. On the other hand, during his lifetime, his works which included everything from a lengthy scholarly defense of the faith against both pagans and heretics (Summa contra Gentiles) to sublime hymns on the Eucharist (Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium) were often jealously challenged as William of Saint Amour went as far as to call him the Antichrist! But through both the acclaim (besides being the preeminent professor at the University of Paris, and later Naples, Thomas was the frequent guest of King Louis IX who with Thomas' help, also became a saint himself) and defaming, Thomas remained his quiet, humble "dumb ox" self.

For despite the greatness of his voluminous writing (Thomas was said to often be dictating three or four different books at a time), the defining moment of the prolific and portly (apparently a semi-circle was carved out of his favorite work table to accommodate his girth) priest came when he celebrated a Mass shortly before his death. No stranger to divine ecstasies, Thomas experienced a vision of heaven that was so profound that he ceased writing his greatest work of all, the Summa theologica, saying only that, "Compared to what I have seen, all I have written is so much straw." Thomas was summoned by Pope Gregory X to take part in the Council of Lyons (called to reunite the Orthodox and Roman churches), but fell ill along the way, and died in a Cistercian monastery March 7, 1274, as the monks (per Thomas' request) read him the "Song of Songs."

Thomas, besides being the preeminent Doctor of the Church, is also the patron saint of students and universities and Aquinas' education, which included courses taught by famous non-Christian scholars but overseen by saints (indeed Saint Albert outlived his famous pupil by seven years and had the dubious task of defending Thomas' works against Catholic scholars who claimed Aquinas' writings were too much influenced by Aristotle) is the type that influential international Catholic universities (yes, that includes Notre Dame) must strive to provide.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

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