Friday, February 1, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: St. Thomas Aquinas

Told you we were doing him this week.  

Catholic Credentials: Dominican Priest; one of the most brilliant theologians of all time; experienced a number of miracles; Doctor of the Church

Nerd Credentials: A voracious bookworm; philosophical genius; brought Aristotle into mainstream philosophy.

                  If I could work my will, no one would be permitted to claim atheism as the “position of reason” or whatever unless they first read Thomas Aquinas (Aquinas would eat Richard Dawkins alive!).  
                  Thomas was born into prosperity: his father was the Count of Aquino in Italy, and he counted the Holy Roman Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, along with the kings of Aragon, Castile, and France among his relatives. The proverbial silver spoon was firmly in his mouth from the moment he was born. The sky was the limit. The world was at his feet. The clich├ęs wrote themselves.
                  At the age of five, Thomas was sent to study with the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino (as was the custom of the time). He quickly showed himself both a diligent student and an unusually devout child at prayer, though he troubled his teachers by frequently asking questions like “what is God?”
                  When he was about ten years old, he was sent (at the recommendation of the monks) to the University of Naples, where he studied the liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, mathematics, geometry, and astronomy), advancing so quickly that before long he was out-performing his own instructors, let alone his fellow students (it was presumably during this time that the famous incident with the kind-hearted would-be-tutor occurred).
Fabulously rich, connected with the highest levels of power, and crushingly brilliant, Thomas of Aquino had his pick of career; he could have been anything at all from major domo to general to Pope.
                  That’s probably why his family was so horrified when he announced that he wanted to be a beggar.
                   (I can imagine the conversation: “But you said I could be anything I wanted! “Let me rephrase: you can be anything but that.”)
                  These days rebellious college kids hook up, occupy Wall Street, or just sit back and let the drugs do their work (or, more likely, a combination of all three). Thomas, a rebellious youth of the 13th century, joined the Order of St. Dominic. His mother was cautiously supportive, but his father and brothers, who had expected him to join the family business (political and military intrigue), were furious. Two of his brothers captured him and brought him home, where he was locked up for almost two years while his family tried everything they could think of to change his mind, or to at least get him to join a more prestigious (and wealthy) order, like the Benedictines; then at least he could prove useful to them.
                  Thinking they might be able to tempt him away from the vow of Chastity, his brothers went out and found the most attractive prostitute they could, had her done up to the nines, and sent her in to straighten Thomas out. A few seconds later, she came running out and fled the castle; Thomas had taken one look at her, seized a burning log from the fire, and chased her out with it (sorry, can’t resist: insert ‘smoking hot’ joke here). This done, he knelt and prayed that God would grant him the gift of chastity. That night, as he slept, he had a vision of two angels who girt him about with a white cord, and from that moment on he never had the slightest temptation to lust.
                  During his captivity, his faithful sister managed to smuggle in a few books for him to read, most notably the two books that would be most important to his life’s work: the Bible and Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle, you see, had been somewhat neglected during the rise of Christianity. Perhaps it was because he had some skepticism about the ability of man to commune with the divine, or perhaps simply because his master, Plato, was a lot more popular. In any case, Aristotle slipped into obscurity in the Middle Ages, before being discovered and brought back by the Crusaders (the Arab world had maintained much better knowledge of his work and had translated him into Arabic). In Europe, Aristotle was met with some hostility among theologians, who still preferred dear old Plato for their pre-Christian metaphysical needs. Thomas, however, appreciated the younger Greek’s care, his melding of the physical and concrete with the spiritual and intellectual, and his broad range of subject matter. Aristotle would be one of the most important influences on Thomas’s own philosophy, to the point that Thomas would always refer to him simply as ‘The Philosopher.’
                  Finally, his family gave in and let him go. Thomas immediately took his vows and the Order, seeing how brilliant he was, sent him to study with the greatest mind of the day: Albert the Great. Thomas, whose taciturn nature had by now earned him the nickname “the Dumb Ox,” quickly became Albert’s favorite student. Albert, after hearing one of Thomas’s dissertations, declared “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world!”
                  When Albert was transferred to Paris, Thomas went with him to continue his studies and to teach under him as Bachelor (professor-in-training, basically). After they returned to Cologne, Thomas was ordained a priest. Not long after he was sent to Paris again to study and to teach at the university there (one of the finest of the Medieval World). One of his fellow students was a Franciscan brother named Bonaventure, with whom he was ready to go up for his Doctorate in Theology. When William of St. Amour (a Professor of Theology at the university) wrote an attack on the friars called “The Perils of the Last Times,” Thomas and Bonaventure responded with a pair of apologies defending their orders, which were successful enough that the two young men were summoned to Rome for a dispute with William. The result was that William was censored by the Pope and Thomas and Bonaventure became life-long friends. A year later, they went up for their doctorates together, both passed, and got into a friendly competition regarding who should receive his first (they each wanted the other to have the honor. Appropriately enough, history doesn’t record who lost).
                  By this time, Thomas’s brilliance was reputed to exceed even his fabled master, and he settled into a pretty firm pattern of praying, preaching, teaching, writing, and travelling. He himself wanted nothing more than to be a poor Dominican and prayer, beg, and study, but his mind was in high demand. He taught, preached, and debated everywhere from London to Rome. He engaged in debates with everyone from his fellow Dominicans to the heretical Manicees to the Muslim World (in his brilliant Summa Contra Gentiles). He even was appointed Archbishop of Naples by Pope Clement IV, which he begged (and was allowed) to be excused from so he could continue teaching. He wrote, either by pen or dictation, more than sixty works over the course of his less than fifty years of life. Such was the presence and focus of his mind that he could dictate separate works to several secretaries at once.
                  Most of his works were of philosophy; dense, complex, mind-numbing philosophy laid out carefully in question-and-answer format covering almost every possible concern and objection (and quite a few that are quite unimaginable to any but the most finicky of scholars). His unfinished masterpiece, of course, is the Summa Theologica; his attempt to explain and account for every single element of the Catholic Faith. Had he written nothing else, this single work would have secured his place as one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of all time (indeed, most people only know of him from this one work).
                  On the other hand, though, he also showed on more than one occasion that he was a rare and gifted poet; something that no one who’s only read his plodding, nit-picking philosophy would imagine. It almost doesn’t seem fair that the same man not only wrote some of the most brilliant philosophical discourse, but also some of the most beautiful hymns ever written. His twin masterpieces are O Salutaris Hostia (Oh, Saving Host) and its companion piece, Tantum Ergo (which doesn’t really translate into English, but is sometimes titled “Down in Adoration Falling”), which are used at the beginning and end of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. His intricate, moving Latin verses defy translation, both crafting beautiful imagery and intricate theology (e.g. the line “Faith supplies where the senses fail”).
                  It’s no surprise that the holy Thomas, his mind permanently fixed on God, frequently experienced visions and states of ecstasy. On one occasion, after he had written a treatise on the Eucharist, he laid on the altar and prayed that God would accept it. His brethren, who were watching, say him enter a trance and be lifted off the ground (and considering the fact that Thomas was a tall, enormously rotund man, that’s saying something), and Thomas heard a voice from the crucifix saying “Thou has written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas answered immediately “Nihil nisi te;” “Nothing but yourself.”
                  The greatest mind in Christendom laid down his pen for the last time on Dec. 6th, 1273. Oh, he hadn’t died; he a couple months left on Earth at that point. Rather, he had a vision. During Mass, he fell into ecstasy for several minutes. Then, when he emerged, he vowed never to write again. “Such secrets have been revealed to me,” he confided to his friend, Fr. Reginald of Piperno, “That compared to them, all I have written is as straw.”
                  Having received such a vision, Thomas knew his life was drawing to an end and dedicated himself even more fervently to prayer. Despite his resolution to end his days in quiet obscurity, he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to join a general council at Lyons in May 1274, together with his good friend, Bonaventure (by now minister general of the Friars Minor). Obediently, he set out on what was to be his last journey. He never arrived. He collapsed on the road not far outside of Naples, and was rushed to a Cistercian monastery, where, professing his faith with every eloquence and fervor his masterful tongue could compose, he died on March 7th, 1274.  Fifty years later, he was canonized by John XXII, and in 1567 Pope St. Pius V proclaimed him a Doctor of the Universal Church.
                  The Angelic Doctor (as he was called) reminds us that all truth comes from God: nothing that reason shows to be true can contradict what God has revealed, if we look closely enough. Therefore, we should never be afraid to examine, to ask questions, to look as hard as we can at any problem that comes our way. In his championing of Aristotle, meanwhile, he reminds us that truth is where you find it; whether from a pagan, a heretic, or a Catholic.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

Vive Christus Rex!  

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