St Thomas Aquinas, painted by Carlo Crivelli in 1476 (in the National Gallery, London). Although he is often shown with a sun on his chest (a symbol of sacred learning), and a pen, in Crivelli ‘s painting he has a book instead. And he is holding a church with chipped masonry and plants growing out of the brickwork. But its spire has been repaired.
In the middle of the thirteenth century, an aristocratic southern Italian family had an ambitious plan for their son’s future. Thomas, born in 1225, was initially educated at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which had been founded by St. Benedict. It was clear to Thomas’ parents that their son was focused in a special way on God, so they intended to use their influence to have him made Abbot of Monte Cassino, a position, they thought, fitting for the son of so noble a family.
Before that could happen, Thomas needed to complete his studies. His father sent him to the University of Naples. It was there that he came across members of the new, dynamic and unconventional order known as the Dominicans or Order of Preachers. They inspired him greatly, and much to the disappointment of his parents, Thomas, joined them. He grew quickly in holiness and the knowledge of God, being nurtured by St Albert the Great who was one of his teachers. Eventually, Thomas became professor of Sacred Theology at the University of Paris at the same time as Bonaventure, who belonged to the Franciscan order.
Thomas died in 1274. He is recognised as a Doctor of the Church and as one of the most influential Christian teachers of all time, believing that all truth is God's, and that we should seek its integration. His teaching had a strong influence on the Counci of Trent. Known primarily for his philosophical writing in his multi volume “Summa”, Thomas also wrote commentaries on various books of the Bible. Yet in his time he was chiefly known as a man of prayer who deeply loved the Lord, and followed him. Indeed, he had famously written, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” It is said that even Thomas’ philosophical study was drenched with prayer, and that this enabled him to discern what was wheat and what was chaff in the ideas of his time, and then integrate the wheat into the Christian tradition. In particular, he showed how much of the thinking of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, could be beneficial in the presentation of Christian theology, although his approach had its opponents.
Thomas died in 1274 while en route to the Ecumenical Council of Lyons. We celebrate his feast today.
There is something more to be shared if we are to really grasp the kind of person Thomas Aquinas was. He had filled thousands of pages with words about God, significant words and arguments that would light the way for waves of enquirers down through the centuries. Yet, before his death, he entered into what is sometimes called “his remarkable silence.” This has caused speculation as to whether Thomas might have had a stroke. But most commentators believe that he had a vision of God’s glory and love which transcended even the very best of what Thomas could write about him. Bishop Robert Barron says:
“In Naples, on the feat of St Nicholas, December 6, 1273, Thomas was, according to his custom, celebrating Mass in the presence of his friend, Reginald. Something extraordinary happened during that Mass, for afterward Thomas broke the routine that had been his for the previous twenty years. According to one source, he ‘hung up his instruments of writing,’ refusing to work, to dictate, to write. When his socius encouraged him to continue, Thomas replied very simply that he could not. Afraid that his master had perhaps become mentally unbalanced, the younger man persisted until Thomas, with a mixture of impatience and resignation, finally replied, ‘Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me . . .’”
Here is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of St Thomas’ poem to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament: ADORO TE DEVOTE
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.
I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.
O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.
Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.
Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight. Amen.