Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
The silhouette of St. Thomas Aquinas stands like a giant on the highest summit of human thought, casting such a wide and deep shadow over the surrounding landscape that all subsequent thinkers labor on the slopes in the shade below him. It is fair to say that Thomism, the thinking method and intellectual conclusions of St. Thomas, has been the Catholic Church’s standard theology since he lived in the 13th century.
St. Thomas understood that all thinking about God is done from inside original sin and within the parameters of human intellectual capacity. The uncreated, timeless, mysterious God, then, is by definition incomprehensible to creatures trapped in time, space, matter, sin, distraction, and confusion. God is outside of the universe, rather than being just one important ingredient in the recipe of reality. This essential “otherness” of God means that His presence is not completely accessible to the senses. It is not just a question of seeing farther, understanding more deeply, hearing more acutely, or feeling more intensely. Twenty senses instead of five would still not be enough to capture God because He transcends all other forms of being known to us. In the 1950’s, a Russian cosmonaut looked out over space from his orbit miles above the earth and declared “I have found no God.” He was looking for something that wasn’t there and answering a question that was poorly posed.
Sometimes God is described as the highest being in an immense hierarchy of beings. From this perspective, the tiniest specks of organic or inorganic life up and onward through plant and animal life, mankind, the planets and the solar system itself, are all beneath, and owe their creation to, the super being of God Himself. In this “ladder of existence” understanding, every being is a rung leading to higher and higher rungs at the top of which stands God.
St. Thomas clarified that this approach was inaccurate. God is not the highest of all beings but being itself. Every person at one time did not exist. Creation itself, including mankind, is created, meaning at some point it was not. But God cannot not be. For St. Thomas, God’s essential action is to exist. It is intrinsic to His nature as God. God, then, is not something in the air, but the air itself. He is not the biggest whale in the ocean. He is the water. This means that there is no strict need to provide scientific evidence for God because even asking the question presumes the reality all around us. In other words, science can explain the chemical composition of ink, but science has nothing to say about the meaning of words on a page. This does not mean science is undeveloped, but just that it has limits.
Thomism’s understanding of God as non contingent being itself which makes all dependent existence possible is intellectually sophisticated and also deeply attractive. This understanding of God meshes nicely with an appreciation for the natural beauty of the earth, love of art, and charity for our fellow man, and allows space for God to reveal himself more fully, and gratuitously, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.
St. Thomas’s encyclopedic knowledge and massive erudition existed harmoniously with a humble nature and a simple, traditional Catholic piety. He was a well balanced man and a dedicated Dominican priest. This synthesis of childlike wonder and deep inquiry marked his life. After having a mystical vision of Jesus Christ on the cross while praying after Mass one day, he abandoned any further writing. He died on his way to the Council of Lyon in 1274, not yet 50 years old. He is buried in Toulouse, France, retaining his status as the Church’s most eminent theologian.
St. Thomas, your life of the mind co-existed with a deep piety which understood God in all His complexity and simplicity. Your sophisticated writings defend the faith of those who have neither the time nor the gift for higher study. Help all those with the vocation to teach in the Church to follow your example of humble and faithful inquiry into the highest truths.
Reflection from Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ST. THOMAS was born of noble parents at Aquino in Italy, in 1226. At the age of nineteen he received the Dominican habit at Naples, where he was studying. Seized by his brothers on his way to Paris, he suffered a two years’ captivity in their castle of Rocca-Secca; but neither the caresses of his mother and sisters, nor the threats and stratagems of his brothers, could shake him in his vocation. While St. Thomas was in confinement at Rocca-Secca, his brothers endeavored to entrap him into sin, but the attempt only ended in the triumph of his purity. Snatching from the hearth a burning brand, the Saint drove from his chamber the wretched creature whom they had there concealed. Then marking a cross upon the wall, he knelt down to pray, and forthwith, being rapt in ecstasy, an angel girded him with a cord, in token of the gift of perpetual chastity which God had given him. The pain caused by the girdle was so sharp that St. Thomas uttered a piercing cry, which brought his guards into the room. But he never told this grace to any one save only to Father Raynald, his confessor, a little while before his death. Hence originated the Confraternity of the “Angelic Warfare,” for the preservation of the virtue of chastity. Having at length escaped, St. Thomas went to Cologne to study under Blessed Albert the Great, and after that to Paris, where for many years he taught philosophy and theology. The Church has ever venerated his numerous writings as a treasure-house of sacred doctrine; while in naming him the Angelic Doctor she has indicated that his science is more divine than human. The rarest gifts of intellect were combined in him with the tenderest piety. Prayer, he said, had taught him more than study. His singular devotion to the Blessed Sacrament shines forth in the Office and hymns for Corpus Christi, which he composed. To the words miraculously uttered by a crucifix at Naples, “Well hast thou written concerning Me, Thomas. What shall I give thee as a reward?” he replied, “Naught save Thyself, O Lord.” He died at Fossa-Nuova, 1274, on his way to the General Council of Lyons, to which Pope Gregory X. had summoned him.
Reflection.—The knowledge of God is for all, but hidden treasures are reserved for those who have ever followed the Lamb.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.