Everyday Unsung Heroes | Thomas Aquinas
Though he lived some nine centuries ago, and though his philosophy is more dense than cathedral bricks, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) can teach us how to be students, how to live with wonder at God’s world and His truth wherever it is found. Born into a wealthy family with lofty ambitions for their son, the young Thomas was attracted instead to the Dominican order of monks devoted to study and teaching. To change his mind, his brothers locked him in the family castle for the better part of a year, during which Tom memorized the entire Bible and four philosophy textbooks.
Nicknamed “the dumb ox” as a young student, due to his reserved manner and portly frame, St Thomas was not afraid of facing the world, even things considered controversial to the faith, and finding God at work even there.
When most of the voices of the Church were balking at the recently discovered writings of the pagan philosopher, Aristotle, ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater because it seemed to disagree with certain church doctrines, St Thomas thoroughly examined the whole thing, writing painstaking, line by line commentaries on Aristotle’s works.
He found that, on many points, Aristotle’s philosophy did not contradict Church doctrine, but could even be used to help espouse it! Indeed, he relied heavily on Aristotle’s basic understanding of how the universe operates upon which he then built a distinctly Christian philosophy.
And the philosophy he built over the years was indeed a grand cathedral, intricately crafted, solidly built, and seeming to encompass the world.
Thomas wrote tomes not only on theology, philosophy, and metaphysics, but on psychology (in the more ancient sense of “philosophy of the soul”) and on ethics and natural law as they flowed from his understanding of the universe as morally intelligible.
Take his massive Summa Theologica for example. Written as an introductory textbook for theology students, this beast is so thorough and so large that it could easily knock out any seminary student I know. He is also famous for writing “the five ways” in which the existence of God can be perceived by the rational intellect.
Like a cathedral, the point of all this writing and philosophizing was to glorify God. All of St. Thomas; work was guided by a life of contemplation, prayer, and worship. One of the many writings Aquinas left for us is his “student’s prayer,” which he supposedly prayed before starting any writing or study:
Ineffable Creator… you are proclaimed the true font of light and wisdom and the true origin raised high beyond all things.
Pour Forth a ray of your brightness into the darkened places of my mind. Disperse from my soul the twofold ignorance into which I was born: sin and ignorance.
…May you guide the beginning of my work direct its progress, And bring it to completion.
For Aquinas, the end of all philosophy, and indeed of man as a rational animal, was man was made to eventually, in the light of heaven, see God. As Gilson puts it, “since man is an intelligent being in an intelligible universe, everything proceeds as though the reason for the existence of both [is] to make possible the cognition of God by some intellects.”
For Aquinas, God is the source and sustainer of all being, both at the beginning of time and in every moment. And this universe He created is ordered, hierarchical, and intelligible. In contrast to the nominalism and relativism of our age, where any meaning is “culturally-constructed,” Aquinas asserts that you can get an ought from an is, that the universe is woven with meaning, and we are made in such a way that we can perceive it.
And, though we may be tempted by the abundance and thoroughness of Aquinas’ writings, to think that God and the universe can be exhaustively catalogued and understood by man, that is not at all the spirit with which St Thomas wrote. Despite, the grand cathedral of the mind he constructed over a lifetime, St Thomas held that God was always more real and far greater—that we are never able exhaust or fully grasp his essence in this life. Indeed, near the end of his life, Aquinas experienced a mystical vision while saying mass. Compared to what he had seen, all of his writings seemed “like straw.” Unable to continue working, he left the Summa Theologica, his grand oeuvre, unfinished.
Aquinas was a soul blown open wide by wonder at the reality of God and the world He has made and woven with meaning.