Thomas Aquinas spent a lot of his early life in castles. The kinds of castles that wealthy, powerful Italian families constructed as a defense in the interminable skirmishes between city-states. Big, stone buildings, often at the tops of hills.
As a younger son, his family intended for him to follow his uncle’s footsteps to a monastery and as an abbott, no less. Monte Cassino, the old, imposing Benedictine monastery heavy with hundreds of years of tradition, wealth, and influence was the intention.
But Thomas had different ideas. He wanted to join a little upstart order founded only a handful of years before. The Dominicans were no place for their precious son, so his family arranged for his brothers to kidnap him on the way to join up and bring him home where he was imprisoned in family castles for another year. More castles, more fortresses.
Of course, Thomas would go on to be noted as a singularly gifted doctor of the Church, perhaps next to St. Augustine the main architect of ecclesiastical doctrine in the West. Doctrine. It’s a heavy sounding word. Like the stones of those castles he spent so much time in. Doctrine. And his writing can often seem like one stone stacked firmly on another. The structure of his Summa Theologica, with Questions like “Whether the Eucharist is the greatest of the Sacraments” followed by objections, his own response, then orderly responses to each objection. They stack and build with precision.
But if castles feel like prisons, like they certainly must have for Thomas at times, doctrine may come across as stifling, rigid, and cold. And some overly-wrought and heavy-handed doctrine that seeks to codify, calcify, and contain something as majestic and mysterious as the living God, incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth, anointed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
But the opposite extreme of rejecting doctrine, and espousing whatever seems to work in the given moment, a transient, rootless wandering through the fog of human whim is a dangerous and life-denying wasteland. It struggles to build up the individual human spirit in part because it is so individualistic. Because, as we have learned, the life of the Trinity is essentially communal in nature.
Somewhere between stony prison walls, and barren wasteland, there is a garden trellis. Sturdy enough to bear the weight of a plant, and withstand wind and weather, but spacious enough for spiraling tendrils to grasp and wrap, and anchor themselves. Doctrine like this can uplift the soul to greater heights, lifting it from the base, immanent frame to give new perspective and a closer glimpse of the holy.
Thomas Aquinas was not merely a brain trying to work out its salvation. He was man of prayer and ecstatic, mystic experiences. In one, Christ spoke to him from an icon of the crucifixion saying, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas responded, “Nothing but you, Lord.” And he saw something then, which he never spoke nor wrote of but a short time later, after another vision, he would abandon the completion of his Summa saying “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.”
Counting all things as rubbish compared with the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ is perhaps the greatest treasure and goal of our faith. Perhaps Thomas reached it not in spite of his learning but aided by it. May we also nurture the good seed planted in us with a trellis of sound doctrine that we might be lifted to the presence of Christ and dwell in union with God forever. Amen.
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