Thomas Aquinas, OP (1225-1274)
Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-14
Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember today, personified what Jesus called the “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Aquinas was born in 1225 and died at just under 50 years old: a Dominican scholar, theologian, philosopher, and prolific author. He had a photographic memory and mind.[i] He would sit surrounded by four scribes and he would dictate one sentence to one scribe, the next sentence to the second scribe, and so forth. He spoke four times as fast as they could write. By the time he finished the fourth sentence, he would dictate the fifth sentence to the first scribe… and on he went. In 25 years, he wrote 50 folio volumes, about 50,000 pages, the equivalent of 500 short modern books with the help of his scribes. All of this was done with quill pens.
Thomas Aquinas looked back on Moses’ encounter with God as profoundly significant. In the Book of Exodus, we read of God’s sending Moses as an emissary to the Pharaoh. Moses asks God, “Whom shall I say is sending me?” God reveals to Moses God’s own identity: “I Am Who I Am.”[ii] Aquinas said, in that disclosure, we discover the reason for created life: God is Being, the Ultimate Reality from which everything else in creation exists. Aquinas said God’s essence is to exist; we and all other creation derive our existence from God. And so the whole of creation tells God’s story. Creation reflects God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s order, God’s meaning.
For Aquinas, God’s revelation through creation was not just in the past, nor is it just in the present. God is always more. God’s revelation is ongoing and continues into the future. We must keep our minds open to God’s ongoing revelation. There is always more. And because of this, Aquinas did not see any inconsistency or disharmony between reason and revelation. God will continue to enlighten our minds if we will only be attentive.[iii] God’s revelation, Aquinas said, “is not the denial of [reason], but the perfection of reason.” Pay attention. God always has more to reveal to us, and this will be in harmony with what God has already revealed. Pay attention to life. The greatness and the glory and the wonder of God’s essence is beyond description, because God is always more: more than we can describe, understand, and experience. God is always more.
Thomas Aquinas’ scholarly pursuits had begun at age five when he had asked a teacher, “What is God?” His teacher had no answer, and Aquinas spent the rest of his life attempting to discover the answer… “What is God?” Who could have guessed where God’s revelation would lead Thomas Aquinas in the end? A few months before he died, he had a revelation, a mystical experience of Jesus, a foretaste of heaven, and it so radically transcended the words of Aquinas’ trade. Aquinas knew he was to end his scholarly work. He stopped writing words.
Peter Kreeft, the Boston College Aquinas scholar, uses the analogy of a Zen Buddhist wisdom about words: “A finger is useful for pointing to the moon, but whoa to the fool who mistakes the finger for the moon.” Aquinas had met his maker. Aquinas stopped his intellectual work, stopped his trading on words, and gave himself over to the attraction of God’s glory. [iv] His life’s work, his Summa Theologica, would be left unfinished, which was an unanticipated but fitting conclusion to someone so committed to God’s revelation being ongoing. There would always be more, more than Aquinas could summarize. Aquinas said of himself in his latter days, “compared to what I have now seen, everything I have written looks to me like straw.” What had he seen? God. He experienced God.
You are no Thomas Aquinas. But you need not be. You are you. One of a kind. What is God’s revelation to you that is uncontestable and perhaps unexplainable? What have you come to know to be true in life: the life that fills you and the life that surrounds you? Taking inspiration from Thomas Aquinas, consider what God has revealed to you in life. Don’t deny your mind; don’t disparage your studies; don’t denigrate your rationality but claim it all at a deeper level. Don’t deify your mind. What have you come to know at the deepest level to be absolutely true about life and love, and the source of it all?
In the end Thomas Aquinas claimed his identity not as a scholar but as a child of God. At the end of his life, Aquinas said that “the soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.” Do you know the delight of a child tossing a ball into the air, Aquinas asks? That delight is what God experiences whenever God looks at you, Aquinas said. Thomas Aquinas’ revered intellect was, in the end, melded by love, loving knowledge.[v]
In the early centuries of Christian monasticism, this was called “putting your head into your heart.” Put your head into your heart and abide there. Reflect on what you know for sure, child of God that you are. What has God revealed to you about life and love – your life and the life that surrounds you – which may be inexplicable, but uncontestable? That is your life’s wisdom that is greater than gold.[vi]
Blessed Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember with thanksgiving.
- [i] Biographical detail by Peter Kreeft, A Summa of the Summa: Essential Passages of Aquinas (1990).
- [ii] Exodus 3:14.
- [iii] See Ephesians 1:15-23.
- [iv] From the SSJE Rule of Life: “The Call of the Society” (Chapter One). Referring to Jesus’ statement: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)
- [v] Inspiration from The Inner Eye of Love; Mysticism and Religion, by William Johnston (1978), p. 20.
- [vi] Proverbs 3:14-24, 8:11, 16:16.
In the summer of 1991 the members of the North American Congregation of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist made a pilgrimage to Great Britain to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of our Society. We began the pilgrimage in Oxford, where the Society was founded in 1866, and proceeded to Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland with a long monastic history. The boundary in Iona between heaven and earth is considered very thin. We spent a week on Iona in retreat. From there we returned to Oxford for a final week of conversations and services.
Wisdom 7:7-14; Matthew 13:47–52
Jesus said, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matthew 13:52
We remember today Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian theologian of the Middle Ages, born in 1225 to a noble Italian family; died at just under 50 years old a Dominican scholar, theologian, and philosopher; a prolific author; and, in the end, quite a simple child of God.
Sergius, Abbot of Holy Trinity, Moscow
We live in a messy world; a world of contradiction, paradox, confusion, disorder, and inconsistency. We seek protection against so much of what seems uncontrollable in the patterns of our minds. The future can seem frightening because of this imperfect world we live in. “Thus we search for predictability, explanation, and order to give ourselves some sense of peace and control.”1
Today is St. Bede’s day. Bede was given as a child oblate to his monastery in about 678 or so at the ripe age of seven. He led a quiet monastic life, devoting himself to praying the office, studying the scriptures and writing. Bede is best known as the author of “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” a history of the English Church and people up to the year 729.
I’ve been reading another English ecclesiastical history lately, the just-published “Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch. McCullough gives Bede a lot of credit for the existence of the English as a distinct nationality. Bede, in the early 8th century, was writing at a time when Britain was emerging from an incoherent condition of tribes and small kingdoms. By the 10th century England was a coherent unit with a single monarchy—and a distinct national identity. The ideology of a unified kingdom of England, according to McCullough, “was fuelled by the way in which Bede had depicted a single race called the English.” [McCullough p339] The way Bede told the story of the emerging English Church helped greatly to solidify the notion of a coherent English national identity. In the telling of things that were old, he helped create something new—bringing out treasures old and new as the parable puts it.
We remember today a monk, a scholar, an historian named Bede, the Venerable Bede, born around the year 670. He is best remembered for his monumental tome, the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” His own method of dating events from the time of the birth of Christ – the designation A.D., anno domini – came into general use because of the vast influence of his Historia ecclesiastica.