Here, too, Aquinas excelled. His verbal reserve earned him the nickname “the mute ox,” and when he did speak, he did so in unpretentious, everyday language (his examples always came from mundane things like rocks, fires, and the “whiteness” of his Dominican habit-inhabiting brethren). Our straightforward friar would never have called himself “abdominous,” just fat. That lack of pretension explains why we meet so little of such a big man whenever we pick up one of his works. Friar Thomas didn’t write about himself; he wrote about God, and he always took the shortest route to get there (why else would a brilliant man in line to become the abbot of one of the most famous monasteries in Europe leave to join a band of beggars?).
Yves Congar once compared St. Thomas’s writings to a monstrance (the big golden thingamajig that holds Jesus during Eucharistic adoration—the word comes from the Latinmonstrare and basically means “a pointer-outer”). But we can go one step further. St. Thomas himself was a monstrance. Everything he did, everything he said, everything he wrote always pointed to Jesus. Despite a capacious midsection that may have demanded table-cutting, St. Thomas never got in the way. He was a clear glass people saw through. What they really saw was Jesus.
I’ve read a just few excerpts of the Summa Theologica in college, so my understanding of this saint has mostly come from three other sources, all of which I recommend:
- Chatty Dominicans – I’ve never tried to time the average interval between utterances of “Well, St. Thomas says….” when I visit the Dominican House of Studies in DC, but I’m sure it’s never very long. And because these friars are steeped in the Summa, they’re wonderful about answering questions and exploring weird edge cases.
G.K. Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox: Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s written with Chesterton’s usual brio, but pitched to non-Christian readers, too:
It will not be possible to conceal much longer from anybody the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas was one of the great liberators of the human intellect. The sectarians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were essentially obscurantists, and they guarded an obscurantist legend that the Schoolman was an obscurantist. This was wearing thin even in the nineteenth century; it will be impossible in the twentieth. It has nothing to do with the truth of their theology or his; but only with the truth of historical proportion, which begins to reappear as quarrels begin to die down. Simply as one of the facts that bulk big in history, it is true to say that Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it towards experimental science, who insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul and that the reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies.
- Edward Feser’s Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide): This is an excellent, short introduction to the meat of Aquinas’s philosophy, how he differed from preceding thinkers, and how he influenced later ones. Feser has a genius for explanation and this book has none of the snide asides of The Last Superstition.
Of course, for the briefest, most musical introduction, you want “On The Question Of Whether Theological Disputations May Be Set To Music” from the Dungeons and Discourse musical Fermat’s Last Stand.
The lyrics include:
It isn’t just tautology
It edifies your being like
A spiritual technology
You attack it, you critique it
But you secretly still seek it
God and goodness are the ends
To which your very nature tends
It’s not just my opinion
It’s a fact teleological
From some of reason, some of faith
And summa theologica
And with that, I’m off to Mass. If you’re going today, you might want to bring this post-communion prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas with you, or to print out a copy to put in your pocket for this Sunday.
I thank you, holy Lord, almighty Father, eternal God, who deigned to feast me, sinful and unworthy servant, with the precious body and blood of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, not for any merit of mine, but only because of your merciful goodness. And I pray that this Holy Communion, far from condemning me to punishment, may bring about my pardon and salvation, encompassing me with the armor of faith and the shield of a good will. By it let my vices be done away, all lustful desires extinguished. May it advance me in charity, patience, humility, obedience, and every other virtue. Let it be strong defense against the wiles of all my enemies, visible and invisible, allaying for me every disturbance of flesh and spirit, binding me firmly to you, the one true God, and bringing my last hour to a happy close. I pray, too, that it may be your pleasure to call my sinful self one day to that banquet, wonderful past all telling, where you, with your Son and the Holy Spirit, feast your saints with the vision of yourself, who are true light, the fulfillment of all desires, the joy that knows no ending, gladness unalloyed, and perfect bliss: through the same Christ our Lord.