Monday, November 25, 2013

Ten Christians Who Changed My Spiritual Life, Pt. 2: St. Thomas Aquinas

The story is well-known - in his latter years, the greatest Catholic theologian of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas, had a vision, something so profound that it caused him to say that all he had written was straw compared with what he had seen.  When Jesus asked him what he would have as a reward for his work, St. Thomas of course replied, "Only Thee, Oh Lord."  I will return to this in a moment.

St. Thomas' life's work was that of one of the most profound Christian thinkers of all time - he was not only a prayerful friar, but a brilliant philosopher, an adept synthesizer of all the knowledge that had come before him, and an unmatched theologian.  His written works comprise a massive library of theological and spiritual commentaries, writings and treatises.  To this day, despite the widespread fawning over Hans Urs von Balthasar, he remains the preeminent Catholic theologian. 

Now, in my beginning years of conversion to the Catholic Church, encountering Aquinas was akin to encountering a man with all the answers.  Never before had I seen someone so plainly and so brilliantly write on all things related to God and man, and the Summa Theologica became my go-to book when it came to any questions I had on theology at all.  I was  and still am astounded at the sheer breadth of this saint's vast knowledge - from the greatest of the pagan philosophers such as Aristotle and Plotinus, to the heavyweight theologians of Islam (Avicenna, Averroes) and Judaism (Maimonides, Avicebron).  Masterfully, Aquinas managed to synthesize all of these founts of knowledge into what is often called a soaring gothic cathedral of thought. 

For a newcomer to philosophy and theology, I was blown away by the incredible intellect of this saint, how effortlessly he seemed to solve every theological and philosophical quandary as though it were as simple as someone asking what 2 + 2 equalled.  My admiration of this saint and his writings became so intense that I forgot about the heart, so to speak.  When my priest told me to read St. Therese of Lisieux, it was a painful exercise - I wanted knowledge, not syrupy devotional writing (as I saw it then).  I became quite bloated with a certain kind of intellectual pridefulness, often venting my frustration at the almost elementary nature of my RCIA classes.  In effect, my encountering Aquinas at such a young spiritual age in my conversion process may not have been the best thing.

Now, I reflect often not on his theological writings, but his actual life and mystical experiences, his profound humility and love of God.  Interestingly, it is his mystical vision of Christ near the end of his life that has caught my attention more than any other event.  After writing many treatises and summas on theology, after seemingly solving every philosophical issue of his time and defending the Church against the attacks of Averroism and Nominalism, he suddenly spoke to the effect that it was all straw after seeing what he had seen. 

My interpretation of the event is this: it encapsulates the difference between what "theologian" means in the West, and what it means in the East.  Consider St. Symeon the New Theologian (in the East, one of only three saints called as such), whose mystical visions of Christ shaped his entire life and writing, who truly viewed all as transient and desired God alone.  To me, this means that the kind of theology that Aquinas is known for can only take one so far - while it is useful for explaining and defending the faith, it is devoid of the "heart" that characterizes such mystical theologians as St. Symeon the New Theologian in the East or St. Therese of Lisieux in the West.  Aquinas himself, I think, realized this when he received the vision of Christ, and immediately ceased writing.

Regardless, St. Thomas has been a beloved companion to have on my own earthly pilgrimage.  Every year, I celebrate his feast day by eating chicken drumsticks, having a big pint of stout, and reading the Summa Theologica.  He has taught me how to explain the faith to those who do not believe, that faith can be reasonable, and that all theology should be written in a state of deep love of God and of profound prayer.


  1. I find it interesting that my favorite author, GK Chesterton, chose to write biographies (they are not very biographical, actually) of only two saints: St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas.

    These two characters are about as different as can be outwardly, and yet Chesterton saw in them two sides of the same mystical coin.

    The scholastics, including St. Thomas, are often criticized for being overly intellectual. While this certainly may be true of some of the scholastics, I believe for St. Thomas, and others like St. Anselm and St. Albertus Mangus, the pursuit of truth was a devotional exercise. As he himself said, "Love takes up where knowledge leaves off."

    That said, I agree that there is a temptation to pride in knowledge ("knowledge puffs up"), especially if one is not deeply humble and holy, like St. Thomas. For those of us who are less holy men, the tendency to think we understand all the divine mysteries is strong, when really, as St. Thomas found out firsthand, we know nothing.

    The only problem I have with Eastern mystical theology is that it seems to scorn intellectual pursuit, as though gazing inward is the only way to find truth about God. What I love about St. Thomas is that, while he understood the importance of mystical contemplation, he also realized the all creation was a mirror of the glory of God. He understood the goodness of the created order, and that it is possible to find God through outward realities, for they are created by him and point back to him.

    1. Very well said, Sam.

      You provided one more reason to give sainthood to Chesterton and wrote beautifully on St. Thomas.

  2. I think that I already told you, but my blog is called Thyself, O Lord to remember the encounter between Christ and Aquinas and to inspire me to always dedicate my words to Christ, like Aquinas
    I also use Santi di Tito painting remembering that encounter
    I love Aquinas.
    My blog is written to Portuguese readers.
    Best regards

  3. As much as I admire St. Thomas, his recommendation of the death penalty for heretics (Summa theologiae II-II, q. 11. a. 3) throws me off. It certainly is not a Christian-like/charitable attitude toward others, and is something I highly doubt Jesus or the Apostles would have endorsed.