On this feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, whom I was named after by my parents, I want to steal a few quotes from Denys Turner’s excellent introduction to Aquinas’ life and thought, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, and roundly affirm what Turner argues is the saint’s greatest quality: his radically self-effacing humility.
Contrasting Aquinas with Augustine, who wrote “himself prominently into nearly every work of theology he composed,” Turner contends that St. Thomas “doesn’t really have a personal style; you have the feeling that for him nothing he writes is his.” His genius, Turner says, is his refusal to be scintillating or spotlight himself. As Turner puts it,
Everyone loves to quote the Thomas who says that it is better to cast light for others than merely to shine for oneself, and truly the Dominican motto, contemplata aliis tradere, the passing on to others what one has encountered in contemplation, is nearly as good as it gets as a précis of Thomas’s holiness.
Pro vobis et pro multis, “For you and for many”
That Dominican motto has served as my personal examination of conscience for years — In what sense have I, or have I not, placed all that I possess and all that I am at the service of God’s glory and the betterment/salvation of others? When I first read St. Augustine’s comment in grad school — “What I learn, I learn that I might give it away” — I suddenly saw my life’s work in a new light. What should motivate me in my studies is not just what I find interesting or pleasing, but what will best serve the needs of those I have been called to serve in the future I am preparing for. It’s the message I ardently desire to share with the seminarians who are preparing to be sealed by the sacramental mark of Christus Magister, “Christ the Teacher” –Your love for those you will one day serve as priests, allow it to open in your mind a ravenous hunger to learn all you can for them.
Thinking with Thomas
To read St. Thomas is to find yourself accosted by order, clarity, precision, breadth, depth. To think with him is to find yourself immersed in a wildly diverse intellectual communion, other minds in quest of the one Truth — Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Heretics, Saints. Aquinas was willing to give anyone a hearing, to welcome them into the ambit of his faith’s quest for understanding. To enter his mind is to enter into a vast, complex yet unified cathedral, and feel your own mind at once dwarfed. As Turner says,
The main danger is that of supposing that the thing to do is get a mind on the scale of Thomas’s into your head, a task of compression that will be achieved only at your head’s peril. The only safe thing to do is to find a way of getting your mind into his, wherein yours has room to expand and grow, and explore the worlds his contains.
For those who choose to enter, there joy awaits; joy that emanates from the disarmingly pure heart of this giant of our Catholic tradition. And once God seduces you into the mind of the Angelic Doctor, you’ll fall in love. But if by chance you don’t believe me, let me permit that self-proclaimed “Hillbilly Thomist,” Flannery O’Connor, argue my case:
So I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing. In any case, I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas.
Happy Feast, O.P.!
With St. Thomas now, let us pray: