Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Our brother, the Dumb Ox."

Statue of St Thomas Aquinas, Priory Church of St Thomas, Hawkesyard, Staffordshire (source).

For the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, celebrated today in the Roman Catholic Church, I thought I would share some fine reflections on "our brother, the Dumb Ox" by Friar Lawrence Lew of the Order of Preachers, who writes regularly on Godzdogz, the blog of the English Dominican Studentate in Oxford. Among other details, Friar Lawrence reveals that Aquinas acquired the "Dumb Ox" moniker from his teacher Albertus Magnus, who was apparently vexed by the young friar's silence in class. Friar Lawrence also has some very interesting things to say about Aquinas' vocation to the Order of Preachers:
. . . It is thought that St Thomas joined the Order perhaps as young as the age of 16, around 1242/3. Certainly, he had been clothed in the habit by April 1244. He was then a student in Naples, and he was soon sent to Rome to evade the grasp of his angry parents who had hoped that Thomas would become a Benedictine at Monte Cassino and rise to become abbot of that great monastery! Perhaps here we see another reason for his being called an 'ox.' For he showed great tenacity and refused to succumb to family pressure. Despite being kidnapped by his brother Rinaldo d'Aquino, and placed under house arrest, and locked in a room with a prostitute who failed to endanger his chastity, St Thomas refused to renounce the Order. A year later, his family gave up and delivered him back to his priory in Naples.

What attracted St Thomas to the Dominicans, which was then a new and untried kind of religious life in the Church? Was it just teenage rebelliousness? Many years later, in his well-known Summa Theologiae, St Thomas would write about the right of adolescents to enter religious life, even against the wishes of their parents because it is "better to obey the Father of spirits through whom we live than to obey our parents" (ST IIa IIae 189, 6). Of course, something of his own experience is reflected in this. Nevertheless, we see that St Thomas prioritized obedience to God, and so he must have felt very keenly a call from God to join the Dominicans.

Torrell thinks that St Thomas was particularly drawn to the Order because of his love and aptitude for study. Morever, he later wrote that "if it is good to contemplate divine things, it is even better to contemplate and transmit them to others" (IIa IIae 188, 6). So, St Thomas was not just drawn to study but to preaching and teaching of what he had studied. Hence, the formulation of the goodness of the Dominican's preaching charism became one of the mottos of the Order: to contemplate and to hand on the fruits of contemplation.

In addition, Chenu thinks that St Thomas was drawn to the Order's poverty, expressed in its mendicant lifestyle. This was then in sharp contrast with the landed wealth of the ancient monasteries, and so Chenu says that "the refusal of Monte Cassino is, for Thomas, the same gesture made by Francis of Assisi." Thus, St Thomas later defends mendicant poverty as "the prime example [of Christ] that we must imitate" and he says that "it is that nakedness on the Cross that those who embrace voluntary poverty wish to follow" (Contra Retrahentes 15).
To read the rest, click here. On this Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, I pray that he may intercede with God on behalf of all teachers of philosophy and theology. I pray, too, that the members of the Order of Preachers may find great consolation and joy today as they honor the memory of one of their own. AMDG.


At 1/28/2010 6:33 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Joe, an excellent post as ever. Promise I'm not copying your post - but perhaps I was as inspired by the post on Godzdogz as you were. Happy Blogging - Paul

At 1/29/2010 11:19 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Thank you for your kind words - I think that the fact that we both linked to the same post fron Godzdogz is a tribute to the great work that Fra' Lawrence and his confreres are doing there. All the best,

Joe K sj


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