Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Notes on the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas.

For a few years running, I had the custom of posting something on this blog to mark today's Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas; having neglected this practice for the last couple of years, I'd like to renew it with this post featuring two more-or-less disconnected items related to the Angelic Doctor.

The first item I'd like to share is perhaps my favorite visual depiction of Aquinas, The Temptation of St. Thomas by Diego Velázquez. From the collection of Orihuela Cathedral in Spain, this seventeenth-century painting depicts a rather notorious incident from Thomas' youth. Choosing to become a Dominican over the objections of his parents (who wanted him to join the Benedictines at Monte Cassino, where his uncle was abbot), Thomas faced continued family opposition even after he entered the Order of Preachers; in a last-ditch effort to dissuade the nineteen-year-old from pursuing a religious vocation, Thomas' brothers hired a prostitute and sent her to seduce him. The Temptation of St. Thomas depicts the failure of this plan: having driven the prostitute away with a hot poker from the fireplace, the young Friar Thomas is comforted by visiting angels, one of whom prepares to bind him with a white belt representing chastity. Looking at this painting, three elements capture my attention: the prostitute fleeing in the background (for whom I feel sorry, as she was merely acting at the behest of Thomas' brothers and probably suffered a great deal in other respects), the enigmatic look on Thomas' face (is he rapt in contemplation, overcome by the moment, or merely exhausted by struggle?), and the books and writing implements at the lower right (anticipating a scholarly vocation, perhaps with the added implication that celibacy and intellectual fecundity were essentially bound together in Thomas' case).

The second item I would like to highlight today is a post for today's memorial from Dominicana, a blog written by a group of young Dominican friars in the United States. In this post, Brother Philip Neri Reese notes the importance of verbal economy in preaching and teaching - "our words must not get in the way of the Word" - and considers how the words which St. John the Baptist spoke regarding Jesus - "he must increase and I must decrease" - can also be applied to St. Thomas Aquinas:
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 Latin monstrare 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.
To read the rest, click here. Having both studied and taught the works of St. Thomas Aquinas at various stages in my academic life, I have been consistently delighted and humbled by the sharpness of his intellect and the clarity of his thought, and I am grateful for the gift of his writings. Having had Dominicans as teachers during my studies in philosophy and theology and having encountered others in pastoral contexts, I am also grateful for the ways in which the Order of Preachers continues to serve the Church. My prayers today are for the Dominican Order and for all philosophers and theologians who help to perpetuate the legacy of the Angelic Doctor. AMDG.


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